Politics is an ugly business, but things went from ugly to violent this week when supporters of state Rep. Hubert Vo, Democrat, and those backing Republican opponent Al Hoang showed up at an early voting center in District 149 on Monday afternoon.
Hoang's party took offense to a banner that Vo's supporters had allegedly hung proclaiming that Hoang was a communist spy for the Vietnamese government. Things devolved from there with fighting and at least one box cutter, according to KPRC.
The crazy thing is this isn't even the first time someone has accused Hoang of being a communist.
It sounds like something from the bad old days of the McCarthy hearings, a time when just being accused of communist leanings or communist sympathies was enough to destroy your reputation, your livelihood and your life. We've (hopefully) moved on from that in the United States, but the threat of communism, and the smear that comes with being associated with it, is still alive in Vietnamese American communities.
In Houston, the question of communism is underpinning the state representative race between Vo, incumbent and the first Vietnamese American elected to the Texas House of Representatives (there still hasn't been a state senator) and former city councilman Hoang.
In a lawsuit filed last week, Hoang claims that he has been the focus of a determined campaign from Thoi Bao Houston, the local branch of weekly Vietnamese magazine that has international circulation. Their accusations? That Hoang is a secretly a communist sympathizer and spy on behalf of the Vietnamese government.
It all started, according to the court documents, shortly after Hoang was elected to the Houston City Council in 2010. Nguyen invited Hoang and a couple friends to dinner at his house. (All of the following is gleamed from the lawsuit since, unfortunately, we don't read Vietnamese and thus can't read Thoi Bao directly.)
During the dinner, Hoang mentioned that the Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz had invited him to take a trip to Vietnam. Hoang was weighing out the pros and cons of accepting the invitation when Nguyen spoke up, according to the lawsuit. "I order you not to go to Vietnam. If you go, I will mobilize Thoi Bao to destroy you, to take your council seat away. That is my order," Nguyen reportedly said, according to court documents. Hoang didn't take kindly to being "ordered" to do anything. "I am a councilman, I do things in accordance to my conscience, you cannot order me like that," he replied. Then he got up and left. (We've tried to get in touch with Nguyen and representatives of Thoi Bao but haven't heard back so far. We'll update when we do.)
That night an email was sent out to Vietnamese online forums claiming that Hoang was going to Vietnam to "bow down to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists." The email was signed from The Gioi Magazine, another Vietnamese publication, but the editor quickly said the email didn't come from them, and the court documents allege it was in fact from Nguyen and his publication.
According to court documents, almost every issue of Thoi Bao included some claim that Hoang was a communist, a Vietnamese spy or a Vietnamese communist agent. Once published, the articles were also sent out online, reaching Vietnamese communities all over the world.
In October 2012, Vice Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Thanh Son visited Houston. He was greeted by Mayor Annise Parker and the rest of the city council, including Hoang. During a meeting to discuss human rights issues in Vietnam and give speakers a chance to press someone from the actual government for reform, Nguyen got up and once again claimed that Hoang was a communist and a spy sent from Vietnam to "sabotage the Vietnamese community in Houston and abroad."
To be called a communist within the Vietnamese American community is a huge deal, pure character assassination. "You have to understand, in the Vietnamese culture once somebody gets labeled a communist, people misjudge that person as a communist sympathizer. The people in the community are going to have an extreme reaction," Hoang says. In fact, after Nguyen's claims were published from the forum, three protests were held outside of Hoang's house. Hoang even stepped out his front door one morning to find the makings of a crude Molotov cocktail left on his porch.
Hoang made a trip to Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam in 2013 working on business relations between the Port of Houston and the countries. Nguyen again used the trip to Vietnam (while not mentioning other countries) as more proof that Hoang was in fact a communist spy for the Vietnamese government. The stories allegedly got significant online traction. Hoang was up for re-election and he contends in the lawsuit that these stories were the reason he lost his seat.
When Hoang subsequently moved into state politics, campaigning for the Republican nomination for State Representative for District 149, the accusations continued. (The magazine even implied that Hoang's father, killed in a car accident, actually committed suicide.) Thoi Bao even claimed that Hoang made up the story about the threatened Molotov cocktail, saying Hoang just did it to get attention.
Hoang says that he has tried to get Nguyen to talk with him or to give him a chance to refute the allegations being made in Thoi Bao, but has been rejected.
The weirdest part in all of this is that Hoang was actually a prisoner of the Vietnamese communists back in the 1990s. Hoang had come over from Vietnam in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. He was just 13 years old, but his parents raised him to both love the United States and to hate the communists in his own country.
After graduating from college, Hoang went back to Vietnam in the 1990s to try and change the government (which is a nice way of saying he was trying to overthrow the communist regime.) He was working to set up cells of supporters for this move when the Vietnamese communists got wind of what he was up to and arrested him. He was in solitary confinement for more than a year, and he might still be there today if a trade agreement between the United States and Vietnam hadn't stipulated that the Vietnamese government release U.S. citizens as part of the deal.
When Hoang came back, he went to law school, became an even more devoted Republican (he's been a Republican since he was a kid, he says) and eventually ran for office. Meanwhile, his views slowly changed, he says. After attempting to sneak into Vietnam in 2001, he decided it was time to take a different approach, he says. "I didn't see any answer in doing this. It's not that we don't love the country, but if we love the country it has to be not only by heart, but by mind. You have to do things not just because you don't like something, but because [your actions] can make a difference," he says.
His time on the city council definitely had some awkward moments. There were some shady-seeming moves made to establish residency in District F and then Hoang infamously proclaimed that he was for conservative Christian values and against advocating for gay and liberal rights, right before he took a seat on city council headed by Houston's first openly gay mayor. It's conceivable this stuff had as much to do with his constituents not re-electing him as the whole communist thing.
Of course, Hoang shook hands with members of the Vietnamese government during that trip he took on behalf of the Port of Houston while he was a city councilman, which didn't play well here. Hoang says the stories never mentioned that the Vietnamese government was actually questioning U.S. officials during the trip over Hoang and his activities in the 1990s.
Hoang finally decided to file the lawsuit, claiming the campaign to portray him as a communist is both libelous and a hate crime, against Thoi Bao and Nguyen last week after he saw a story that implied his father -- who was killed in a car accident -- had actually committed suicide. "That was too much," he says. If Nguyen wouldn't listen to him privately, he decided to make the whole thing public and see if that would get the editor to stop. "I've said numerous times if you can show me a better way to fight Vietnamese communists, show me! I will kneel down and respect you and follow you and be your servant for the rest of my life."
Since the lawsuit was filed, there hasn't been any mention or implication of Hoang's alleged communist leanings in the magazine, he says. However, the issue still came up this week in the middle of the early voting frenzy. On Monday it was reported that supporters of Hoang and his Democrat opponent for the seat in district 149, Hubert Vo were at an early voting location in Liberty when someone from Vo's supporters put up a banner accusing Hoang of being a communist sympathizer. One of Hoang's supporters grabbed a box cutter and started cutting the banner down.
When Phach Nguyen, a volunteer from Vo's camp, tried to stop him, the Hoang supporter (not-even-a-little-confusingly named Peter Vo) allegedly swung the box cutter at the guy and is now charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Vo's campaign manager, Karen Loper, says that Phach Nguyen, while a longtime supporter of Vo's, is not a member of Vo's campaign staff and that Vo does not condone the man's actions. "I know [Phach Nguyen] a little bit. He's a veteran and he's always seemed like a mild-mannered guy."
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As to the accusations being made about Hoang, Loper, a longtime resident of the district, says that feelings run strong within the Vietnamese community, and even a hint of communist leanings amongst the people who fought in the war or where imprisoned by the Vietnamese government, is enough to incite a furious response in the community. (Vo, for the record, wants the United States to do something about the "egregious human rights violations" if they're going to continue to trade with Vietnam, Loper says.) "I've never seen anything like this though," she says, referring to the allegations against Hoang.
Interestingly -- or possibly coincidentally -- the lawsuit filed last week against Nguyen claims that Vo (the politician, and not the box-cutter wielder) owns the buildings that the offices for Thoi Bao Houston are located in. However, Loper says that the claim isn't true. Vo's company owns some buildings in the area, but not the building in question.
Coincidental mistake? Maybe. Either way, it's a strange saga playing out between those who think Hoang is a communist (or who at least find it beneficial to claim he is) and Hoang and his followers, who are swearing he's not.
Seriously, if these two factions ended up holding a West Side Story-style rumble, complete with gang ballet, we wouldn't be the least bit surprised at this point.