Ly Tong

Ly Tong, an activist from San Jose, went on a hunger strike for three weeks to oppose the San Jose City Council's decision not to name the Vietnamese retail area Little Saigon. He joined a group protesting outside Nguoi Viet Daily News in Westminster over publication of a controversial piece of art. (Marc Martin / Los Angeles Times)

A self-described freedom fighter whose cult-hero status grew among Vietnamese after staging a 28-day hunger strike in San Jose has found a new cause -- protesting a Little Saigon newspaper accused of communist leanings.

But this time Ly Tong is eating.

Tong, a former South Vietnamese Air Force pilot, joined forces Sunday afternoon with protesters who have demonstrated in front of Nguoi Viet Daily News since late January.

By Monday, Tong sat cross-legged in a blue beach chair under palm trees lining the street near the newspaper's Westminster offices, basking in a hero's welcome. He was surrounded by about 30 supporters, who waved flags of the former South Vietnam and held large signs declaring "Down With Nguoi Viet Daily News!" Three video cameras recorded Tong's every move.

"He is my hero," said fellow protester Trong Doan, 59. "We have so much respect for him. Ten minutes ago, he said that when we need him, he will come here immediately."

"If I have time," Tong said, "I will be there."

Dressed in a snappy white pinstripe suit and a navy blue pilot hat from his air force days, Tong seemed pleased with his celebrity as a constant fighter against all things communist. He carries a book of newspaper clippings attesting to his life's work.

During the Vietnam War, he spent years in prison after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam. He finally escaped through the jungles in Cambodia and Thailand, coming to the United States as a refugee. He eventually made his way to San Jose, one of the nation's largest Vietnamese enclaves.

Tong was nicknamed "the Vietnamese James Bond" by admirers after he allegedly hijacked a commercial plane over Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in the early 1990s and tossed out thousands of leaflets calling for the Communists' overthrow.

The 63-year-old has flown a plane over Cuba and dropped leaflets opposing Fidel Castro's regime. He has spent time in prisons in Vietnam and Thailand for his crusades and has gone on various hunger strikes.

In February, Tong went on a widely publicized hunger strike in San Jose to oppose the naming of the city's Vietnamese business district.

Many in the city's Vietnamese community credit him with forcing the City Council to strike a compromise with protesters and unofficially name the area Little Saigon. When the protests finally ended, the San Jose Mercury News published a photo of Tong sipping lemonade.

Tong said the hunger strike took a toll. He lost 37 pounds, and has regained only 25.

"I was weak," he said, "very weak."

On Monday, he regained enough strength to join the Orange County protesters. They say a photo that appeared in Nguoi Viet -- depicting a foot spa painted with the colors of the flag of the former South Vietnam -- was offensive. The newspaper publicly apologized to protesters, fired two top editors and offered refunds for the issue, but the demonstrations have continued daily.

"I came here because we fight the same purpose," Tong said. "We always fight against communism, whether it's the henchmen of communists or any people who are pro-communist."

Protesters say the editors of Nguoi Viet are associating with communists and that they recently found photos of the newspaper's late founder, Yen Do, posing with Vietnamese government officials.

"He must be pro-communist, because no one on my side can stand side by side with communists," Tong said.

Editors of Nguoi Viet, the largest, oldest and most respected Vietnamese-language newspaper in the country, have denied the accusations. They recently filed a lawsuit against protesters alleging harassment and defamation, and won a temporary court injunction to prevent protesters from interfering in their business.

Tong was heading to John Wayne Airport on Monday afternoon and brought his suitcase to the protest. Along with clothes, he packed DVDs and booklets showing photos and articles from his crusades.

Asked whether he would go on another hunger strike, this time on behalf of the Nguoi Viet protesters, Tong said he still hadn't recovered from the last one.

"No, no, no," he said. "I'm too weak. I'm too tired to go on another hunger strike. You have to change tactics."

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