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Hundreds Turn Out in Peaceful Protest During Tet Festivities

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Vietnamese Tet Festival kicked off Saturday in Little Saigon, hundreds of protesters held their biggest rally yet in front of a video store whose owner outraged the community by displaying Communist memorabilia.

Police estimate that 320 demonstrators marched in front of the Bolsa Avenue store, chanting “Down with Communism,” waving South Vietnamese flags and carrying portraits of the late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh defaced with bleeding eyes and swastikas.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 20, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 20, 1999 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Protest--A story Sunday incorrectly stated that Army veteran Larry “Bear” Hughes was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

But two miles away at Westminster Civic Center, the mood was decidedly more upbeat as thousands of adults and children took part in the first day of the annual Tet Festival, which commemorates the Vietnamese New Year.

Officials reported no protests or problems at the festival, which included carnival rides, food stands and a traditional dragon dance. But the issue was not far from peoples’ minds.

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“The holiday is a time for forgiveness and remembrance,” said Joseph Phung, a 44-year-old government worker from Laguna Hills, who enjoyed the festival with his son. But “if I put a picture of Hitler in the Jewish community, what would happen?”

The controversy centers on video store owner Truong Van Tran, who placed a Communist flag and a Ho Chi Minh poster inside his shop as an exercise of his free speech rights. But the display sparked repeated protests by those who said Tran reopened old wounds for those who escaped Communist oppression.

On Wednesday, Tran won reversal of a temporary restraining order that had forced him to take down the display but collapsed in a confrontation with protesters before he could put them back up. He spent the night in the hospital after complaining of chest pains. On Friday, he said he intends to return to the store Monday--the day before Tet--to put the flag and photo back up.

According to Jonathan M. Slipp, attorney for the mini-mall owner, the situation probably won’t be resolved until sometime in March, after an eviction process is completed. Slipp said Tran owes at least $3,000 in back rent.

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On Saturday, the crescendo of the protest occurred about 12:30 p.m. when an American prisoner of war and two female companions drove Harley-Davidson motorcycles into the cheering crowd.

“I have 58,000 brothers that died because of that jerk,” said 51-year-old Larry “Bear” Hughes, as he pointed to a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.

Hughes then wiped his boots on a Communist flag and then tore it with a knife--as the crowd of demonstrators cheered.

Protesters said they were galvanized by the approaching Vietnamese New Year on Tuesday, the most sacred of Vietnamese holidays and described in Western terms as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day all rolled into one.

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None said they planned to stop their protest to celebrate. “Suffering has no holiday,” said UC Irvine film student Long Duong, 20, who is making a documentary about the controversy.

While the crowd clapped hands, sang traditional Vietnamese songs and shouted anti-Communist slogans, shopkeepers watched from doorways. Many complained that the continued protests at the crowded mini-mall since mid-January have scared away business. “People really need their hair done for the holidays,” lamented beauty salon owner Thai Nguyen. He pointed to the row of empty barber chairs and shrugged. “I don’t like this at all. I’m the one who gets hurt.”

But one of Nguyen’s customers, Tom Troung, 37, wasn’t deterred. He left the shop--hair perfectly coiffed--with plans to join in on the rally.

According to Westminster police, the protest dwindled in size and intensity shortly after noon when, officials speculate, many headed over to the Tet Festival.

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Police said they expect the crowd at the weekend event to be on par with previous attendance, which is about 70,000 over the weekend.

At Saturday’s festival, people decked out in traditional Ao Dai dress of brightly colored silk strolled the grounds. Children rode carousels, played games, and lugged around prizes like Tweety Birds and Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals.

Kids snacked on cotton candy and caramel apples while parents enjoyed delicacies of dry squid and shredded fresh papaya. While there was no sign of tension regarding the video store protest, those asked had plenty to say. “I think it’s incredibly insensitive on [Tran’s] part to make a shrine to this murderer,” said Assemblyman Ken Maddox, (R-Garden Grove) who helped kick off the festivities. Jimmy Tran, 18, one pair of legs in the traditional dragon dance, said: “I’ll die for freedom.”

Tran and others said they’d never forget their parents’ struggles under Communist rule.

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Ho Chi Minh “put my dad in jail for 20 years,” said 27-year-old Son Lan Nguyen.

Others were less concerned with politics and more worried about what prizes they could win next.

“I come here every year to let my son know the culture a little bit,” said Phung, the government worker. His son Daniel, 9, beamed at winning a toy gun, stuffed animal and a soft drink. His game was darts, he said, and he had plans to go off and win some more.


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