Casualties of War

Houston's Vietnamese now call Texas home, but they continue to be haunted by ghosts of the conflict that drove them here

A bit surprisingly, even the Front's most jaded critics still speak well, if sadly, of men such as Pham To Thu. "The people who support the Front in Houston are good people. Good people," says a plainclothes HPD officer who knows the Asian community (and who asked for anonymity not from fear of the Front, but for reasons related to his police work). "Everyone of us has that dream, to regain our independence. They all believe in that dream. It's the very top leaders in California who went wrong."

But even if the indictments -- still in court today, due to technicalities -- hadn't brought the National Front down, the force of time was tearing at it. Even hard-liners such as Tam Minh Tran, of the Houston-based conservative Vietnamese bimonthly magazine DEP, concede their tactics for regaining Vietnam have changed. "We oppose normalization of relations with Vietnam," Tam says. "But we know the world now is different than it was 20 years ago. Now the United States won't do anymore as it did with the Contras in Central America. I don't think the American people want that anymore .... We don't think overthrowing Communism [militarily] is a good way anymore. We have to use economic pressure."

At the same time that world events were shifting, the personal priorities of Vietnamese immigrants slowly swirled in a different direction, too. Younger immigrants especially have acquired a mellowness about their past, says Judi Le, the Vietnamese-American artist. Clear-voiced and assertive, she explains that mellowing will always be different from forgetting. But with her Texas-style English and impeccably bohemian outfits, Le today has the well-tended, soft look of a young American who's grown up happy. In fact, Le says, she's simply placed the Vietnam war away on a mental shelf.

It's an attitude typical of Houston's young Vietnamese, many of whom are far less politicized even than Le. "The generation 30 years old and under doesn't know anything about Communism, doesn't care much," says architect Peter Nguyen. "They only know and hate Communism through their parents. I lived under Communism, I know what it means -- the massacre in 1968, how they put rich people in jail to get all their property. But the young people here are still very naive about Communism; they grew up in a democratic spirit, Communists to them are just other human beings. Nobody teaches them, nobody has the time to do that."

For Le, as opposed to older immigrants, the most vivid aspect of Communism is the chasm created between her own life and that of her Vietnamese cousins. "I guess I feel guilty. I get to realize the American dream," she says. "I can't imagine knowing you're never going to get out of your country, with everywhere you turn, a guy with a gun. And meanwhile I can do what I want." But the passionate yearning for what was lost, the replaying of old battles that caused her parents' generation to donate as much as 50 percent of their incomes to the National Front's promises, for Le simply isn't there.

To her mind, the worst thing about Communism is the penury to which it's condemned the Vietnamese. For this reason, she has no use for the opponents of normalization. "I'm sick of all the documentaries about the war," Le says. "I think we should just let the country go on. To me, 'they' is not the government, but the people who stayed. And look at what they're doing now. They're trying to pick up trade, they're trying to put the country back together."

"In a lot of ways it took more guts to stay than to leave," she adds briskly. "Why keep them down now?"

Much of what Le has to say reflects views similar to those advanced by Nguyen Dam Phong. The irony is, many of those who turned their back on the HPD and the FBI when Nguyen was murdered in 1982 might well agree today that his views were correct. The only problem was, he was right at the wrong time.

Of all the Vietnamese institutions in Houston, none reflects the immigrants' new confidence and lingering wariness better than the lavish Kim Son. This winter, the La family celebrated 15 years of American success with a massive redecoration. With the help of a Vietnamese-American decorator, the restaurant was transformed into a model of Vietnamese elegance.

Instead of the opulent Chinese decor that traditionally marks Vietnamese restaurants here, the La family wanted their establishment to be authentically Vietnamese. Tasteful glass cases on the walls display Vietnamese ceremonial gowns; along one wall, graceful stringed instruments hover over diners' heads. Though the look is traditional Vietnamese, most of the lovingly redesigned restaurant's clientele are Caucasian, says owner Tri La. In the old days, when the La's original restaurant was a bustling pho joint, Vietnamese customers congregated there to swap gossip, La says. But today, the upscale, Caucasian-filled restaurant makes some Vietnamese uncomfortable.

Last month, something happened that made those linked to the restaurant highly uncomfortable themselves. The decor complete, the Houston Chronicle dispatched a reporter to craft a flattering portrait of Kim Son's new cultural offerings. But when the story came out, Kim Son's owners were horrified to see attached to a photograph of their interior decorator a computer generated graphic of the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam -- the Communist flag.

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