Hundreds of Vietnamese Americans demonstrated Saturday outside a provocative art exhibit in Santa Ana that had featured Communist symbols that protesters claimed mocked their painful experiences as political refugees.
The protest -- joined by people bused in from as far away as San Jose -- came the day after one of the works was defaced with red paint and the owners of the building ordered the exhibit closed, saying the organizers lacked the proper business license.
Curators of the exhibit, which was commissioned by the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Assn., said they wanted to launch a discussion about freedom of expression in the Vietnamese community, where talk of communism is a taboo.
A week into the exhibit’s run, Jim Nichols, a co-owner of the building at 1600 N. Broadway, acknowledged that he had been pressured by Vietnamese community members.
“We support the arts,” Nichols said. “But my gosh. Create a firestorm? That’s not a good atmosphere for a corporate building.”
“We have a huge investment in this building and a serious vacancy factor,” he said of the decision to order the exhibit closed. “They have factions in their community that go after anyone who in any way seems to put a positive light on communism.”
In the crowd Saturday, a man who unfurled and waved a large flag of Communist Vietnam was immediately surrounded by demonstrators shouting, “Communist!” and, “Go back to Vietnam!”
Yelling, “I have rights. I have rights,” the man was arrested by Santa Ana Police Department officers on suspicion of fighting in public.
Authorities had already blocked traffic on Broadway, a main downtown artery, between 15th and 17th streets, where demonstrators waved the yellow-and-red flag of South Vietnam and held up signs that said, “VAALA stabs the Vietnamese in the back.”
Some of the demonstrators were clad in military fatigues. One man spread a Communist flag on the street and then encouraged a young boy to stomp on it.
Kathy Phuc Nguyen, a demonstration organizer and spokeswoman for the human rights group Thanh Nien Co Vang, drew cheers when, speaking through a bullhorn, she said, “Surely, one would not display a photograph of a young Jewish person wearing a Nazi symbol and standing next to a bust of Hitler in a heavily populated community of Holocaust survivors.”
Nguyen was referring to a photograph in the exhibit by Brian Doan, associate professor of art and photography at Long Beach City College, showing a young woman wearing a red tank top with a yellow star -- a representation of Vietnam’s official flag -- and standing beside a small bust of former Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
Doan said in an interview that the photograph had been damaged with red paint, which the exhibit organizers confirmed. He said he intended the work as a commentary on youths in Vietnam who grew up after the Vietnam War. Now, he said, he plans to display it as “a symbol of my freedom of speech.”
But Tina Dinh, speaking for the demonstrators, called the use of Communist symbols incendiary.
“They cannot use their freedoms of expression to hurt people with wounds that have not healed,” she said, noting that for many upset by the exhibit, “the Vietnam War never ended.”
Some who had hoped to judge the work for themselves said their own freedom had been trampled.
Tom Do, 55, a counselor at Irvine Valley College, was among a handful of people who went to see the art Friday afternoon only to find the exhibit shut down.
The demonstrators, he said Saturday, had “robbed my rights to enjoy something I don’t happen to have a problem with.”
Kieu Linh Valverde, 39, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis, said she decided to travel to see the exhibit in part to support the organizers’ decision to display the work.
“When we see bravery like this, we cannot remain silent,” she said, noting a long history in the expatriate community of going after anyone perceived as supportive or sympathetic to the current communist government in Vietnam.
“Right now, we live in fear because these people threaten our families and destroy our work and take away our freedoms,” she said.
After the exhibit opened last weekend, there were heated calls for the organizers to take down some of the offending works. Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove) and Westminster officials sent a signed letter.
Initially, exhibit sponsors held their ground. “We . . . tried to give this exhibit as much historical thought as possible, like works about the refugee experience,” said co-curator Lan Duong, an assistant professor of media and cultural studies at UC Riverside.
She pointed out, for example, that the exhibit also included works of art banned in Vietnam.
“The feeling that I may have hurt or injured the community in any way was not my intention at all,” she said.
As part of an effort to counter perceptions that the exhibit celebrated communism, Duong and Arts & Letters Assn. officials have been on Vietnamese radio talk shows and Vietnamese language newspapers explaining that their goal was to include a wide variety of voices and images.
“A diversity of opinions and viewpoints is absolutely needed for the community to move forward,” Duong said. “We would like to honor the stories of the first generation, but at the same time, I think the first generation needs to honor how the 1.5 and second generation has understood our history as well.”