WESTMINSTER, Calif. -- In this heart of Little Saigon, Southern California's Vietnamese community, a video store owner is insisting on his First Amendment rights to display the flag of the Viet Cong and a poster of the late dictator Ho Chi Minh.
That has enraged members of the community, most of them refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. They say they have rights, too: to stop the flaunting of such painful reminders of the Vietnam War and the Communist government that rules their homeland.
The result has been nearly a month of protests in front of Truong Van Tran's Hi Tek TV and VCR store, located in a strip mall in Westminster, home to about 200,000 Vietnamese-Americans, the largest Vietnamese community outside of Ho Chi Minh City.
Yesterday, the day before the start of the Tet Lunar New Year, more than 1,000 people waved paper flags in the yellow and red colors of South Vietnam and vowed to never let Tran near his store.
"We absolutely respect the Constitution, the highest law of the land," Tuan Anh Ho, a protest organizer, said through a translator. "But no matter what, we must do this. He is sowing division among our community."
The mood in the community is volatile, leaders say.
"The community said they won't back down," Viet Dzung, a leading radio personality in the Vietnamese community, told the Orange County Register.
"The boiling point is getting higher and higher. The situation is very explosive."
Although Tran, 37, has insisted that he is not a Communist, he said he wants to display the flag and poster because he believes that the government in Hanoi has improved life in Vietnam.
But some community leaders say he is being manipulated by the Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese Embassy issued a statement supporting Tran's right to display the flag and poster.
The controversy broke into the open Jan. 18, when Tran carried out a vow he made in letters to community leaders and displayed the flag and poster in his store window. The community erupted in five days of protest outside the store, which ended only when Tran's landlord obtained a court injunction ordering Tran to remove the items.
But last week, the same judge reversed herself, saying that her earlier order violated Tran's First Amendment right to free speech.
On Wednesday, after his court victory, Tran tried to return to his store but was confronted by an angry crowd. Tran, who has suffered from heart problems, collapsed and was hospitalized overnight.
Tran has received an eviction notice from his landlord, but says he will fight it.
Sunday night, Tran announced on a local Vietnamese radio station that he would make another attempt to go to his store, which has been closed since Jan. 18, to reopen and put up his display. He challenged community leaders to stop him.
In the early morning yesterday, a hostile crowd began gathering outside the store. Police told the demonstrators that they were interfering with business and ordered them to disperse, but the protesters ignored the order. Riot-helmeted police holding metal batons cordoned off one side of the mall near the video store, while the protesters shouted, "Down with communism, Down with Ho Chi Minh!"
An elderly woman in a wheelchair and bundled in a blanket was surrounded by dozens of women, blocking the entrance of Tran's store. Behind them, a defaced poster of Ho, with devil's horns and blood dripping from his mouth, hung on the front windows of the Hi Tek store.
The crowd slowly grew, exceeding 1,000 people, including many elderly men and women and mothers carrying babies. Eventually, the police announced to the crowd that they had persuaded Tran to try some other day.
Police said Tran is part of the problem.
"We told him that he just can't do this today. What finally convinced him is we told him this is a clear and present danger, not just to him but to members of the community," said Lt. Bill Lewis, a spokesman for the Westminster police. "Apparently, he has begun to realize discretion is the better part of valor."
But protest leaders said no matter when Tran comes back to his store, they will be waiting to confront him.
Several protesters argued that the flag and the portrait of Ho Chi Minh are so inflammatory that their right to remove the items overrides Tran's right to display them.
"What happens if someone is holding a poster of Hitler in the Jewish community?" said Ky Ngo, a community activist. "And what happens if someone holds a picture of Pol Pot, the architect of 'the killing fields,' in the Cambodian community?
"We paid a high price for freedom. We sacrificed our lives for it," said Ngo. "He is challenging us. He is provoking us."
Pub Date: 2/16/99