How I ended up with an amputated arm and a fountain pen for a hand is a story that begins on a hot summer day with a bunch of angry Vietnamese people arguing in a parking lot.
It was July 26, and I had just arrived at a liquor store at the intersection of Bolsa Avenue and Magnolia Street in Westminster. I'd been called to the scene by Le Vu, publisher of Viet Weekly, an alternative Vietnamese-language newspaper based in Garden Grove. He told me that some local merchants had just chased away an elderly woman who was trying to sell copies of his paper on the sidewalk in front of the store, which used to sell Viet Weekly but now didn't because of threats by anti-communists.
Five days earlier, hundreds of demonstrators had gathered at Viet Weekly's historic Main Street headquarters to denounce the paper for supporting communists and terrorists. Those accusations began in May, when the newspaper printed an editorial originally published in Vietnam by a former Viet Cong soldier, who celebrated Ho Chi Minh as a hero and defended the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an understandable response to American imperialist aggression. The protests, which had been virtually ignored by the mainstream media in Southern California, were the most intense in Little Saigon since 1999, when tens of thousands of residents besieged a local store owner who displayed a photograph of Ho Chi Minh above his counter.
Every Saturday afternoon for the past month, men in camouflage had led crowds in chants of "Viet Weekly, down! Down! Down!" amid a sea of yellow-and-red South Vietnamese flags, accompanied by martial music blaring from loudspeakers. A pickup truck would circle the block, with two mannequins strung up in the back: desecrated effigies of Ho Chi Minh and former South Vietnamese vice president Nguyen Cao Ky, now viewed by the protesters as a traitor for supporting free trade with Vietnam.
Local businesses that used to sell Viet Weekly were now starting to heed the boycott, like this Westminster liquor store, whose owner told me, "No sell" when I asked her about the paper. As I arrived in the parking lot, I saw several local merchants standing in front of their stores, arms folded defiantly across their chests. A female employee of the paper stood next to a shopping cart full of the latest issue. I took out my notebook and started scribbling notes while the merchants argued with a female employee of Viet Weekly and a fan of the paper.
They were mostly yelling, and since it was in Vietnamese, I had to keep asking people to translate. Every time the Viet Weekly lady gave me her version of what someone had said, the Laundromat guy would contradict her. "She's lying," he'd say. Then he'd tell me what he thought the person had said, at which point the Viet Weekly lady would accuse him of lying. Things got uglier when the Viet Weekly fan, who told me he'd driven dozens of miles to purchase the paper, began arguing with the Laundromat guy; both were waving their arms in the air and yelling at each other.
Although I wasn't really paying attention, I noticed that someone was taking photographs. My story on the Viet Weekly boycott ran a few weeks later (see "Red Scare in Little Saigon," Aug. 16) with a photograph of Le Vu holding an American flag on the cover. A few weeks later, I wrote a follow-up story ("Waiting With Red-Baited Breath," Aug. 23), which detailed how the anti-communist protests had spread to include other, less-predictable targets, including a music and fashion show and a movie premiere.
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It was clear from the angry telephone messages and letters to the editor that my reporting had struck a nerve within Little Saigon's anti-communist community. But the most creative criticism I received came from Buibaro, a cartoonist for Little Saigon's Nguoi Viet Daily News, which published a caricature of me for a local website, www.take2tango.com. As it turned out, whoever was snapping photographs during the Westminster parking-lot confrontation had posted them on the Internet. Several of them showed me standing in the lot, holding my reporter's notebook and generally looking confused as hell.
In his cartoon, Buibaro depicts me as a Shaggy look-alike; one hand holds aloft a puppet of Le Vu, who bears a striking resemblance to North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Il. My other hand has been amputated and fitted with a fountain pen—which presumably draws ink from my own blood supply and with which I've written my own name.
Buibaro, whose real name is Phu Nguyen, granted us permission to run his cartoon for this story free of charge. "The price of freedom will pay for me," he explained. But Buibaro didn't respond to my request for an explanation of the whole pen-for-a-hand thing, and so we still have no idea whether I'm supposed to be a puppet of Viet Weekly, or if I'm the puppetmaster.
So Buibaro, if you read this story, please contact me. I'd still like an explanation—and a signed copy of the cartoon to put above my desk. If you don't have the original, I'll pay you to draw it again, but this time, please make my nose less fucking enormous. I may be a communist agitator with an artificial limb, but I'm pretty sensitive about my big ol' white-guy nose.