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

Angry Vietnamese, including La's family, promptly barraged the Chronicle with phone calls. "My family is nonpolitical, strictly business," La said one recent Sunday, seated at a corner table in Kim Son. "But the Vietnamese community is still very anti-Communist, and you can't go off track. If people [construe] that you're pro-Communist, it's going to hurt you. It's going to hurt your business, and jeopardize your life."

The Chronicle quickly printed a "clarification," but it didn't prevent a volley of urgent phone calls and letters, including one from the Las. "The use of this symbol in reference to our restaurant has been construed by many Vietnamese here in Houston as an implication of our allegiance to the current Communist government of Vietnam," Tri La told the Chronicle. "This is in no way correct. My family and I fled our homeland of Vietnam in 1979, when the Communists took control of our family business and our country. We did not then, nor do we now, support the political system in Vietnam." Interior designer Triune Pham wrote a disclaimer letter that was nearly identical.

Now that the National Front has seemingly gone quiet, now that many anti-Communists favor normalizing relations with Vietnam, why did the small graphic create such a stir? Because, Tri La says, political changes, assimilation and millions of dollars' worth of visits to Vietnam still haven't canceled out the intensity of feeling of some anti-Communists in the Vietnamese community. To underestimate this is to miss the subtleties of the Vietnamese community's evolution. "You have to realize that for Vietnamese, symbols are very important," explains Le. And any symbol of Communism still enrages many refugees -- possibly to the point of violence.

Consider California's Yen Do, editor of the largest Vietnamese-language paper in the United States. In 1990, one of Yen Do's delivery trucks was firebombed. The torching happened because, like Kim Son restaurant, Yen Do was inadvertently associated with a Vietnamese flag. The link was even slimmer in Do's case than in La's: a cable TV station affiliated with Yen Do's newspaper ran a music video in which the hated flag flapped in the background of a street scene. The publisher quickly met with right-wing activists to assure them it was accidental. But a few hours later his truck went up in flames, to teach Yen Do a lesson.

But if a misplaced image can still at times be deadly, the apparent changes among Houston's Vietnamese since Nguyen Dam Phong's murder are more than illusion. Yes, the passions of the war still burn violently within some refugees. Today, though, the culture that in fear and anger sheltered Nguyen Dam Phong's killer has embraced new tactics to protect itself.

"Vietnamese people are very defensive," explains the HPD plainclothesman. "They were dominated for a thousand years by the Chinese, and 400 by the French, and they went through 40 years of civil war. So they are very survivalist. People learn to lean and bend in the wind. They keep to themselves. That's why you never heard anything from them."

But in recent years the ethic of silence that protected Nguyen Dam Phong's killer or killers has begun to erode. Today, convincing the community to speak out against Asian-committed crime has become a crusade for Houston's Vietnamese press. "Ten years ago, there were just too many loopholes in the U.S. legal system, and families didn't feel protected. They feared reprisals," says DEP editor Tam Minh Tran. "Now, if a crime happened to me, I am an American and I would report it. There are more Asian officers now, and we try to educate people: 'If you keep quiet, one day you will be a victim, too. You have to speak up.'"

As for the Front itself, opinions vary on its potency. "What kind of damage could they do now?" the plainclothes HPD cop asks rhetorically. "The indictment in San Diego ruins everything." Even so, community members still measure what they say publicly about the group that once symbolized their dreams. To this day, at least one Vietnamese journalist senses limits on what he can safely write. "I believe so," he says. "And I feel bad."

But while the Front now mostly lingers as an anxious memory, the Asian criminals who were its alleged enforcers still operate. Nguyen Dam Phong's family members declined to be interviewed for this story because, they said, they didn't want to impede the revived FBI probe into the murder. But soon after the killing, they reportedly told federal authorities that they believed gang members within the Vietnamese community had been the triggermen. A Vietnamese business owner agrees. "If you have money and fanatics, you can always find someone who for $2,000 or $3,000 will do some-thing for you," he says. "You don't have to look outside the community. It's just like Chinatown in San Francisco. You can tell by looking at someone that he's a killer for hire."

But you can't tell just by looking who among your fellow refugees still nurses the past like a raw wound. And for this reason, even the most apolitical, the most Americanized, Vietnamese refugees and their children still watch out for the images, statements and names with which they identify themselves. Sometimes a symbol -- even one that seems to mean independence and dignity -- can be fatally misleading. "It seems good -- you say, I'm going to support it," says the HPD plainclothesman, recalling the first days of the Front. "You think, 'Whoever opposes it is a Communist.' When you research further, and when the outcome of the research is an indictment, everyone says, 'Why didn't we see it? Why did certain people see it, and get eliminated?'

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