Yen Do, who published the Nguoi Viet Daily News, the first and largest Vietnamese daily newspaper in the nation, died Thursday afternoon. He was 65.
Do died of complications of diabetes and kidney disease at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, according to his eldest child, Anh Do, English section editor and vice president of community relations for the newspaper.
In 1978, Do established the Nguoi Viet, which means “Vietnamese People.” Initially a four-page weekly that he printed in his Garden Grove garage, the newspaper would grow and help shape the Southern California Vietnamese exile community.
It provided information to refugees, whose lives were upended by the Vietnam War, and guided them with articles on how to adjust in their new land. It reconnected loved ones separated by the war and offered tips on how to register children for school and how to obtain a driver’s license.
“Yen Do was instrumental in working on getting the community on the right track,” said Tony Lam, a former Westminster city councilman and friend of Do’s.
Many of the immigrants settled in Westminster, a blue-collar town in Orange County, and cobbled out an enclave known as Little Saigon. It is the largest hub of Vietnamese commerce and business outside the Southeast Asian country.
Do’s journalism career began when he was 12, working for an underground high school newspaper in Saigon. During his teens, he led student protests against the South Vietnamese government to seek more student scholarships and upgraded classrooms. He was arrested and then suspended from school for protesting, which was outlawed.
He later worked as a reporter and editor for several publications in Vietnam before he became an interpreter, working with American and French journalists as South Vietnam was being attacked by Communists.
He and his wife, Loan, were married in Saigon in 1963.
Do and his family were among the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants to arrive at Camp Pendleton in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. While at the Marine base, he asked soldiers to donate books to the library he had started for immigrants.
“He loved to read, and he wanted people to learn English,” said Nick Lecong, who lived at Camp Pendleton with Do. “He wanted people to know about the American culture because he thought that some day, we would become Americans.”
Like many of the refugees, Do arrived empty-handed. He found work as a dishwasher at a fast-food restaurant before moving to Texas in search of more lucrative work. But he was soon back in Southern California with the idea to start a newspaper to serve the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who would be arriving over the next few years.
“He foresaw Orange County as the center for Vietnamese immigrants,” said Lecong, who helped him deliver newspapers.
Using $4,000 he had saved, Do printed 2,000 copies of the first edition of Nguoi Viet on Dec. 6, 1978.
Initially, Do and his family shared a two-bedroom apartment with 10 others in Santa Ana. He and a group of friends continued to put out the newspaper. He worked late to translate, cut, paste, lay out and deliver the newspapers while slashing ad rates to $5. He gave away newspapers and created jobs for new arrivals.
“He helped all the former writers to get on their feet, no matter how late they came from Vietnam,” Lecong said. “They get their feet wet with him and then they move on. His paper was a dropping spot.”
Do, who tried to incorporate Western-style journalism in his paper, was criticized by staunchly anti-Communist peers and readers who thought the content did not take a firm enough stand against the Communist government of Vietnam. Some of the criticism turned into public protests.
In 1989, 150 protesters gathered outside his newspaper office after Do showed pictures of Communist leader Ho Chi Minh’s tomb.
In 1994, about 300 people stormed the newspaper and demanded an apology from Do after he defended a trip to Vietnam by Dr. Co Pham, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. Do refused to apologize but resigned as editor after the protesters threatened a boycott.
“He felt disgusted and frustrated,” Lam said, “but he’s the kind of person that’s quiet, low-key.”
Today, Nguoi Viet has more than 70 employees, a circulation of about 18,000 and is known worldwide. It also publishes an English section and a yellow pages. Writers he once employed are now part of the thriving competing newspapers and magazines that opened across the street.
In addition to his wife, Loan, of Garden Grove and his daughter Anh of Costa Mesa, Do is survived by three other children: Lin of Walnut; and Dao and Tung of northern Virginia.
Services are pending.