Vietnam echoes in a San Jose feud

March 27, 2008

Vietnam echoes in a San Jose feud

Protest

Joanne Ho-Young Lee / San Jose Mercury News
PROTEST: Thousands of Vietnamese from all over California, including Le Tu, left, of Orange County and Tuan Nguyen of San Bernardino, rally in front of San Jose City Hall in support of the Little Saigon name earlier this month.
Selecting a name for a business district sparks emotional debate and tests the mettle of a young councilwoman.
By My-Thuan Tran, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 22, 2008

SAN JOSE — The protesters gathered outside City Hall, marking another day of anger. They waved South Vietnamese flags, yelled into bullhorns and held signs saying “No Democracy in San Jose.” Down the street, a fellow activist was on Day 19 of his hunger strike.

Eighteen floors above the spectacle, Madison Nguyen attended to city business. From her office, the chants of “Down with Madison” or the placards with a slash drawn across her smiling face couldn’t be seen or heard. But the repercussions can be felt everywhere in San Jose’s Vietnamese community.

Fight over a name

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Only months earlier, Nguyen was embraced as the beloved daughter of the ethnic community. Now, some constituents are calling her a traitor and communist sympathizer.

“My only intent was to bring a positive image to the Vietnamese,” said Nguyen, 33. “I didn’t know I was opening up a big can of worms.”

San Jose’s Vietnamese community has been torn for more than eight months over what to name the city’s first Vietnamese shopping district, a decision that might seem mundane if not for the fact that it cuts to the deepest sensibilities in one of the country’s largest Vietnamese American communities.

Nguyen’s popularity began to plunge when she suggested the area be named Saigon Business District rather than Little Saigon, a name that to many here is a powerful symbol of defiance to the Vietnamese communist regime and one that would link them arm and arm with other Vietnamese enclaves that have adopted the name.

The councilwoman’s position — a compromise selected from half a dozen suggestions — was taken as an insult.

The street protests that followed underscored again that the rules of politics are different for a Vietnamese American politician, who must navigate the lingering emotions of a community still defined by the Vietnam War.

Even business owners, reporters, and pop singers carefully tiptoe around inferences and innuendo that can cast a person as being soft on communism.

A misstep can launch vocal protests and accusations; reputations can be tarnished. Most bow to the pressure.

Madison Nguyen, however, has played her hand differently. She said she was willing to risk votes and upset constituents to exert her political independence.

It’s a risky gambit in places such as San Jose and Orange County, where Vietnamese American politicians rely on the ethnic community as their base and where the mood is colored by the loudest voices.

Fled Vietnam

Like many of her critics, Nguyen escaped Vietnam in the late 1970s. She was 4.

Her family eventually migrated to Modesto, where Nguyen and her eight siblings helped her parents pick cherries and apricots after school. While attending UC Santa Cruz, Nguyen skipped classes to protest with farm workers for higher wages.

Nguyen became a history major and changed her name from Phuong to Madison to honor former president James Madison.

She started a doctoral program studying the evolution of the Vietnamese American community. She won a seat on the Franklin-McKinley school board in San Jose and became the city’s first Vietnamese American councilwoman in 2005.

Her eagerness to be independent and to strike compromises has rubbed some the wrong way.

She believes the Vietnamese community is going through “growing pains” and at times lacks an understanding of how local government works, but some see Nguyen as young, immature, failing to be deferential.

“I feel that when [Vietnamese] people look at me, they feel that I am their daughter instead of an elected official,” she said.

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