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

Last December, as Houston's Vietnamese read their newspapers through the steam from bowls of pho, a name from years ago stared back like a reproachful ghost. The name appeared in bold, in small ads in papers such as Asian American News. "The FBI is investigating the murders of five Vietnamese journalists both independently and with respect to a potential conspiracy," the announcements said. "The FBI is soliciting the assistance of the Vietnamese community for any information related to these matters." At the top of the message was a familiar name: Nguyen Dam Phong, a Houston newspaper editor murdered 13 years ago.

For Houston's estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Vietnamese, Nguyen's name evokes dark memories. Like most of his neighbors, Nguyen Dam Phong escaped Vietnam soon after the fall of Saigon in 1975; like many of them, Nguyen and his family waited months in a chaotic Arkansas refugee camp for a Houston sponsor. When he finally arrived here, Nguyen worked his way up from a position in a terrarium factory to a job as a dental technician. But his real passion was found at home, where, rising as early as 4 a.m. to write, Nguyen toiled at the Vietnamese language newspaper he founded in 1981. Dubbed Tu Do, or Freedom, the paper carried news that wasn't always welcome to some of his Vietnamese compatriots. It was news that, barely half a decade after the fall of South Vietnam, often scraped at sores that hadn't fully healed. Then one afternoon in 1982, at his modest one-story house near Scarsdale Boulevard, Nguyen Dam Phong opened his front door to a killer. He was shot point-blank. A neighborhood dog yelped as Nguyen crumpled onto his tidy driveway, bleeding to death from multiple .45-caliber bullet wounds.

Although the FBI and Houston police descended at once, they never caught Nguyen Dam Phong's assassin. For one thing, HPD had no Asian officers at the time, much less anyone who spoke Vietnamese. Worse, Nguyen's Vietnamese neighbors and friends fell monolithically silent. "The Vietnamese didn't trust police back then," says someone familiar with the case. "Consequently, it was felt that a lot of people whom police spoke to had more knowledge than they let on." Although Nguyen's case was rich with potential leads, both the FBI and HPD finally abandoned it in frustration. The murderer went free, and Nguyen's case lay nearly untouched for a decade.

Untouched, but not forgotten. In cramped offices, in restaurants, in family-owned businesses on Bellaire Boulevard and Milam Street, Vietnamese immigrants today still shake their heads at Nguyen Dam Phong's name. A balding man with sharp, inquisitive eyes and a stubborn mouth, Nguyen knew quite well who wanted him dead, they say. And if you press the question, some will add that the whole Vietnamese community still knows who had Nguyen killed. So this winter, when Nguyen's name rose again from their community's newspapers, many Vietnamese immigrants thought back to the fierce politics that had colored both his life and his death. And they had to wonder: today, would Nguyen Dam Phong have been murdered? Today, would his killer go free?

Amble past the restaurants on Milam Street and you'd think it was Houston that had adapted to its refugees, not the other way around. In a sense, that's right. Fewer than two decades since they arrived traumatized, without English and clutching checks for $100 or $150 signed by Catholic Charities, Houston's Vietnamese have built an industry on their native tastes and customs. Gradually, Texans who first noticed the Vietnamese bussing tables in Chinese restaurants found themselves eating at the restaurants those same refugees had founded. The immigrants also went into factories, engineering jobs and technical positions such as Nguyen's work at the dental lab. Now two-thirds of the estimated 120,000 Vietnamese who came to Texas since Saigon's fall live in houses, not apartments. Their yearly incomes average slightly less than $22,000.

Restaurant owner Tri La, whose family fled after the Communist government took over their business in Saigon, remembers one of the first Texan customers to enter his restaurant here 15 years ago. "He looked at the menu, then he walked out," La says. They're not walking out much anymore. Accustomed to Vietnamese cuisine, Houstonians made La's restaurant, Kim Son, a $1.9 million success. They now also venture into the modest restaurants on Milam Street and in southwest Houston to eat pho, the lusciously addictive Vietnamese noodle soup.

Traditionally where Vietnamese trade news and rumors, Houston's pho shops also show off the immigrants' brio. One recent lunch hour at a popular pho place on Milam, the small tables brimmed with smartly dressed Asian professional women, grunged-out Vietnamese-American college students, American Asiophiles ordering in lame Vietnamese and a tableful of sharply dressed Vietnamese men who turned out to be plainclothes HPD officers. Stacks of local Vietnamese language newspapers waited by the door, their photo-heavy pages vaunting pageant winners with dark hair and majorette boots, Rotary luncheons and civic spectacles such as a visiting industrialist from the Republic of Vietnam's receipt of honorary Houstonian-hood. (Mayoral assistant Helen Chang did the honors.)

That a dignitary from Hanoi could be welcomed by Houston's government makes it clear that, for much of the city, the Vietnam War is truly over. But for many Vietnamese expatriates, the break is not so clean. Still, most would agree that their prosperous little universe is a far cry from their lives here two decades ago. "Every single refugee has a different story," says Peter Nguyen, a Houston architect who escaped Saigon two days before it fell. But there are commonalities: nearly all the refugees who came here arrived dispossessed, uprooted, stunned by their own helplessness. Peter Nguyen, who'd driven aimlessly round Saigon's port, airport and embassies looking to escape, says it was chance that he found space on a departing plane. "Nobody could tell you how to escape," he says. "We were lucky."

Even refugees too young to understand were seared by what they saw. Judi Le, a Houston artist in her 20s who left Vietnam when she was five, still tenses visibly as she says, "I remember everything." As the Communists swarmed over Saigon, Le's family clambered onto a ship packed with refugees. "The U.S. soldiers told us not to bring a lot of items," she says. "We had to jump from one ship to another on the open seas. And this old woman, this grandma, she refused to give up her two suitcases. She was right in front of me and she fell into the sea. There were so many refugees, no one even tried saving her."

Churning over the ocean toward the United States, Le's family was crowded so tightly below deck with other refugees that they had to use cookie tins to relieve themselves. For emptying the pans out on deck, her father and uncle were rewarded with the opportunity to bathe under hoses. On deck, there was a latrine that overhung the ocean.

One day, Le saw a young mother climb into the latrine, leaving her little girl, the same age as Le, waiting on the deck. Then, as the small girls watched in horror, the latrine collapsed. The woman disappeared into the water. As the daughter frantically called her mother's name, the spot where the woman fell swiftly vanished into the sea behind them. With thousands of people to save, the American military crew had no time to rescue only one.

The refugee camps in Arkansas, the same ones where Nguyen Dam Phong and his family lived, were equally frightening. Well-to-do in Vietnam, Le saw her neighbors from home fighting over pieces of cabbage and snatching food from anyone whose attention strayed from his bowl. And always in the turmoil seethed the memory of Vietnam, and the Communist government that drove them out.

Bereft of country, wealth and status, the Vietnamese refugees struggling to start again in Houston found one group that offered them a special nourishment. That group, the National United Front to Liberate Vietnam, was the main splinter faction of a far-right umbrella exile organization with ties in Vietnam. Founded in 1981 by ex-Vietnamese military officers in San Jose, California, the Front offered refugees a plan to retake their homeland. The scheme, to raise a guerrilla army in countries bordering Vietnam, sounded far-fetched, but was nonetheless enticing. The Front, with its videos of camouflaged soldiers inching through Asian jungles, assuaged refugees' guilt at leaving and granted an illusion of power in Vietnam's affairs -- and their own.

The appeal of the Front was strongest where the expatriate community was largest -- and Houston, being second only to Orange County, California, in its Vietnamese population, was a major source of Front support. "The Front was started by former high officials, officers of the army," explains one local Vietnamese businessman, who asked not to be named. It is 8 p.m., and he's still at work in his tiny, fluorescent-lit office. Like many Vietnamese immigrants, he says, he commonly works 12 to 18 hours a day. "Before, these officers had power and money," the businessman says. "When they came here they had no skills at all. I think they wanted to do something. It was very hard for these leaders and high officials to come here and do labor. With the Front, they saw a chance for revenge. Not liberation -- revenge."

The Front's dream of retaking Vietnam appealed to thousands of Houston's immigrants. One local community leader who used to donate $100 a month to the Front out of his moderate government salary guesses that some 80 percent of Houston's Vietnamese supported the Front at its peak. All over the country, the Front reportedly drew rallies of up to 5,000 supporters dressed in tan and brown uniforms and passionately singing military anthems. Even when the dream grew doubtful -- after, for example, the Front's guerrilla chief was reported killed -- many clung doggedly to its promises.

"In the early 1980s, the Vietnamese here had lost everything, and the Front was somebody to stand up for them," says a local professional man, who also requested anonymity. "I had a lot of doubts about it. But how could you know? How could you know what was going on in the jungle?" Their faith was measured in dollars: throughout the 1980s, Vietnamese immigrants donated millions to the Front. Little of the money reached Southeast Asia; most of it was invested by Front leaders in concerns ranging from fishing fleets to a worldwide chain of restaurants.

For anyone who looked closely, the Front's credibility was fragile from the start. Nguyen Dam Phong, who had been a prominent journalist in his home country, was one of the first Vietnamese to take that close look. In his tree-shaded Houston home, Nguyen used his kitchen-table newspaper to raise questions about the Front's actions. At its peak, Freedom reached 10,000 people and was the largest Vietnamese-language publication in Houston. In it, Nguyen often teetered near libel in tirades against not only the Front, but also fake refugee aid programs and other groups he deemed dishonest. Although he was a fierce anti-Communist, Nguyen dedicated what became his last issues of Freedom to a series accusing the Front's leaders of fraud.

What followed was no surprise. Nguyen's paper had received anonymous phone threats, fellow journalists had pleaded with him to back off and Nguyen even started carrying a gun. But, as his wife later told a reporter, "He would always tell me that in America there was all this freedom in journalism. That you could say and do what you wanted ... and nothing would happen to you." That was less than true for Vietnamese here, though, and not true at all for Nguyen when he opened his front door on August 25, 1982.

Today, Vietnamese community members of almost every stripe believe it was the National Front that killed Nguyen Dam Phong. "Phong knew a lot about the Front. So he wrote an article that was not so good for the organization. Everybody says that the Front killed him," a Vietnamese business owner says flatly. Local and federal law enforcers, as well as the international Committee to Protect Journalists, share that belief. But although evidence included items such as a right-wing hit list that included Nguyen's name, the investigation stopped short.

It wasn't just that investigators lacked the language skills to deal with immigrants, or that they were completely innocent of how to show respect, and garner trust, among the Vietnamese. In 1982, still believing in the Front, some immigrants blamed Nguyen for speaking out. "At that time, if anybody talked against the Front, they seemed to betray the community," the late-working businessman says. "It undermined the goodwill that we needed for our cause." Anti-Communism ran so deep in 1982 that some Houston refugees believed that anyone who blocked the Front deserved to die. And that "anyone" included Nguyen Dam Phong.

On a recent afternoon, Pham To Thu, a kindly, eager man, crosses town at rush hour armed with legal documents and human rights reports from Asia Watch. He wants to paint a clear portrait of the National Front, for which he is South Central Division chairman, as it exists in 1995. In courtly, only slightly blurred English, Pham To Thu will spend as much time as necessary to explain that the modest organization he helps lead is in fact peaceful.

"The reason I became a member is because I don't want the next generation in Vietnam to suffer," Pham says. "Since the Communists took Saigon, the country is poor, poor, poor. One-fifth of the young ladies between 16 and 36 are prostitutes. The Front contacts many different organizations and tells them what is happening in Vietnam."

Pham intensely opposes the United States' resumption of relations with Vietnam, which, although still Communist, imposed widespread economic reforms in the late 1980s. This month, the U.S. government continued putting the finishing touches on diplomatic relations with Vietnam, opening the country up for trade; to Pham, a former South Vietnamese sailor who fled in 1975, this only stamps approval for an anti-democratic, oppressive regime that still persecutes religious and politi-cal dissidents.

An unprepossessing electrical technician, Pham To Thu travels through Texas, New Mexico and Arkansas on his own time every month to meet with 100 to 300 National Front members. Together, they organize demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns on behalf of Vietnamese human rights. "Our goal is that Vietnam has a true democracy, that people have respect for human rights," Pham says. "We're not trying to kill Communists."

Still, despite the kind face Pham tries to put on his organization, today he finds few buyers. Most older-generation refugees who once backed the Front have now turned on it. Some slowly drifted off, disgusted by the accusations of fraud that Front leaders flung back and forth at each other as early as 1981. Others were shocked by the Front's apparent use of violence: Nguyen Dam Phong was just one of five Vietnamese journalists murdered allegedly because of their criticisms of groups such as the Front. Then there were beatings, vandalism and death threats, all attributed by authorities to right-wing groups, the Front among them. Some immigrants simply tired of the danger incurred by criticizing the Front, or backing normalization with Vietnam. "Back then, about 80 percent or more of the community supported the Front. Now it's 2 or 5 percent," says one Vietnamese professional. But while he's now willing to criticize the Front, he's still not willing to do so for attribution. The organization may be weakened, but memories of its strength -- or else the concern, even now, that to talk against the Front is to be seen as disloyal to the memory of South Vietnam -- linger. So much so that virtually every Vietnamese refugee who was interviewed about the Front asked for anonymity.

For most of Houston's Vietnamese, it was a 1991 federal grand jury indictment in San Jose that killed the dream of the Front for good. The case, charging Front leaders with conspiring to pocket funds garnered under nonprofit auspices, helped answer a decade's worth of gnawing questions. "This is my explanation," the professional man says. "The Front first of all was idealistic. Then they saw all this money, and they created a story, just like a movie, saying they had an army on the frontier of Vietnam. How could that be true?"

Indeed, it was probably the San Diego indictment that raised the specter of Nguyen Dam Phong. Although the FBI won't comment on what prompted them to reconsider Nguyen's murder, an HPD source says it's likely they're hoping to find something that will help them in their case against the Front in California.

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.

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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