By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
A Death In the Family
Remembering journalist Nguyen Huy Vu, who made a big impression on the Weekly newsroom
Though he was surrounded with his family’s intense love, life was not always easy for Southern California journalist Nguyen Huy Vu. Born in Saigon, Vu left there at two months old in 1975, when his family fled approaching communist soldiers. As a teenager growing up in Garden Grove in the 1990s, Vu had a hearty, contagious laugh that belied a rebellious side: He dyed his spiky hair orange, listened to loud rock music, partied, associated with troublemakers and questioned absolutely everything. He dropped out of high school. He had a weight problem that, at one point, bloated his 5-foot-3-inch frame to more than 220 pounds.
“Vu wasn’t always a good kid,” said Chuyen Nguyen, Vu’s father and a former South Vietnamese air-force fighter pilot whose name still carries respect in Little Saigon. “But lately, he’d been the happiest in his life. He’d just gotten married to a wonderful wife; he was playing soccer, the sport he loved; he was so proud that he’d just interviewed Paul Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers; and he’d applied to get his dream job.”
On May 15, an official with the Los Angeles Community College District called Vu, who’d undergone weight-loss surgery several years ago, to give him great news: He’d been accepted to teach journalism. But Vu couldn’t take the call. His eyes were closed. His body was cold. A respirator-system tube taped to his mouth artificially pumped in oxygen, causing the rhythmic rising and falling of his chest—his body’s only movement. The beloved, award-winning, 34-year-old reporter who’d worked at the Associated Press in Illinois, The OrangeCounty Register, Daily Breeze, Nguoi Viet, Seattle Times, Irvine World News and OC Weekly had suffered a heart attack while celebrating a goal during a Mother’s Day soccer game in Santa Monica.
“I was talking to Vu, and I saw a tear drop from his eye,” his mother, Thuy, told me last week as we stood over Vu in his Harbor City hospital intensive-care-unit room. A nearby, chronically coughing elderly man looked pale and feeble. Lying on his back in a white hospital smock, Vu—who’d managed to graduate from Cal State Fullerton and obtain a master’s degree despite his early academic troubles—looked tanned, healthy and relaxed, as if he’d been comfortably napping after playing his favorite computer games for a couple of hours. “I don’t know if it was a tear,” continued Thuy, a petite woman with soft dark eyes and a gentle demeanor. “I think it was. I want to think he could hear me.”
I recalled Vu telling me, after we’d met in 1999, that he had the best mother in the world.
One of Vu’s aunts slowly massaged the bottom of his left foot. “Vu, you’re too quiet, honey,” she said. “Wake up. Wake up. Please wake up.”
Unsuccessfully fighting tears, I shared the sentiment. Vu had been one of the best interns we’d ever had at the Weekly. Nearly a decade ago, he’d arrived in our newsroom idealistic, naive, opinionated—but anxious to learn and eager to expose corruption. He proved that he innately possessed the heart of a journalist: He loved to dig into mysteries or controversies and, unlike most budding reporters, displayed no fear of calling potentially hostile sources.
He saw success quickly. Along with fellow Cal State Fullerton student Amy Nielsen, Vu chronicled how callous police had taken a tiny Vietnamese American teenager from his house, unnecessarily hogtied him and threw him face-down in the back of their patrol car, where he suffocated to death while the cops drove him to jail. Though only interns, the pair won an award for the story from the Orange County Press Club.
But Vu first earned my respect on March 1, 2000, when we both witnessed a transitional moment in Little Saigon history. That night in the Asian Garden Mall parking lot, a group of Vietnamese American college students gathered in protest at John McCain’s presidential rally. McCain had announced, “I hate the gooks,” during that election’s South Carolina Republican Party primary against then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. The senator’s move had been a shameless play for the redneck vote, and folks like Q. Bao Nguyen, then a UC Irvine undergraduate student, demanded an apology.
Until this moment, older Vietnamese—ones still bitter about the loss of South Vietnam 25 years earlier—dominated public events and voted right-wing Republican as a knee-jerk bloc. Satisfied that McCain only meant to deride the North Vietnamese, they weren’t bothered by his use of the term “gook.” But they were infuriated that Bao and his group were protesting a GOP presidential candidate. Male and female immigrants in their 50s, 60s and 70s surrounded Bao’s nonviolent, co-ed group and spat on them, shoved them, kicked them, uttered threats of violence and even threw punches. I’d never seen anything like it, and neither had Vu. While the mainstream media listened to McCain issue his canned speech from the stage, Vu stood deep in the crowd near Bao and the counterprotesters. Despite enduring shoves and spittle himself, Vu scribbled detailed notes for our coverage (see “Quiet Riot,” March 17, 2000).
I’m not the only one at the Weekly with fond memories of Vu. “He had a great sense of humor, a sharp nose for BS and an open-minded attitude that made him a joy to work with,” staff writer Nick Schou says. “He was an amazing guy.”
Vu officially passed on a week after his collapse, after doctors took him off artificial life support early on May 17. (They’d planned to do it two days previous, but they delayed the move to honor Vu’s wish to be an organ donor.) Because of the length of time his brain had gone without oxygen after his collapse (perhaps as long as 20 minutes), doctors advised the family, he’d be “a vegetable” if he regained any form of consciousness. The loss touched so many people that LA news stations reported from outside the Kaiser Permanente hospital.
“We are so thankful that we had him for 34 years,” Vu’s dad told me.
A few hours after the Los Angeles County coroner took Vu’s body’s for an autopsy, his mother carefully placed white candles in a portable drink cooler inside her Little Saigon grocery store on Brookhurst Street. The family was headed to that Santa Monica soccer field.
“I think Vu died there on that field,” his mother assured me before leaving. “Vu always loved a party, and so we are going there to party for him today.”