Lost in Translation – The Little Saigon Conflict

Posted on December 5, 2007

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John Vu*

Little more than 20 years ago, as a young intern working in Washington DC for US House of Representatives, I had an opportunity to meet up with the larger than life Congressman Tip O’Neill, one of the longest serving House Majority Leaders in history.

I asked for his autograph along with his famous adage: “All politics is local” .  He was amused by the request and chuckled: “And remember one more thing, all politics is personal.”

“Unforgettable Sight”

It was a sight that the city council staffers could not believe.  A senior staff member exclaimed he would not ever forget the evening.  It was a very chill evening on November 20, 2007 and the council chamber was full with over 250 people.  Outside, the rotunda was packed with people with signs and banners supporting “Little Saigon” .  The two adjacent rooms with 400 people capacity were overflowed.  Most came to support the naming “Little Saigon” for a 1 mile strip of stores and businesses along Story Road and west of Highway 101.   After 4 hours of listening to more than 300 people spoke in supporting of “Little Saigon” , the council voted 8-3 in rejection of the name.   

When came time for the council member debating among themselves on how to vote and also addressing the general audience, the majority of the people started leaving the chamber in disgust and booing when they realized that the votes were predetermined.  A prominent member of the community, a world wide acclaimed mathematician on space travel, Professor Vinh Xuan Nguyen, also left along with the crowd. 

Santa Clara County Supervisor Pete McHugh stayed near the end and as he stood up to leave, he pounded his notepad loudly to display his displeasure of the process.

Since there were not any logical reasons to reject the name “Little Saigon” , most council members who opposed it recited the fact that it was Councilmember Madison Nguyen’s decision and since the community elected her and she is their representative, they followed her lead and decision.  

Councilman Sam Liccardo spoke at length about how the community had showed lack of respect and support for Madison Nguyen and he would support Madison and her “brave” decision.  Vice Mayor Dave Cortese pointed out the fact that “”¦ultimately it would be referred to as Little Saigon since it seems that this is what the community wants but the city has to chose an official name at this moment”¦.”

Councilman Pete Constant questioned the wisdom of the decision since the naming he believed had to be from the community itself and not imposed down from the council.  He was most bothered by the fact that the name chosen came in last of the official city survey.  Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio could not see why spending money on banners and signs on something the majority of the community did not want.  He also questioned the spending money on an official survey so that it could be ignored.  Councilman Kansen Chu said the official survey by the city, other independent surveys from Mercury News and his own survey indicated a very large majority of the people wanted “Little Saigon” .

Councilwoman Madison Nguyen the next day in an interview with the local Vietnam Liberty News TV was asked what she thought about the crowd turn out and democracy.  She replied testily:  I represent all the people of District 7, the people who showed up last night have a lot of free time on their hands and some interest in the hearing.   What happened to the voices of the people who have jobs or work 2 “” 3 jobs and could not come last night?

So what really happened and why the name “Little Saigon” brought out such passion and now a recall effort of the first Vietnamese-American elected city councilmember in San Jose by the same people that brought her in office.

Vietnam Town and the Nguyens.

The community took notice when an article in the San Jose Business Journal, March 2007 by Timothy Roberts “” “Groups Want To Designate Vietnam Town” ,  cited the fact the Madison Nguyen arranged a meeting with Paul Krutko, San Jose’s chief development officer for Sonny Nguyen (a publisher of Nha Magazine and investment partner with Madison Nguyen  as well as her strongest backer) and Jimmy Nguyen (an ex- sales manager for the now defunct Viet Mercury News and is well known in the community for his effort in establishing San Francisco and Ho chi Minh  sister city program) to designate the area as Vietnam Town.

The idea to designate an area of Vietnamese-American business as “Little Saigon” was a campaign promise in 2004 election in District 7.   In 2005 after Terry Gregory stepped down, Madison Nguyen in her campaign against Linda Nguyen also made that a campaign issue.

On June 5, 2007 the city council, under the suggestion of Madison Nguyen, voted to allow the naming of the area a Vietnamese name.  To clarify the situation, Tien Nguyen, the President of the Vietnamese-American Commomunity of Northern California, asked her what was the vote about.  She told him that the council has approved the naming of the area as Vietnam Business District. 

He asked her again for clarification and mentioned the fact why not Little Saigon but Vietnam Business District.  She replied that it was too late and the community never spoke up. 

Tien Nguyen is a man in his 60s who has faced and survived the brutality of communism in its ugliest form.  He was one of her backers against Linda Nguyen in 2005.  His group is the most active and well organized among a dozen or so politically active groups (Some has less than even five members).  However, his group holds the most influence in District 7 and District 4.  His headquarters is in District 7 and now he was about to face a conflict that either will unite the community or tear it apart.  It was worse than the Hon Lien vs. Bryan Do election race earlier in the year.   

What bothered him and his inner circle greatly was the fact that within days of the city council approval, state owned Vietnamese media in Vietnam ran headlines that the city council in San Jose had approved the name of area as Vietnam Business District ( This fact also noted by Erin Sherbert from Metro in her October article – “New Power Generation” featuring Madison Nguyen).

Madison Nguyen had asked him for his public support of her race against Linda Nguyen.  However ever since she took office, his group has been in conflict with her. 

She had to back down on the establishment of the Vietnamese-American community center.  The community was in uproar when she made the decision on who would be on the board and running the center without consulting the community.   Her second clash with his group was the mayoral election where her support for Cindy Chavez ended up in Chavez lost District 7 both in the primary and the general election against Chuck Reed.  At a rally event for Cindy Chavez where she was the host, less than 20 people were at the event and this included Chavez and Nguyen’s staff and a couple of people from Reed’s campaign showing up to check out. 

Tien Nguyen and his group started to put pressure on Madison Nguyen and they were determined not to have the area named Vietnam Business District.  The Vietnamese-American media sensed controversy and started linking a new commercial development, Vietnam Town Mall on Story Road, to the naming of Vietnam Business District.

Some newspaper published the story on how Madison Nguyen and the developer of Vietnam Town Mall were planning this all along and Sonny Nguyen and Jimmy Nguyen were their front men.  The lawyer Tam Nguyen and his newspaper SaigonUSA wrote hard hitting stories on this hatching conspiracy. 

Rumors and Anti-Communism

Understanding Vietnamese-American politics can be confusing from the outside looking in.  There are events after events held every week. There are associations after associations hosting fund raising for myriad of causes.   For a community that is about 100,000 people (from the latest 2006 census) with about 8,000 businesses of all sizes, it is one of the most vibrant ethnic communities in San Jose.  

They have emerged in the last two elections to be the swing vote that can determine an outcome of a race, especially in the primary.  The mainstream media slowly notices this after the mayoral race where the community with their absentee votes helped Chuck Reed in the primary to surpass the consensus favorites – Cindy Chavez and Dave Cortese.  In District 4 race, it was their votes that both Kansen Chu and Hon Lien courted in the run-off. 

In Orange County supervisor race this year where about 88% of the votes came from absentee ballots, they made up of about 47% of the absentee votes.  It stunned the mainstream to see two Republican Vietnamese-American candidates finished first and second in a heavily Democratic district where the majority is still White and Hispanic voters.   The two heavily favorite candidates with the most money “” a Hispanic city councilman and a well known White candidate came in a distant third and fourth. 

Unlike other ethnic groups, the politically active people in the community usually are the lower income people.  They are people who work in low paid job and tend to have small businesses on the side to supplement their incomes.  They live in low income houses or reside 2 to 3 families in a 3 bed room home in order to save money.  And yet they love politics, especially anything dealing with anti-communism issues.  They follow the media closely.  There are a dozen Vietnamese-American newspapers and two dozen radio shows to serve a community of 100,000 people.  And nothing receives their attention more than issues that deemed to be not anti-communism.

Little Saigon, similar to the Freedom Flag, represents a very strong anti-communist symbol against the current dictatorship regime.  The communist government erased the name Saigon from the map the first day they took over the country.

Stories based on half truth and half rumor floating around the community on how Vietnam Town Mall development was in trouble since the beginning of the year.  No banks would finance the construction for there is limited equity in the project.   The developer (TWN Investment, LLC) had to go to Vietnam and China to ask for investment money of $60 million to finish the project.  To sweeten the appeal, the developer wanted to have the area name Vietnam Town and not Little Saigon for it might make the Vietnamese investors feel uncomfortable.  The developer told Madison Nguyen that he would pay the signs and banners out of his own pocket.   They were so confidence that the name Vietnam Town would pass that the developer had 2 signs made.  The community actually obtained a copy of the sign from the sign designer. 

Whatever the case may be, this further fueled the anti-communist fervent of the community.  From a business point of view, San Jose Business Journal’s Shannon Simonson wrote an investigative piece on the financial trouble of Vietnam Town Mall titled: “Retail Plan Stalled in East San Jose” and interviewed Madison Nguyen about it. 

The First Show Down

Madison Nguyen knew she was in for a fight and the Vietnam Town name would be tough.  She called a community meeting at Tully Library in mid August to hopefully clarify the issue.  The meeting was sent out as a discussion about “Designing of Banners and Signs Meeting for Vietnamese Business District” .   

She asked her staff to arrange for 5 police officers at the event.  Three arrived and stood  around the front door of the meeting room.  There were about 150 people showed up and the first thing the crowd demanded to know was is it true that the name Vietnam Town was already chosen by the city council in June.  Vietnamese-American press was there in force with camcorders everywhere.  She waffled and finally when asked the third time, she finally gave a straight answer:” No it was not decided.”  

The crowd started hissing: “Why did you lie to us?” , “Why can’t you tell us the truth?”

In an open forum segment, the people started to speak out on why “Little Saigon” was important to them.  Madison stood in the back impatiently listened to these mostly elderly folks speaking at length in their sometimes hard to understand Vietnamese.  As the event was about to end, she suddenly walked up to the podium and spoke with an authoritative tone.  One of her supporters later sighted: “She sure wanted to let the community know who was in charge tonight.”   

This is the full transcript of her comment words for words:  “We hear a lot about Little Saigon tonight. Which is fine, we’re not object to that, no one’s object to that, I’m not object to that. But what you need to understand is the protocol that’s going to take place after tonight’s meeting. Right? When we proposed a business district here, in the city of San Jose, we have a process that we go through.  The people who are doing business on Story Road right now, the merchants, and the people who live within one thousand feet of this area, will have the biggest input, in regards to what the name will be. 

Now, even if all of you, let’s say a hundred percent of you including myself, like the name Little Saigon. Right? But since we don’t live there, we live about three or four miles down, our input is not going to make that much of a difference.

I want to be very frank with you so that you’re not surprised at how the process is going to work, and what the turnout’s going to be like.  So, in the next couple months, what we’re going to do is we’re going to canvass the area again, pass out the names that are suggested today, and, in the next few weeks, we’re going to solicit names from the businesses on Story Road, to see what the names are.

 Let’s say we come up with four names. Vietnamese Business District, Vietnamese American Business District, Little Saigon, and Saigon Town. Now, we’re going to take those four names, we’re going to pass it out to all the merchants who are being impacted by this project. That means that the merchants and the people who live within the area, they will get to vote . 

Because at the end of the day, we live in a democratic society.  Everyone has a voice, we have freedom of speech, that’s the reason why we came to America, is to have that freedom of speech. So those people are going to give us the name. It’s the most fairest way on how we’re going to achieve this resolution.  So, I just want to be very, very frank with you, and this is probably the only opportunity that I have, to explain how the process works.”

After she spoke, the crowded started booing loudly and people yelling out “Recall Madison” .  It was not the content of her comments but her condescending tone, disrespectful manner and gesture really made the community felt insulted.   A couple of older folks approached her as she stepped down from the podium and told her not to be disrespectful and told her they would sign petition to recall her.  She did not replied and rushed toward the three police officers at the doorway and left. 

New Saigon vs. Little Saigon

Madison Nguyen’s pride was hurt but instinctively she wanted to calm things down.  She asked one of her trust supporters who is well like by the community to send a feeler out.  What if she agreed to Little Saigon, would everything be O.K?  The answer from the community was that they would like to meet with her in private to discuss and the suggested broker would be a publisher of a well known newspaper in the Bay Area.   Madison never replied. 

She instructed the RDA to send out the survey with 7 different names to stakeholders within the 1,000 foot radius of the proposed area.  A total of 1336 surveys were sent out and the deadline for to return the survey was the end of September. 

At the same time, Dr. Ngai Nguyen, a well known community activist and an ardent supporter of Madison Nguyen, started gather people to support the name New Saigon Business District.  He had 15 leaders of 15 different community organizations to send in a unified letter to the Mayor asking for the naming of New Saigon Business District.  The letter was sent to council on September 9.  

In September, according to Richard de la Rosa, the head of the Story Road Business Association, Madison Nguyen, attended the board meeting where one of the agenda was the naming of proposed area.  Two association’s members who were also Vietnam veteran, spoke eloquent against naming the area Vietnam Town or Vietnam Business District.  The board decided that whatever name they chose will have the name Saigon in it.  One board member recalled that Madison Nguyen mentioned that there is already a Little Saigon in southern California.

Richard de la Rosa and his association are not the stakeholder in the survey.  However, as the board member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he was asked by Dennis King, the executive director of the chamber, about the issue.  King’s intention was to show support of the naming the area and would like to see both the business association and the chamber have their opinion publicly known.   They sent their letters to council stating their support for the naming the area “New Saigon Business District.”   

Tien Nguyen and his Committee for Little Saigon gathered over 3,000 signatures and knocked on doors in the area to ask for support of Little Saigon after the survey was sent out.  They held rally at Yerba Buena High School where 500 people showed up to support. 

Other independent surveys were done on the Mercury News and by radio host shows.  Councilman Kansen Chu’s office called 350 residents of District 4 to ask for opinions.

All surveys showed an overwhelming preference for Little Saigon over the 6 other names.

Tien’s group met up at length with the mayor, vice mayor, and council members whom they felt could deliver the vote in their favorite.  They prepared a package to council members included surveys and letters of support from all over the countries.  Except for the mayor, all council members met said in principal they would support Little Saigon.

On the first week of October, the official city survey was announced and the Little Saigon was the stakeholder’s choice.  The name New Saigon came in 6th place and the name Saigon Business District came in last with only 4 votes.

The Second Show Down

By the end of October, words had leaked out from the 18th floor of city hall that a number of city council members had agreed to sign a memo supporting a compromise name.  Except for the council members that signed the memo, nobody knew what this name was. 

Madison Nguyen approached the situation masterfully by portraying it to a number of council members as an issue where they had everything to gain by reaching out with a compromise. She would position herself with Sam Liccardo as she was being attacked unfairly by a vocal minority while playing the role of a referee between factions.

Two weeks before the voting session, it was leaked that Sam Liccardo and the vice mayor would go along with this memo and not to support “Little Saigon” .  It took the community by surprised since both men had initially expressed support for “Little Saigon” .  Cortese’s staff understood the community well and knew their boss would take a carefully weighed position; after all, this is a District 7 issue and Tien’s group and their base is mostly in  District 7 and District 4.   The community misread Sam Liccardo for they thought he would rely on public opinions on trivial issue like this. 

Tien’s group was afraid that their package of information would not get reviewed by the council the first time.  He resubmitted it again to all of the council members instead of just the seven members he were targeting. 

They met up with Sam Liccardo the evening of November 14 to ask for his support again for he had indicated yes when the first met a month ago.  He was attentive and told them he had neither received nor read the package of information supporting Little Saigon.  But he already signed onto the memo and it would not him to renege.  To easy the tension, he joked with them the council had decided to call it Free Saigon.  Nobody thought it was funny. 

On November 15 at 9:30 AM in the rotunda,  the mayor, vice mayor and council members Judy Chirco, Madison Nguyen and Sam Liccardo announced that the city has decided on the name Saigon Business District and that this name would be the recommendation for the full council vote. 

The press conference was called hastily less than 24 hours before and yet there were about 100  supporters of Little Saigon came for the conference.  They all chanted Little Saigon.  A small elderly woman approached Madison Nguyen and threw at her a T-shirt that had the logo:  Support Madison Nguyen for City Council.

A petite middle aged woman came up to Sam Liccardo, tugged at his arm and said:” Madison is pro-communist” .  He replied emphatically: “No! No! No!”

Chuck Reed called Tien’s group in his office the same afternoon to hear things out.  The mayor was polite but let the community knew where he stood firm. He told them that the people who wanted Little Saigon were not the majority.  He had received thousands of requests for other names.  This is the best compromise in the interest of the community.   With the Mercury News earlier in the day, he was quoted by the reporter that Tien’s group is vocal but a minority voice and does not represent the majority.. 

A Political Calculation

Knowing that they were in trouble, Tien and group had their final meeting for strategy on Monday’s night before the Tuesday’s City Council Meeting.  There was heated debate on whether they should try to delay the vote.   Three council members called that morning to let them know they just did not have the votes. 

Even though there were phone calls to various council members trying to see what are other options available, they decided to stick with their plans and not try to delay the vote.   Assignment was given to pick up Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen and Westminster City Councilman Andy Quach from the airport.  They each flew in from southern California to speak in support of Little Saigon.  Food and water were purchased to help feed the crowd that would have left work early to come to the evening council session.  Security details were given to younger folks who could speak English.  They predicted a large crowd just from the reaction on radio talk shows and responses from the press and did not want anything to get out of hand.  Five of the people who signed on to the letter supporting “New Saigon” also wanted to speak at the council session since they felt that had been tricked by Dr. Ngai Nguyen and now wanted to support “Little Saigon” instead. 

Madison Nguyen knew she had the necessary votes since Nora Campos and Nancy Pyle would vote with her.  Privately, she told Dr. Ngai Nguyen it would be a 10-1 vote in rejection of Little Saigon. 

She asked Labor to send representatives to speak in support of New Saigon.  She called Santa Cruz City Councilman Tony Madrigall to speak on behalf of New Saigon.  He came in late and did not allow in.  Dr. Ngai Nguyen together with Buu Thai, trustee of Franklin Mckinley School District and Lan Nguyen, trustee of East Side Union School District, went on the radio to ask the community to support New Saigon  (Lan Nguyen afterward wrote an article stating he was mislead and he now supports Little Saigon).  At the end, there were less than a dozen people at the council session spoke in support of New Saigon.

Good Policy is Good Politics

In a current Mercury News poll, over 95% of the people (out of about 5,000 people) think that the city council did not make the right decision.  The Metro newspaper commented on what was the point of the official city survey when the city council determined to vote for a last place name on the survey. 

The politics was noble by the city council to recognize the contribution of the community but the policy was deemed by the public to be handled with lacked of understanding and in certain cases with total misleading information.  And the road to extreme political conflict is usually paved with misunderstood intention being misled as good policy. 

In general, the Vietnamese-American community is upset about the process and the lack of transparency by Madison Nguyen.  They feel she has hidden agendas.  Letters are pouring in from all over the world in support of Little Saigon.  People are calling radio shows and writing to newspaper demanding an apology from Madison Nguyen on her insulting comments about the people who attended the hearing.

It becomes a personal issue between Madison Nguyen and the community in District 7.  The community in District 7 feels strongly that instead of reaching to the community leaders in the first place in private channels, she chose to challenge them on a public stage as a way to punish and embarrass them.  They see her as a polarizing figure in the community.  This is an unfortunate sentiment in the community despite the fact that her supporters are calling the community to move on and accept the outcome as is and not further tearing the community apart. 

In private her supporters feel that as a political leader and elected official, it is common sense for Madison Nguyen to reach out to her base and make peace with them.  And yet, she chooses to draw the battle and be divisive.  As of this writing, Vic Aljouny, the powerful and influential consultant and campaign advisor of Chuck Reed, is calling mainstream political leaders and other elected officials in the area to persuade them to stand behind Madison Nguyen and against the recall effort.   And as everybody knows, a hiring gun of such prominent status does not get involved unless the stake is high.   This is the just the beginning of a political saga that will take the community in general to an unfamiliar territory.

*John Vu until recently was a policy analyst for San Jose city council.