Amid growing tension in Little Saigon, Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam sought this week to answer the accusations leveled at him since disturbances erupted around local businessman Truong Van Tran.
In recent weeks, rumors have circulated that Lam-the nation's first Vietnamese elected official-supports Tran, who has incited massive demonstrations since January by adorning his Bolsa Avenue video shop with a Vietnamese flag and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh. A Vietnamese radio program repeated unsubstantiated reports that Lam escorted Tran back to his store to replace the flag and portrait after the merchant was awarded the right to do so by the Orange County Superior Court.
"This is ridiculous," Lam said. "At the time the police were escorting him back to hang up the flag, I was in San Jose for a pre-arranged appearance for the Tet Festival."
A litany of other charges-what Lam calls "baloney," "innuendo" and "personal attacks by people who are jealous of my position"-have buffeted Lam in recent weeks, as have old animosities arising from Lam's controversial position on trade with Vietnam. Lam has even been hit with a fledgling recall effort led by community activist Ky Ngo, one of the primary organizers of the ongoing vigil in Little Saigon. And small protests have been carried out in front of Lam's restaurant, Vien Dong.
In an interview on Feb. 27 following the largest demonstration to that point in front of Tran's video shop-an estimated 15,000 people were there, according to police-Lam said he wished to set the record straight about his commitment to the Vietnamese community and his constituents in Westminster. On several occasions, 62-year-old Lam grew emotional and expressed in stark terms his growing frustration with the attacks on him and the incendiary atmosphere that has overtaken Little Saigon.
"I'm the first and only Vietnamese-American elected to office, and they try to crucify me. If I didn't care for the majority, for the people that cared to vote for me, then to hell with it," Lam said. "I'd just give it up and enjoy my life and be a selfish bastard. That's how I feel. I'm so bitter. I've tried my very best to bring the Vietnamese-Americans into mainstream America."
Lam repeated explanations he had given previously about his failure to appear at any of the demonstrations. He said Westminster city attorney Richard Jones had advised the council members to maintain neutrality in the dispute or risk bringing a lawsuit against the city.
But Lam made clear that he has no affinity for Tran, whom he claims is grandstanding. "This nut-I call him this nut-he should not provoke this whole community and open up old wounds," Lam said. Asked if he would participate in the demonstration if he were not a councilman, Lam emphatically replied: "Definitely, definitely. If I was not an elected official, I would come and show my support."
Lam said that he felt torn between his duty to uphold the Constitution and his sympathy for the demonstrators. "Many of us had bad experiences with the [Vietnamese] communists," he said. "We lost loved ones, we lost the country, and we lost our assets."
But many demonstrators, according to Lam, don't seem to understand that the pain of their memories does not cancel out Tran's right to express himself. "He stands on the First Amendment, and nobody can beat the First Amendment," Lam said. "It's the most sacred weapon for civil rights."
Lam is beginning his third term on the council. His standing among his fellow Vietnamese has been rocky since 1994, when he announced his opposition to a continued U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. "I'd like to see [trade] relaxed now so we can turn Vietnam into a market economy," Lam explained. "I am in favor of punishing the politburo and the communist regime, but I'm not in favor of punishing the 76 million Vietnamese people."
Among the approximately 200,000 Vietnamese-Americans in Orange County, such topics are highly sensitive. Anonymous surveys suggest that a majority of Vietnamese-Americans may do business in some way with their homeland, either by traveling there, remitting money to relatives, engaging in import-export, or directly investing in that country's economy. However, many feel it necessary to publicly oppose such behavior.
Pressed to elaborate on his stance toward Vietnam, particularly the question of advancing bilateral trade through a trade agreement and Most Favored Nation trading status, Lam asked to change the subject. "There's no way I can really dwell on this issue because there's no way to change the position of one side or the other," Lam said.
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Although eager to clear his name of the various rumors that have been circulating, Lam was leery of provoking animosities further and declined to mention his opponents by name or say whether any of them were the same Vietnamese community leaders who have been organizing the demonstrations.
However, Ngo, an Orange County delegate to the Republican Party, said he is campaigning to recall Lam because "he is a traitor. He has betrayed the Vietnamese community." Ngo could not say how many signatures he had so far accumulated, but he remarked that he was confident that Lam's opponents would be able to acquire the approximately 6,500 signatures necessary to place a recall on the ballot.
That might not bother Lam at this point.
"I wish like hell someone could just take over my council seat, then I could make a lot of money on a private life instead of living on a stipend of $500 per month and working my butt off at my restaurant," Lam said. Asked if he would resign his seat, he said, "I'm not known as a quitter."