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Searching for Tran

Where was Tran?

Nowhere, it seemed. I cruised the Westminster mini-mall, looking for the man with a photo of Ho Chi Minh taped to the wall of his video store. By this time, late in the week, Tran had grown infamous for his Ho fixation and I figured he wouldn’t be hard to find.

But no Tran. No store, even. I looked and looked. I even had the name of the store, “Hi Tec TV and VCR,” scrawled on the back of an envelope. No good. Couldn’t find it.

On the other hand, the people who hated Tran were easy to find. A dense crowd of Vietnamese war veterans filled the sidewalks and parking lot, chanting, waving paper flags of the old Republic of South Vietnam. Every few minutes, protest organizers would rise from a collection of tables to lead chants and play military music. Behind them, an enormous flag of Vietnam was taped onto the mini-mall wall.

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So I knew Tran was close. But where? Finally I asked an old gentleman in Army fatigues. He brightened.

“There!” he said, and pointed to the huge flag.

“No, no,” I said. I wanted to find Tran, not the flag. The old man merely pointed again.

“Yes! There!” he said.

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I looked again and, sure enough, I could see the outline of a storefront behind the huge flag. The paper flag had been taped directly over the windows and door of the store. Its very purpose, I now realized, was to render Tran’s establishment invisible and unreachable. To get inside, you would have to rip the flag asunder.

But even if inclined to rip, you would not succeed. The sidewalk on either side of Hi Tec TV was blocked by the protest tables and other barriers. No one could even approach the store, and no one did.

Whether or not Tran huddled inside Hi Tec TV, I couldn’t tell. Most likely, though, he was gone. What was he supposed to do in that dark, empty space? Watch one of his own video rentals, maybe “Forrest Gump”?

So Tran, like Elvis, almost certainly had left the building. Still, this result did not satisfy the protesters. They knew the Ho poster continued to hang on the wall inside the store, whether or not they could see it. And they were determined to remain, demonizing Tran, until he was officially expelled from the mini-mall and sent packing to God knows where.

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And thus has Westminster, a.k.a. “Little Saigon,” replayed a drama out of the American ‘50s. And with gusto, mind you. The free speech rights of Truong Van Tran matter about as much in Westminster today as did the rights of the Hollywood 10 after they were blacklisted by the studios in the midst of the Cold War. In both cases the dominant culture simply wanted the political heretics gone, disappeared.

But we have a lingering irony here, no? Because, even as the social extermination of Tran proceeds in Westminster, Hollywood is trying to salve its own wounds from the real Cold War half a century ago.

The director Elia Kazan, who famously ratted on friends before the House Un-American Activities Committee and became the symbol of personal betrayal, will be honored at this spring’s Oscars with an award for lifetime achievement. The award will represent the first recognition of Kazan in decades.

In years past, Hollywood institutions such as the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the American Film Institute have been urged, quietly, to honor the man who directed such movies as “On the Waterfront” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” All such entreaties have been turned back.

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Finally breaking the taboo on Kazan was bound to incite the ire of blacklisted screenwriters and, sure enough, they are organizing a staid protest, asking attendees to “sit on their hands” when Kazan walks down to accept his award.

“I don’t think it will be an unpleasant protest,” says Frank Tarloff, a once-blacklisted screenwriter. “It will be designed to make a point that this man turned in his closest friends and no one should forget that. He may be a great artist, he is not a great man.

“At this point, there are not many of the blacklisted people left. Of the ones I know, all support the idea that some protest should be made when Kazan walks down the aisle at the Oscars.”

All of which is understandable. But I predict the sense of reconciliation will overwhelm the protest at the Oscars. I predict the television cameras will roam the audience when the award is announced and find very few people sitting on their hands.

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That’s because, for Hollywood, and for most Americans old enough to remember, the Cold War truly has ended. And the sigh you hear is a sigh of relief. Continuing to fight the Commies now seems quaint, like the middle-aged man who obsessively replays his high school football games.

We’re over it, left only with ambivalence. No one will cheer Kazan with complete enthusiasm or condemn him with the old rage.

But in Westminster, no one is “over it.” The Cold War rages on. The political memories in Westminster have nothing to do with blacklisted screenwriters but rather with lost brothers, tortured mothers and ruined lives at the hands of Uncle Ho and his still-thriving Communist regime in Vietnam.

So they are willing to hound Tran and his measly Ho picture out of existence, and feel very little guilt about it. The hell with the 1st Amendment. They will send him packing and never lose a night’s sleep, even as an older generation of Americans tries to make amends for similar acts more than 50 years ago.

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Cold War betrayal may have lost its power in Hollywood. Here, in Westminster, it still draws a crowd.


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