When Escondido resident Le Ly Hayslip learned that the California State Assembly planned a May 9 award to honor her work, she got ready to celebrate. "My birthday is May 10," she says, "and I was excited and feeling sentimental."
More than a decade ago, Hayslip published When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) and Child of War, Woman of Peace (1993), chronicles of her struggle to survive in Da Nang during the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Oliver Stone made the books into the 1993 film Heaven and Earth. But in selecting Hayslip to be honored in Sacramento, the assembly's Asian Pacific Islander Caucus had its eye on two of her humanitarian organizations. Hayslip founded the East Meets West Foundation in 1989 and the Global Village Foundation in 2000. The two nongovernmental organizations focus their efforts on improving education in Vietnam and other Asian countries. Alan Hayslip, the founder's third son, has been working at a school in Da Nang for the past three years.
Several days before going to accept her award, Hayslip received a phone call from a woman on Global Village Foundation's board of directors. San Diego's Kathy Greenwood had been making hotel reservations and other arrangements for Hayslip's visit to Sacramento. But the news in her call was that the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus had canceled the award. Hayslip would instead receive recognition from Assemblywoman Judy Chu in San Gabriel . Chu had originally nominated Hayslip for the award.
"It's too bad what happened," says Greenwood. "The legislature gives out so many fluff awards. This was going to be a substantial honor for a woman doing something to help people in this world."
Hayslip, on a working trip, speaks with me by phone from a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It is 1:45 a.m. in Vietnam. The cancellation of her recognition in Sacramento disappointed her greatly, Hayslip tells me. "I'm a good American citizen and am trying to make my adopted fatherland and my [original] fatherland be friends with one another," she says. "I don't take from America but add something that everybody benefits from. It was so nice of the California legislature to want to acknowledge my hard work. Do I suddenly not deserve what I earned by working over 35 years? I cannot believe that this happened in the United States of America, which is supposed to have freedom of speech...and [that means also] freedom to receive an award because you do a good thing. Who has the right to stop it?"
Hayslip suspects California assemblyman Van Tran of instigating the block on the award, and several others confirm her suspicions. Within the Vietnamese-American immigrant community, whose members were forced to flee their country after the Communists took over, strong feelings about the current regime often persist. Former San Diego resident Man Phan, who now lives in Sacramento, tells me that Judy Chu, the assemblywoman who nominated Hayslip for the award, admitted to him that Tran had pressured her. Before the scheduled award in Sacramento, Chu worried that Tran would embarrass Hayslip with a "surprise" personal attack on the assembly floor if the presentation went forward.
By phone from Sacramento, Tran tells me he did voice opposition to Hayslip's receiving the assembly's recognition. "But I didn't veto it. That's not my style. And anyway, I'm the junior member of the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, which is a deliberative body."
But there are precedents for Chu's worries that Tran might have embarrassed Hayslip on the assembly floor, according to Vu-Duc Vuong, a lecturer in political science and sociology at San Jose City College. In an e-mail response to my queries, Vu-Duc writes that Tran "went berserk [in April] when the mayor of [Ho Chi Minh City] was introduced in the Assembly." Tran opposed "the Speaker's recognition of this dignitary from Vietnam." Vu-Duc calls the mayor's visit to Sacramento nothing more than "a courtesy call from someone who represents the biggest commercial city in Vietnam, a sister city of San Francisco, and the most significant [Vietnamese] trade partner with California."
Van Tran, 41, is a 1975 refugee from Vietnam and a Republican from Garden Grove in his first assembly term. He says he is the first Vietnamese-American to serve in any legislative body in the United States. "There is a guy from Houston serving in the Texas legislature," he says, "but I beat him by about a month." Before entering the California legislature, Tran served on the Garden Grove City Council and was, for a time, the city's vice mayor.
According to a brief article in the Los Angeles Times on May 26, Tran helped write and is the cosponsor of Senate Concurrent Resolution 17, "a resolution urging California to recognize the flag of the former South Vietnam and permit it to be flown over state property during Vietnamese-American events." The resolution has cleared the senate and is headed for the assembly. The Times story quotes Tran as follows: "We're not re-fighting the Vietnamese War here. [Our supporters] just want to reaffirm their identity and their political legacy as a community.... This is the flag that we cherish, that we fought for and that we believe in, as opposed to one representing a dictatorial and repressive regime."
The resolution's primary sponsor is Senator Denise Ducheny, Democrat from San Diego. Ducheny, also speaking by phone from Sacramento, tells me that during the period of welfare reform in the 1990s, she became acquainted with the San Diego Vietnamese community when she helped some of its members maintain their benefits. She assisted the Vietnamese Federation of San Diego in getting a resolution that recognized the old flag passed by the San Diego City Council. "That was around the beginning of 2004," she says, "and I thought it was worthwhile as a way to help the community to organize politically, which they were having a hard time doing on any issue. The flag was something they were very passionate about. Then, early this year, they came to me wanting to take the flag resolution statewide."