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."
The old flag has three red stripes on a field of yellow, and one can see it flying outside Vietnamese businesses in City Heights during such community celebrations as the festival at Tet, the lunar new year, which falls in late January or early February. Van Tran says nothing in his and Ducheny's resolution would make it illegal to publicly fly the flag of the current regime, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. That flag has a yellow star on a field of red. Tran calls it "the blood flag." However, he tells me, "a man named Truong Tran [no relation] flew it and placed a picture of Ho Chi Minh inside his store in the city of Westminster in 1999. People demonstrated against him for 53 straight days. I'm talking more than 20,000 people at a time."
When Vietnam's consul general in San Francisco recently protested the flag resolution, Tran wrote back (the letter is on his website) defending the action vigorously. "Most Vietnamese-Americans," he wrote, "having fled persecution from your nation, find the display of the 'yellow star on red background' flag to be insulting, offensive and culturally insensitive. You will note that support for the nationalist flag is not without precedent in America: it is proudly hoisted at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, and has been formally recognized by over 80 local jurisdictions and eight states across this country."
But San Jose City College's Vu-Duc says that Senate Concurrent Resolution 17 is unnecessary and presumptuous. "Not necessary," he says, "because the First Amendment allows anyone to fly any flag or symbol.... Presumptuous, because Tran and the minority who support him claim to speak for all Vietnamese-Americans in California. Simply put, they want to impose their 1975 political agenda on a much more diverse and nuanced Vietnamese-American community of 2005."
Tony Nguyen works for the American Friends Service Committee in Oakland. He gave written testimony against Senate Concurrent Resolution 17 when it came before the legislature on May 25. The bill, he wrote, "will further silence the diverse viewpoints and political opinions within the Vietnamese community in California, especially those that are believed to be sympathetic to the current government of Vietnam.... The political reality of the [old flag] is that it has been and continues to be a symbol of terror and violence to many Vietnamese Americans in California."
During the 1980s in California, Nguyen wrote, anticommunist Vietnamese-Americans murdered a number of progressives. He calls them "political killings." According to veteran newspaper reporter William Kleinknecht, writing for the American Journalism Review in December 1999, five Vietnamese journalists "were killed in California, Texas and Virginia between 1980 and 1991. Police believe all were slain by an anti-Communist group with ties to the former South Vietnamese Army." Kleinknecht goes on to highlight the case of Tap Van Pham, publisher of a Vietnamese-language magazine who "dared to run an advertisement for a currency-exchange company perceived as being sympathetic to Hanoi. He was killed August 9, 1987, when an arsonist set fire to the building that housed his home and office in Garden Grove.... A group calling itself the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation sent a communiqué to police claiming responsibility for the murder, although it did not indicate whether the advertisement had prompted the attack."
On December 10, 1989, the Boston Globe Magazine ran a story about the right-wing intimidation practices among California's Vietnamese population. As part of its coverage, the Globe wrote of demonstrations against lectures Le Ly Hayslip gave in Orange County.
"People even started showing up at my home," says Hayslip. "I became so worried about my children that eventually I moved to San Francisco for a while. When the Boston Globe wrote its story, reporters spent a week with me. Their article showed that the right wing thinks anyone who disagrees with them is a communist. The anticommunists killed some Vietnamese-American journalists. That was a long time ago, but people in our communities remember, and they are afraid to speak up. I think only about 20 percent of Vietnamese-Californians support the right wing. They're mostly the older people and some of the young ones who've been brainwashed," she says.
"But the silent majority is intimidated," she goes on. "The war ended 30 years ago. It's time to move on. We need to practice compassion. There are so many terrible things happening in this world."
But Assemblyman Van Tran tells me that most Vietnamese-Americans are opposed to Hayslip's attitude toward the current regime. As evidence, he cites the demonstrations against her lectures years ago.
Visions of the old Vietnam hang on in the Vietnamese-American community today. The Government of Free Vietnam is an organization dedicated to, its website says, "dismantling the Communist dictatorship of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam." In January, it held its National People's Convention in Orange County, according to Tony Nguyen. "All of this group's operations," he wrote to the assembly, "including its admitted violent activities, are carried out under the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam in direct violation of the U.S. Neutrality Act, which forbids [American] citizens from conspiring against any country with which the United States is not at war."