Roughly 10,000 protesters gathered outside the Hi-Tek video store in Little Saigon on Feb. 22, 1999. (Al Schaben/L.A Times via Getty Images)

How the protests of 1999 led to a political awakening in Little Saigon

At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, nearly 20,000 refugees were brought to Southern California’s Camp Pendleton. Many resettled a little ways up the coast in northern Orange County, forming what would become the largest Vietnamese enclave in the United States.

Little Saigon, straddling Westminster and Garden Grove, was a place of hope and reinvention. But memories of the war remained vivid. So in early 1999, when a local merchant dared his fellow immigrants to remove a poster of the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in his video store, the reaction was passionate.

He was trying to spark a debate, Truong Van Tran explained. “I have a right to hang whatever picture I like in my store,” he told a reporter at the time. “I know the law in this country.”

Truong Van Tran at his video store in 1999, with a poster of Ho Chi Minh on the wall.
Richard Hartog/L.A. Times Times via Getty Images

What followed was the largest unrest Little Saigon had ever seen. For 53 days, protesters raged in the streets, chanting about the scars left by the war.

“Who killed my father?” a protester screamed.

“Ho Chi Minh!” the crowded yelled back.

“Who killed my brother?”

“Ho Chi Minh!”

Some activists threatened to set themselves on fire, emulating the suicidal Buddhist monks of the 1960s. Dozens were arrested.

For a time, the poster was removed as a judge evaluated an argument from Tran’s landlord that it had created a public nuisance. When the court affirmed Tran’s First Amendment rights, he returned to his shop to rehang the poster on this week in 1999. An angry crowd was waiting. One protester slapped Tran with a hand smeared with spit, a N.Y. Times report said. As Tran fell to the ground, someone draped a yellow, red-striped flag of South Vietnam over him.

Truong Van Tran was knocked to the ground outside his shop on Feb. 10, 1999.
Richard Hartog/L.A. Times via Getty Images

The protests ended only after Tran was evicted from his store a few weeks later over unpaid rent. With that, the activists declared victory.

But Tran’s troubles weren’t over. Officers who entered his store during the protests noticed an odd setup of video recorders. Tran was a peddler of counterfeit tapes. In August of 1999, he was sentenced to three months in jail for piracy. He fell from the headlines and in 2005 returned to Vietnam, where he got into the aquaculture business.

In a special report in 2015, the Orange County Register recounted how the Tran protests had led to a political awakening in Little Saigon. Where the community had stayed mostly on the political sidelines for a quarter century, after 1999 it helped elect more than a dozen Vietnamese Americans to political office. Among them was Janet Nguyen, the nation’s first Vietnamese American woman to serve in a state legislature.

A flag of South Vietnam and an American flag were displayed on state Sen. Janet Nguyen’s desk in Sacramento in 2017.
Rich Pedroncelli/A.P.

Nguyen, who had been a 5-year-old boat refugee, made national headlines in 2017. Two days after the late state Sen. Tom Hayden was memorialized in the California Senate, she rose to denounce his anti-Vietnam War activism, delivering her remarks in Vietnamese. Ruled out of order, Nguyen refused demands by the presiding officer to sit down and was physically removed from the chamber by a pair of sergeants-at-arms.

“I have every right to speak on behalf of the 500,000” Vietnamese Americans in California, she yelled. The spectacle made Nguyen a hero to Vietnamese American communities from coast to coast.

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