The Man Who Brought Back Ho Chi Minh

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JEFFREY RESSNER WestminsterTruong Van Tran is proud to be an American. So proud that the Vietnamese refugee, 37, chose to give his two children not the ancestral surname of Tran but a certifiably American one, that of the first President of the U.S. At home in a gated community in Orange County, California, Tran expounds on what it means to be an American: Freedom in this country means I can say what I feel.The phone rings. It's a producer from Roseanne who wants Tran to be a guest. But he has to check his schedule first. He's not working, but he's still busy with media requests. Sometimes he does four interviews a day. No, the press doesn't really want to talk about the time in 1997 when he had to spend 20 days in jail for hitting his wife (he's sorry and admits he learned that in America, you're not allowed to beat your spouse). And no, the media don't want to interview him about the time he tried to wrest control of a Vietnamese meditation group called Vo Vi (his critics said he proclaimed himself God; Tran says he left to pursue a simpler life). Rather, they want to know why he is the target of one of the most heated displays of Asian-American anger ever seen in the U.S.

Last Friday a crowd estimated at 15,000 gathered around Tran's store, Hi Tek, an electronics-cum-video-rental outlet in a cramped minimall in Little Saigon--the unofficial name of Westminster, which lies about an hour south of Los Angeles. The demonstrators unfurled signs declaring, our wounds will never heal! be aware! communists are invading America. They are not angry about some controversial video (the rental shelves carry nothing questionable; the most popular tape, Tran says, is a martial-arts epic in which a student of Buddha's sends a monkey angel from heaven to fight evil on earth). Rather, the demonstrators started milling around Tran's store in January after he defiantly displayed a flag of the communist government of Vietnam and a poster of the regime's founder, Viet Cong leader Ho Chi Minh. That explains the effigies of Ho displayed above the shop; the gigantic flag of defunct South Vietnam hiding the storefront (and the offending poster); and the sign that reads, Ho Chi Minh is a second Hitler.
Two weeks ago, police in riot gear arrested nearly a dozen protesters after 300 people stormed barricades to attack Hi Tek during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Some activists vowed to set themselves on fire, emulating the suicidal monks of the 1960s. Last week's larger but more peaceful crowd chanted slogans criticizing Tran as the sounds of mortar blasts and machine-gun fire boomed from loudspeakers. An elaborate shrine of candles, flowers and incense rests in front of two mock coffins bearing American and Vietnamese war victims. All that's missing is food vendors. Nope. Here comes someone hawking doughnuts and soymilk.

We respect his freedom of speech, but he abuses that freedom, says a protest leader and immigration consultant Ky Ngo. Exercising your First Amendment rights is one thing; causing dissension in your community is another, says Vietnam vet Larkin Kennedy, whose forearm is tattooed with the image of a Vietnamese lady he left behind. I used to rent videos here, and I regret it deeply, says Linda Nguyen, a student at the University of California at Long Beach. She sniffs: His videos were copies and so blurry.

At home, Tran insists he displayed the flag because it's his country's current symbol. Ho, he says, was a hero who helped liberate his people. And America is a liberated country, with real freedoms. I wanted to show the Vietnamese community that freedom means accepting an opposite opinion. He doesn't quite disavow a quest for fame. Wanting to be famous is just human nature, he says. But that's not the main point for my actions. Then he asks, When is my story running?