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The conflicting colors of Vietnam


Sun Feb 22, 9:40 AM ET


By Oscar Avila Tribune staff reporter

It happens all the time to Tam Duc Nguyen: Well-meaning folks wanting to honor his heritage unwittingly reopen a 29-year-old wound instead.

In an attempt to be inclusive, schools and merchants sometimes unfurl the Vietnamese flag. But to Nguyen, that flag is a symbol of the Communist government that imprisoned him for a decade and is hated by tens of thousands of refugees who fled the regime.

Now Vietnamese residents in Chicago are joining a nationwide effort to persuade cities and states to enact resolutions that recognize an alternate flag as the community's official banner.

The activists, however, are complicating efforts by the U.S. government and private firms to establish closer ties with Vietnam. The Vietnamese government has angrily protested the resolutions, which diplomats say dredge up divisions of the past.

Nguyen says those bitter feelings never went away.

"I came here because I couldn't live with the Communists. When I see that flag in my face, it makes me feel angry. It insults me," said Nguyen, executive director of the Vietnamese Association of Illinois, based in the Edgewater neighborhood.

The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 brought a flood of refugees to the United States. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of Chicago-area residents born in Vietnam more than tripled--from 4,460 to 14,506.

Nguyen once confronted the operator of a neighborhood McDonald's who flew the government flag, a gold star on a red field, in an attempted show of solidarity. Sometimes, parents complain that teachers display a construction-paper version during multicultural events.

Dzung Nguyen, who is not related to Tam Duc Nguyen, survived a 12-day boat trip to Malaysia with his family.

He said even well-meaning mistakes can cause pain.

"To me, the red on that flag is the blood of our combatants," Nguyen said. "I can't look at it without that association."

Frustrated that the message has not been getting through, Vietnamese activists nationwide are promoting an alternate flag, a yellow banner with red stripes flown by the defeated South Vietnamese government.

About 30 state legislatures and city councils, including bodies in Boston and San Jose, Calif., have passed resolutions recognizing the alternate flag as the community's official symbol, according to the California-based Vietnamese-American Public Affairs Committee.

The National Congress of Vietnamese Americans, based in Washington, made the first major push last year by touting a bill in the Virginia General Assembly that would have required all government institutions to fly the Vietnamese "heritage flag."

Although the bills seem symbolic, the Vietnamese government takes them seriously.

Virginia legislators eventually shelved the proposal, citing the Vietnamese government's protests and lobbying by the State Department.

"There is no point in recognizing the flag of a defunct regime. It only stirs the past hatred and trauma," Vietnam Embassy spokesman in Washington Bach Ngoc Chien said in an interview. "Now that people, both in Vietnam and here, want to put aside the past and look forward to a stable and mutually beneficial relationship, this recognition of the old flag goes against that purpose."



The flag resolutions are not the first time that local and state officials have waded into diplomatic disputes.

Chinese government officials blasted several U.S. cities that passed resolutions in support of Falun Gong, a spiritual sect that China considers a cult.

And flags remain a hot-button issue around the world. One of the first acts by liberated Iraqis was to restore a flag from the pre-Saddam Hussein  days, one without the Arabic script added by the ruler.

In Chicago, Vietnamese activists said they soon will launch a campaign supporting a resolution by the City Council.

The surge of nationalism seems far removed from the daily life of many Vietnamese immigrants who have helped turn Argyle Street and other North Side roads into thriving commercial strips.

Although some Vietnamese still maintain "liberation councils" that support regime change in their homeland, other residents say they choose to focus on their new life here.

In contrast to Paseo Boricua on Division Street, whose boundaries are marked by massive metal Puerto Rican flags, none of the striped Vietnamese flags was visible during a recent stroll on Argyle Street.

Instead, several of the merchants who peddle steaming bowls of pho, a traditional noodle-based soup, and other products displayed American flags in their windows.

The front of Pho 888 was typical, with fliers printed in Vietnamese next to a U.S. flag with the text, "God Bless America."

Shoppers can buy almost anything at the sprawling Viet Hoa Plaza supermarket: skatefish and halibut in square ice-filled tins, frozen blocks of noodles. But instead of Vietnamese flags, owner Cuong Trinh keeps a bucket of American flags that were popular sellers after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We want to show our support for the U.S. government and the war against terrorism. We feel like this is our home," said Trinh, whose son, Nguyen, is an Army officer stationed in Iraq. 

Dzung Nguyen acknowledges that most younger Vietnamese-Americans don't get worked up over the Vietnamese government flag.

"My daughter says it bothers her, but I know she is only trying to please me," he said. "They have other things on their mind."

Hung Nguyen, who is no relation to Tam Duc or Dzung Nguyen, is president of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans.

He said he is sensitive to the criticism that the flag resolutions divert attention from more pressing concerns.

"But you have to start where you can win, and where people are passionate. Symbolism is what mobilizes people," he said. "If we win these victories, people will say, `Imagine what else we can do on other issues, whether it is health care or Social Security.'  This is only a first step."