Little Saigon Politics Are Taking a Turn for the Liberal, With a New Generation of Activists

“I come back here tonight waiting for the mayor's response to my questions, and the questions of many in the Vietnamese community,” Laura Tran tells 35-year-old Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen, in a stern, medium register with just a touch of vibrato. She's a small, older woman who attends nearly every meeting concerning relations with Vietnam, whether it's a Tuesday-night Garden Grove City Council meeting such as tonight, March 10, or a Sunday-afternoon reception with U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius. Most of the time, she's polite enough; now, she borders on livid. “Maybe you ignore our questions because you despise or look down on your people,” she continues. “Would you please let us know about your political point of view on the communist regime in Vietnam?”


Behind her, men and women, mostly Asian, fill the City Council chambers to the bursting point. It's the third time in a little more than a month that many of them have shown up, and several are visibly angry. They've spent nearly half an hour fuming in their seats as they waited for three teachers to receive congratulations from the city for winning teacher of the year at their respective school levels.

As city clerk Kathy Bailor read off the educators' accomplishments, a handful of people shuffled up to drop off pink public-comment cards; Bailor added them to the thick stack. Outside stood even more people, some adorned in yellows and reds and holding large picket signs thrown together with cardstock and thin wooden stakes. The police officers by the door ushered them to the overflow room a few feet down the hall, where several dozen people were intently watching Tran on television.

It's a scene that has played out dozens of times during the past 20 years: angry, anti-Communist Vietnamese refugees blasting a council member over slights, either real or perceived. In this case, protesters are angry that Nguyen, who was born in a refugee camp, refused to sign alongside his council colleagues a letter to Riverside criticizing that city's sister exchange with the Vietnamese city of Can Tho. The meeting stretches past 10 p.m., with several elderly refugees trashing Nguyen. “Do you bow to the blood-red flag?” a man asks in Vietnamese, referring to the banner of Commie Vietnam.

But tonight, dozens of young Vietnamese-Americans, with their allies in tow, have shown up to support Nguyen. Many of them hold small, letter-sized signs they printed only hours before reading, “#WeWillHeal.” And while the older Vietnamese scream and yell and question the mayor's loyalties, the younger Vietnamese take to the mic to offer a different–indeed, historic–message.


The Vietnamese-American Republican voting bloc in Orange County is legendary. Over the past decade, Vietnamese-American politicians have dominated civic affairs in the cities that constitute Little Saigon, taking over city councils and school districts in Garden Grove and Westminster, as well as spilling over into neighboring cities. Politicians such as Van Tran, Janet Nguyen and Andrew Do have used their seats as steppingstones toward the California Assembly, state Senate and Board of Supervisors, respectively. In turn, they have groomed other candidates to take the seats they vacated, creating a refugee political machine rivaled only by the Cubans in Miami.

Vietnamese-Americans, as a whole, swing to the right. In the 2008 National Asian American Survey (NAAS)–the first year the survey was conducted–nearly 30 percent of Vietnamese-Americans identified as Republicans, compared to only 14 percent of Asian-Americans (22 percent identified as Democrats, compared to 32 percent of Asian-Americans in general). The political differences were even readily seen in who Vietnamese-Americans intended to vote for for president, with 51 percent saying they planned to vote for John McCain, compared to 24 percent in other Asian-Pacific Islanders (API) communities.

In recent years, however, that identity has started to break down. By 2012, only 20 percent of NAAS-polled Vietnamese-Americans actively identified as Republicans, down from 30 percent four years prior, most shifting into no-party preference. More polled voters indicated they would vote for Obama over Romney, though more than half were still undecided. In the 2014 survey, the percentage of Vietnamese-Americans identifying as Republicans recovered to 23 percent, but the number of Republican-identified voters tied with Democrat-identified ones for the first time. Vietnamese-Americans also lost their place as the most Republican-leaning API group to highly Catholic Filipino-Americans.

The swing can be partly attributed to major issues such as LGBT rights, race relations and dim job prospects, pushing more normally uninterested young Vietnamese into voting. Many of the young, Democrat-identifying Vietnamese attended that Garden Grove City Council meeting on March 10, thanks in large part to the social-media efforts of Bao Nguyen supporters Julie Vo and Hugh Tra.

Tra, a 24-year-old Vietnam-born, Garden Grove-raised UCLA grad had volunteered with Nguyen's mayoral campaign from afar, advising him on web and social media while studying abroad in Vietnam. The Bolsa Grande High School alumnus is currently prepping for his LSATs, with plans to attend law school on the East Coast. Unlike many America-raised Vietnamese, who can regale you with tales of weekend family trips to one anti-communist rally or another, his family wasn't even particularly involved in politics when he was younger.

“I grew up constantly hearing about the Vietnam War,” says Tra, whose family immigrated to the United States when he was 1 year old under the American (or Amerasian) Homecoming Act. “It was always a discussion topic, but beyond that, no one in my family or extended family was politically involved. They didn't go to protests or campaign.”

Tra started reading about the world and foreign policy after 9-11, but it wasn't until he was leaving high school that he had first-hand experience with civic life. His parents had wanted him to be a doctor or an engineer, but he won a college scholarship in 2008 for a video he had produced. That pulled him into Little Saigon politics through the most clich├ęd way imaginable: a protest. “I was going to a concert to accept the award,” Tra remembers. “I got there, and there was a protest outside. It was a group of older Vietnamese people. They were yelling and screaming at me. I remember one man spitting on me. That hit hard.

“The concert was honoring someone who had passed away recently,” Tra added. “He was an anti-war songwriter in Vietnam. I read up more about politics after that. Especially in Little Saigon.”

In 2012, after meeting Nguyen while volunteering for the Boys and Girls Club of Garden Grove, Tra offered to help with his campaign to keep his seat on the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Trustees. The college student covered predominately white, western parts of the city.

His parents, though initially hesitant, grew to accept Tra's political shift. “They saw me maturing, and they embraced it,” Tra says. “My dad is very supportive of me. He wants me to be involved in politics later on after school now, too. . . . He and I talk a lot. We agree 80 percent of the time. The other 20, we'll have our differences, but I share my point of view.”

Whether they're ideas on strengthening the relationship between older and younger Vietnamese-Americans or Vietnam the country and Vietnamese abroad, they're all based on better communication. A better future can be built on better and more dialogue, he believes.

“For older and younger Vietnamese, it's not that we actually disagree,” Tra says. “We both want the same thing: a more democratic society. Our ways to solve that problem are different, but I feel like the message we've been using for the past 40 years hasn't been working. Why should we use it for another 20?

“The clashing of ideas between the generations, I think a lot of that has to do with the language barrier and miscommunication,” he adds. “If the active, older Vietnamese generation were willing to come to the table and see younger Vietnamese as equals, if they realize we both have a stake and not see our voice as lesser, I think we have a lot of potential to make our community much better.”

One of the obstacles standing in the way of progress, however, is youth disengagement. While Nguyen enjoys an active, young supporter base, in part because of his own youth and willingness to speak frankly and openly, Vietnamese-American youth have particularly low voter-registration and -turnout rates. Many of those who are registered to vote fill their ballot with their parents' wishes in mind, and few choose to get involved in any kind of politics from an early age. “There's not a lot of Asians getting involved,” says Ngoc Nguyen, the OC Democrats' intern coordinator. “That's the general issue–there's not a lot of APIs who want to get involved with the Democratic party. Not that there's anything wrong with that–APIs just don't usually get involved in politics at all.”

Nguyen's story is unique from a lot of her peers. A recent UC Irvine graduate, her immediate family came to the United States only in the early 2000s, sponsored by extended family members who arrived by boat. They moved around the country for a bit–first to San Jose, then to Virginia, where Nguyen attended a few years of elementary and middle schools.

While living near the capital, Nguyen's classes visited government buildings frequently. “We went to the Capitol, to a lot of presidents' houses,” Nguyen says. “I joked with my friends: Californians visit the missions; we visited D.C.”

By the time she moved to Orange County for high school, Nguyen was already getting involved in politics, though her parents weren't particularly active and, as with most other Vietnamese-American parents, didn't fully understand the American political system. First came a stint in then-state Senator Lou Correa's Young Senators Program for high schoolers, then an internship in Correa's office, followed by stops in the offices of Congressman Alan Lowenthal and Senator Barbara Boxer.

“[My parents] weren't objecting because they assumed it would lead to a law career, but if you sat them down and explained to them I actually want to do politics, not law, they're a bit more iffy about it,” Nguyen says. “I was trying to tell my dad that I had to move to D.C., and he was like, 'In no other career do you have to move in order to find a job.' It's hard to explain to them the constraints of the field.

“In the 2012 election, I was campaigning a lot,” she adds. “It was the summer, so I'd leave at 9 and not get back until midnight, and my mom didn't understand that.”
Nguyen has hope, however, based on experience with her interns. Though API youth are underrepresented in the volunteers in organized politics, such interns are driven–and very young.

“There's a lot of untapped potential,” Nguyen says. “Not a lot of people are willing to reach out to them because the understanding is that the API community is a lot more conservative, but the younger generations are very progressive. What I've seen is that it's the young ones who want to get involved quicker. Lately, I've been getting a lot of high schoolers.”

While Tra and Nguyen are part of a stabilizing, maturing, politically active generation of Vietnamese-Americans, people before them made those politics accessible. In 2002, Tammy Tran joined then-assemblyman Correa's team as a community field representative. Part of her role was to be an interpreter two ways–to explain the American political system to her elders, as well as explain and advocate for her community's needs and concerns to her employer. The job was supposed to be just a two-year stop for Tran, but Correa's understanding management style (her father entered a half-year coma after being involved in a car accident just days after she started working for Correa) endeared her to him for the next decade.

While working for Correa, she managed his office's internship program, including the internship that was Ngoc Nguyen's first in politics. “The Vietnamese community was just starting to gain ground and attention,” Tran remembers. “That's why Lou decided to hire somebody. Loretta [Sanchez] had just hired somebody, and Van [Tran] had just won two years before that.”

“I went to Cal State Fullerton in the late '70s,” Correa says. “I saw the wave of Vietnamese students come in. I saw them deal with the new culture, the new language, and I developed a lot of friendships that year. When I got elected, I wanted to learn more about the community. It's one thing to put out a press release in the language, but I wanted to actually go out into it.”

Tran's parents were politically active and involved their daughters in their activities. Her parents were already educated when they left Vietnam in 1978, and though her father worked odd jobs for a time, he was able to regain his pharmacist license. The family opened a business, and when the community would protest, they would gather in front of the pharmacy to organize. Tran and her sister would make small flags of the former Republic of South Vietnam out of paper and bamboo skewers to hand out to protesters.

Tran attended USC before working for Correa and hoped to work on an international level as a human-rights lawyer, but the more she worked in local government, the more she realized how much advocacy work she could accomplish at that level–a message she hopes to pass along to the younger generation of Vietnamese-Americans.

“I realized that we had the potential to make an impact, or we had the potential to waste people's time and lose out on opportunities that make people's lives better,” she says. “If we wanted to make a bigger impact, then we need to be engaged in the political process. We need to educate our elected officials on what's important to us and what's important to our community and ask them to do some things.”

Though she was born in the United States, Tran feels that she and others who were born closely after the fall of Saigon are a bridge generation, able to understand both the elders who went through the trauma of the war and the generation who barely know their parents' homeland. “Some older people–not everybody–expect younger people to listen to the older folks, and then younger people think the older generation needs to accept young people,” she says. “I think there's a middle ground. There's a place where we can meet and discuss and understand because I've seen it.”

Although the Vietnamese electorate is still fairly Republican and will remain so for at least the near future, plenty of evidence shows that cooperation between historically opposing Vietnamese groups is possible. Many of OC's Vietnamese Republicans are actually moderate, some verging on liberal. Tran and Westminster City Councilman Tyler Diep, one of the Republican Party's youngest electeds, have a mutual respect, with Diep recently speaking to a student group introduced to him by Tammy Tran. Van Tran once famously endorsed Madison Nguyen, a Vietnamese Democrat from San Jose who faced a recall effort after backing the name “Saigon Business District” over “Little Saigon” for a neighborhood in her city.

“We need young people to get involved, to go vote and to pay attention to what's going on,” says Diep. His upbringing is nearly identical to many young Vietnamese on both sides of the aisle: He immigrated to the United States when he was 8; in high school, he was involved in the Boy Scouts. Though his parents didn't discuss politics with him, they supported him with reservations. They'd rather he be a doctor or an engineer, but in college, he traveled to Sacramento from San Diego to protest tuition increases and dialed the number on a political flier advertising a paid internship; that would lead to the rest of his career.

“If you don't get involved for a greater cause, at least get involved for yourself and your families,” Diep says.

Truong Ngoc Son, a compact man with the ramrod-straight posture of a soldier in a military parade, marches to the dais and bows to the audience each time he speaks at a City Council meeting. He repeats many of the same questions as Laura Tran, questioning whether Bao Nguyen told the Weekly in a previous interview that he felt more freedom in Vietnam than in the U.S., whether he was secretly a communist, and whether he hated his people. He spoke in Vietnamese about Nguyen's supposed disrespect shown to South Vietnam's war dead.

Next comes Julie Vo. “I am a resident of Garden Grove,” she says. “I love my city and my community. I am Vietnamese-American. I am a child of the refugee story.”

She continues reading her prepared statement, expressing respect for the sacrifices the Vietnamese-American community made to arrive in America and the strength the refugees showed on their journeys. As Vo details how she has spent the past 10 years working with underprivileged people, her eyes begin to tear; she clears her throat before continuing on.

“Asian poverty rates are highest in Westminster, Santa Ana and Garden Grove,” Vo says. “One in three Vietnamese people are low-income. Unemployment increased by 123 percent. Over half of Vietnamese adults lack mental-health coverage, a rate higher than all racial groups.

“I respect my community and our history, but there are so many needs that are impacting our lives and our families: education, immigration, unemployment, civil liberties, health-care access,” she continues. “I am a young Vietnamese person asking everyone to support the important work that is necessary right now. Mayor Bao Nguyen is a good mayor who cares about this city and the people in this city. Let us put all this hateful energy and turn it into love and healing and support for one another.”

When she finishes, the young Vietnamese in the crowd applaud as the older community members sit bemused and quiet. More young speakers will follow her: American-born Vietnamese, refugees, immigrants, non-Vietnamese allies. One older member of the community will interrupt a speaker when that person mentions forgiveness, but Vo, Tra and the half of the room favoring healing largely accomplish what they sought to do.

“The major issue I see in Little Saigon politics is the generation gap,” says Bao Nguyen. “The new generation does not have the same experience that the first generation continues to struggle with. It becomes an issue of how the collective narrative is shaped and who gets to speak and be heard. I think each person's experience is meaningful, and personal struggles should not be compared with others'. More young Vietnamese-Americans are getting involved already, and it's important that there's a counterpoint to the dominant narrative–that we help drive the conversation–because if we're not heard, then we're not considered.”

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