When a city councilman in Irvine dreamed up the idea of forming a relationship with a coastal town in Vietnam, the leaders of this increasingly multicultural community got a quick, decisive lesson in foreign relations.
Hundreds of Vietnamese Americans, many with wrenching stories of fleeing their homeland as communist forces took over the country, arrived by the busload at City Hall to tell city leaders they felt insulted and betrayed.
By the time Tuesday's council meeting ended six hours later, city officials not only had dropped plans for a "friendship" pact with Nha Trang, they also had voted 3 to 2 to suspend Irvine's entire Friendship Cities Program.
An estimated 600 protesters arrived in Irvine on Tuesday, many on a fleet of buses from the nearby Little Saigon area, waving the flag of South Vietnam and loudly reminding council members that the government in their homeland had little respect for human rights or democratic values.
"Nha Trang needs real freedom, not quaint notions of friendship," said Van Tran, a former state assemblyman and community leader in Orange County's booming Vietnamese American community.
Chris Phan, a councilman in nearby Garden Grove, said the friendship proposal pushed by Councilman Larry Agran was an "insult" to those who were thrown in re-education camps, got separated from their families or had their property seized when the war in Vietnam ended.
Irvine's population is nearly 40% Asian, with large Vietnamese American and Chinese American communities, and the city pitches itself as a multicultural destination. In pushing for international "friendships," Agran said he was building on the city's diversity.
"In a multicultural city like Irvine, we like to establish these bonds," Agran said before Tuesday's council meeting. "It's person to person, city to city; we steer clear of national government."
That sentiment, though, failed to satisfy the crowd.
"Shame on you, Mr. Agran, for not thinking twice," said county Supervisor
Nguyen scolded council members for considering a bond with a country she said has been repeatedly flagged as a violator of human rights. She also said the
Michael Vo, the mayor of Fountain Valley, told council members that, in addition to being known for its beautiful beaches, Nha Trang was a magnet for child pornographers.
"Please do not suggest Vietnamese cities until Vietnam is a democracy," added Lana Tran, a 13-year Irvine resident.
In the end, the council put aside similar relationships with Baoji, China, and Karachi, Pakistan. Council members said they would examine the entire program.
Irvine officials experienced a similar backlash from residents in 2006 when city leaders traveled to China to formalize a sister-city relationship with the Xuhui district of Shanghai. During the visit, a city official signed a proclamation stating that Irvine would recognize the claim of the People's Republic of China as the legitimate government of Taiwan and would no longer send official delegations to the island, among other restrictions.
Under pressure from Irvine's Chinese American community, officials later voided the deal.
"Why are we involved in foreign affairs?" wondered Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway as Tuesday's debate dragged on.
After getting scolded by outraged immigrants during and before the meeting, Agran relented and said marching forward with the pact with Nha Trang "would be absolutely inappropriate."
Some saw the debate as a reminder of why they came to the United States in the first place.
Lan Q. Nguyen, a Garden Grove school board member, said that in Vietnam, "if anyone speaks like I am here now — I would spend the rest of my life in prison."