LIPO CHING - MERCURY NEWS PHOTOGRAPHS
Anti-communist crusader Ly Tong was on his fifth day Tuesday of a hunger strike outside San Jose City Hall to protest the naming of a strip of mom-and-pop shops on Story Road. The council approved "Saigon Business District." Tong and others prefer "Little Saigon."
Photo: LIPO CHING - MERCURY NEWS
About 200 people rallied Tuesday outside San Jose City Hall to support Ly Tong in his hunger strike.
'Little Saigon' hunger striker: 'I'll continue until I die'
By Patrick May
Planted in an upholstered chair outside City Hall, bundled against the cold in terry cloth pants and a bright yellow scarf, the man at the center of San Jose's latest bit of street theater sits with a sly grin, hoping he doesn't starve to death.
Ly Tong, an international anti-communist crusader with a string of swashbuckling campaigns under his belt, on Tuesday chalked off Day 5 of a hunger strike that has drawn hundreds of adoring supporters and grown into a Santa Clara Street curiosity.
In the past, the man who's been called Mr. Impossible and the Vietnamese James Bond has chartered - and even hijacked - planes to bombard Vietnam and Cuba with pro-democracy leaflets. His cause this time? The naming of a one-mile strip of mom-and-pop shops.
The former South Vietnamese Air Force pilot says he's lost nearly 10 pounds since his last bowl of noodles Friday morning. In his quest to force the city council to reconsider the name of San Jose's Vietnamese business district, he's subsisting on Arrowhead water and sleeping in a tent that he calls "my palace."
"If they agree to change the name to 'Little Saigon,' I'll stop," said Tong, 63, who has lived in San Jose off and on over the years and whose escapades have made him a legend in the local Vietnamese community. "Otherwise, I'll continue until I die. And if I die, the council will bear the burden of my death for their whole life."
Heavy talk from a soft-spoken grandpa with thick silver-rimmed glasses. But his hunger strike, the seventh of his life, seems to have goosed the demonstrators who have tried since November to sway the council on "Little Saigon."
"There is only one Ly Tong in the world and he's a true hero," says protester Tam Nguyen, a local attorney who says he's put his practice on hold to come here each day. "I can't stay at home or at work - my conscience won't allow it."
Nguyen is not alone. To the City Hall demonstrators, from old men in wheelchairs to school kids, Tong has become the sword tip of the community's anger - both at Councilwoman Madison Nguyen, who they feel has betrayed their interests by pushing for the name "Saigon Business District," and at Mayor Chuck Reed, who some say has been "misled" by Nguyen into voting against their wishes.
And in a reflection of the controversy's stubborn refusal to go away, city council members have agreed to reconsider the name at their March 4 meeting.
Madison Nguyen declined to comment Tuesday. Reed stands by his latest suggestion to let voters decide on the name, adding that the demonstrators downstairs present only "one side of a multi-sided argument, and those guys will be happy when we give them what they want. But I've talked to a lot of people in the community about this, and I have to listen to everyone, including the people who speak softly."
A mayor's spokesman later added that security probably will move protesters from the City Hall plaza today to make room for the Amgen Tour of California bike race.
Critics in the crowd fear turning the matter over to an expensive citywide vote would probably doom the "Little Saigon" campaign - and in the process trigger a backlash against the Vietnamese community, which could be perceived as troublemakers wasting taxpayers' money.
Protester Martha Nguyenle says all she wants is for city leaders to respect the legacy of the Vietnam she knew and loved before the communists took over in 1975.
"I still remember the real Saigon," she says. "And my memories are priceless to me. To call the district 'Little Saigon' is to honor those memories."
As the picketers continued their stubborn circle around his easy chair, Tong held forth for anyone who would listen about City Hall conspiracies and, of course, his own rabble-rousing reputation. Vietnamese officials have called him a terrorist. The Cubans have called him a madman. Others have called him the Last Action Hero.
"What do I like best? Maybe 'James Bond,' " he said. "It's more entertaining. I don't want to take myself too seriously."
Contact Patrick May at email@example.com or (408) 920-5689.