Duc Ngyuen Au is a frustrated man. "I don't like the guy, personally," Au says, referring to Truong Van Tran, the Little Saigon video-store owner at the center of the First Amendment dispute that is rekindling raw emotions from the Vietnam War. But, adds Au, "I respect his right to say what he wants to say and whatever symbol he wants to hang in his store." Like Tran, Au says he is not a communist. But he wants everyone to know that not all Vietnamese-Americans oppose closer ties with Vietnam-and that such a position is not disloyal to the community. In particular, the UC Irvine returning philosophy student believes increasing trade will yield benefits for Vietnam's people and student exchanges between the U.S. and Vietnam will help bring the two peoples together. For his efforts, he says, he's been branded a "communist," and the community is trying to shut him up. So Au, who 10 years ago co-chaired Project Ngoc, a now-defunct UC Irvine student effort to aid Vietnamese refugees worldwide, went online to draft an essay titled "Vietnamese McCarthyism." His central thesis: his fellow refugees are trying to intimidate folks like him from saying anything that is not consistent with the official anti-Vietnam party line. On Feb. 18, Au tried in vain to take that message to fellow members of UC Irvine's Vietnamese American Coalition (VAC). VAC favors social causes over mere socializing; the group organizes annual Little Saigon cleanups and participated in last month's Walkathon in Westminster for flood victims in Vietnam and Central America. On hand at the meeting were a TV-news crew from NHK (the Japanese equivalent of BBC-TV), as well as a Pacifica Radio freelancer. But Au had a hard time convincing the group's members, who are all younger than he. One group leader admonished the half-dozen discussants (who were initially told it was their personal decision whether or not to participate in the discussion before the cameras) that they would be speaking for the Vietnamese community and there would be "repercussions" for what they said. Au blasted the leader, whose warning, he said, was precisely the sort of intimidation he was concerned about. He went on to argue that such tactics were symptomatic of a community that brooks no dissent. He called it modern-day McCarthyism. Au's support of student exchanges with Vietnam, however, was immediately countered by another student's claim that the Hanoi government would not let returning Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) speak with Vietnamese college students because of "national security." In one of the meeting's weirder moments, one student shouted: "McCarthyism worked, right? There is no communism here!" Au faces an uphill battle in which the lack of information about recent American and Vietnamese history are his enemies. He worries that any time he advocates any kind of support for U.S.-Vietnam business ties, he's "shouted down" by "militants" in the community. After the meeting, he said, "A lot of the members here, at one time or another, have accused me of being communist." Emotion and shared pain are still the distinguishing features of an uprooted community heavily weighed down by anti-communism, and any breach of that united front against the hated Vietnamese communists who won the war does not appear to be tolerated. As one sign in Little Saigon proclaimed, "Zero Tolerance for Communists!" (Daniel C. Tsang)
Another One Bites the Dust For a while, bookstores appeared in Laguna Beach like Tribbles on the Starship Enterprise. As recently as October 1998, Laguna Beach boasted Upchurch-Brown Booksellers, a general bookstore on Forest; Latitude 33 on Ocean Avenue; Different Drummer on Cress Street; Barnaby Rudge, an Antiquarian bookstore on Glennerye; and Fahrenheit 451, a general bookstore on PCH. But Fahrenheit 451 closed its doors on Halloween, and now Upchurch-Brown-the oldest of the stores-will be shutting down on March 10, damaged beyond hope by local competition, a plunging Laguna tourist trade, the countywide expansion of corporate megastores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books, and the advent of online bookstores like Amazon.com. "If we had all pulled together as a coordinated group," says Nanette Heiser, who co-owns Upchurch-Brown with Carol Ruley, she and fellow independent booksellers "could have all survived. If we had diversified enough that we could have all been specialized in different areas, we could have competed with the big boys in a more intense manner than we've been able to," she said. "Now all we've done is manage to damage one another." Upchurch-Brown is probably best-known as the home of Laguna Poets, the oldest of Southern California's myriad weekly poetry readings. Founded as a local "salon" more than 20 years ago (dates differ depending on whom you talk to), the reading, under the leadership of poet Marta Mitrovich, achieved national prominence, hosting the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Bukowski and Wanda Coleman. Now under the direction of Pat Cohee, Laguna Poets has been more local in scope but nonetheless important, serving as a launching point for nearly every major local poet and publishing more than 120 chapbooks of poetry (including two by this writer). Undeterred by the store's closing, Cohee intends to seek a new home for the venerable series, piggy-backing its featured poets onto the Thursday-night reading at the Laguna Beach Brewing Co., which is run by poet/actor John Gardiner, until a new home can be found. Heiser is also undaunted by the store's closing. After seven years of struggling to keep it alive, she has decided to move onto the Web, where she'll not only be selling her remaining inventory but also specializing in rare and out-of-print book searches and small-press books. Her new online store can be found at www.abebooks.com/home/thenanette. (Victor D. Infante)
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There will be an open reading and "wake" for Upchurch-Brown Booksellers, 384 Forest Ave., Ste. 5, Laguna Beach, (949) 497-8373. Fri., 8 p.m. Free.