The Siege Of Little Saigon

SURVEYING THE CHAOS AT A Westminster, Calif., mini-mall in the heart of ""Little Saigon'' (population: 40,000), you'd never guess the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Last Saturday, 300 Vietnamese protesters gathered at the Orange County shopping center and confronted scores of police in riot gear. Violence broke out when the angry crowd burst through the barricades--some using crying children in baby carriages as battering rams--and headed for Hi-tek, a small video store in the mall. As news of the melee spread, thousands more Vietnamese from a nearby Tet parade massed in the parking lot, joining the core protesters who'd been camped outside Hi-tek for weeks waving yellow and red flags of South Vietnam. In the end, 11 were arrested. You might think Hi-tek was harboring a war criminal, not a faded 18-by-24-inch poster. But all the fuss is over a portrait of Ho Chi Minh that has hung in the store--and the precarious balance between one man's freedom of speech and a community's right to protest.

The battle began last November, when Truong Van Tran, 37, arrived home from an eight-day trip to Hanoi and promptly hung a Vietnamese flag and a picture of the long-dead North Vietnamese leader inside his video shop. He says he was impressed with the positive changes he had seen in Hanoi and wanted to spread the word. ""I have a very simple idea,'' he told NEWSWEEK. ""We should normalize our relations with Vietnam. Even if they are communists we should support them, help them to change.'' Tran insists that he is not himself a communist. By displaying the flag and picture he only hoped to provoke a dialogue in a community that has brooked no dissent.

Astonishment in rabidly anti-communist Little Saigon quickly gave way to anger. Tran, who escaped from Vietnam on a boat crammed with 89 people and arrived in the United States in 1980 as a teenage political refugee, was denounced in the local media as a traitor. Critics compared posting a picture of Ho Chi Minh in Little Saigon to hanging Hitler's portrait in a Jewish enclave. ""I challenge him to take [the poster] and hang it on the black wall in Washington,'' said community leader Ky Ngo. ""American vets would kill him.'' The shopkeeper remained defiant. In mid-January, he dared his critics to come to his store and ""clear me out''; his challenge was taken up, and hundreds of furious protesters stormed the mall.

There has been a stalemate ever since. Though a preliminary injunction forced Tran to remove the objectionable memorabilia and the protesters to stand down, the uneasy truce did not last. The order was overturned on Feb. 10 when the court ruled that Tran's actions were protected speech. But when he returned to his store with his wife and two young children that day, they were met by an angry mob; after a brief skirmish, he left the scene in an ambulance complaining of chest pains. When he tried again at the beginning of last week, police told Tran to leave or face arrest. ""Why did the police stop me?'' he asked NEWSWEEK. ""Why don't they stop the protesters?'' On Saturday, the police did stop the protesters--just long enough for Tran to get into his store and hang up his precious flag and poster. With Vietnamese music playing on the tape deck, he and his wife, Kim, knelt before the picture and bowed four times, their foreheads touching the ground. When he stood up, tears were streaming down Tran's face. ""I am just a small shop owner who speaks out, and look what has happened,'' he said. ""I hope it will open the way for other people to speak out.''

The only voices being heard right now are those of the angry protesters who vow to remain in front of Hi-tek until Tran moves out. ""This is just the beginning,'' says 35-year-old Thanh Ngo, whose father was killed in the war. ""We stay until the flag goes down for good.'' Despite the turmoil of the last week, Tran still insists that the flag isn't going anywhere, and he has vowed to fight the eviction notice his landlord has filed. The process could take 45 days, and if so, the ex-soldiers dressed in military fatigues and old women in straw peasant hats will continue to fill the mini-mall parking lot, where patriotic songs blare from a boom box and anti-communist chants fill the air. ""This is a fight between the free Vietnamese and the communists,'' says community leader Ky Ngo. And this time, he says, the South Vietnamese are going to win.