Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Crowds pack San Jose City Hall to weigh in on 'Saigon' debate

Crowds pack San Jose City Hall to weigh in on 'Saigon' debate

By Joshua Molina
Mercury News

Article Launched: 03/04/2008 05:05:34 PM PST.

A standing room only crowd packed San Jose City Hall Tuesday night in anticipation of the council's controversial "Little Saigon" vote.

Unlike the last time the council voted on what to call a one-mile stretch of mostly Vietnamese-owned shops, in November, dozen of Councilwoman Madison Nguyen's supporters were in attendance. But they were still outnumbered by hundreds who packed the council chambers and spilled into the plaza outside to show support for the Little Saigon name.

Police and city employees tried to keep order, but the sheer mass of the crowd created a dynamic and tense atmosphere. With so many expected to speak, a final vote from the council was not anticipated until after midnight.

In addition to the 300 people in the council chambers, hundreds more watched on a giant screen in an overflow room and on four TVs in the nearby glass rotunda. Many in the crowd outside carried signs and wore stickers with the words "Little Saigon," but mingling among them were rubberneckers drawn by the controversy and more than 50 members of the media. The city hall coffee wagon even stayed open late and reported brisk business.

Mayor Chuck Reed tried to set the tone of the meeting early, urging the crowd to be civil.

Earlier in the day, protesters marched and demanded the name "Little Saigon."

Some of the protesters wore camouflage fatigues, while others waved signs and chanted. As the rowdy crowd marched, hunger striker Ly Tong – who vowed Feb. 15 not to eat until the council votes for Little Saigon - slept nearby in his tent. "I want the council to vote for Little Saigon," said Tuan Ly, lab technician who took the day from work to speak out. "Little Saigon means freedom, democracy and the identity of Vietnamese refugees."

The biggest stir was created by a man who identified himself only as "Jim." He carried a sign that said, "Boycott Little Saigon." A trail of Little Saigon supporters followed his every move and shouted him down.

The proposal to designate the area of mostly Vietnamese-owned restaurants and shops has sparked a whirlwind of controversy and become the biggest political issue in San Jose, sparking international interest. On Nov. 20 the council vote 8-3 to name the area "Saigon Business District." The vote ignited an extraordinary backlash.

For many in the Vietnamese community, "Little Saigon," symbolizes a powerful emotional connection to the former capital of South Vietnam before the 1975 communist takeover.

Since the vote, Little Saigon activists have held weekly "Black Tuesday" rallies outside City Hall. They have asked councilwoman Madison Nguyen, the first Vietnamese person elected to the council and the architect of the "Saigon Business District" name, to resign or face a recall attempt.

They have alleged in a lawsuit that the council broke the Brown Act - the state's open meeting law - by secretly lining up six votes in favor of Little Saigon prior to the Nov. 20 meeting.

And last month, fabled anti-communist crusader Tong launched his City Hall hunger strike in front of City Hall. Tong, 63, has grown weak in recent days and now uses a wheelchair. He plans to speak at tonight's meeting.

Observers and even some members of the council acknowledge that the city council has let the Little Saigon controversy spin wildly, and unnecessarily, out of control. Mayor Chuck Reed has been under fire for his handling of the debacle.

Politically, the council is in disarray.

Reed and Nguyen at one point called for the matter to be placed on the ballot, then dropped that idea in the face of massive opposition.

At Tuesday's meeting, multiple proposals were on the table, and council members have spent much of the last month scrambling to come up with ideas to resolve the issue.

The council was scheduled to rescind the original "Saigon Business District" vote, and Reed and Nguyen were calling for a cooling-off period, followed by a new process to name such districts.

Reed and Nguyen have challenged the assertion that "Little Saigon" is the popular favorite. Nearly 800 Vietnamese residents, including prominent business people and renowned anti-communist activists, have gone on record with doubts about the group pushing for the name and suggested it is not representative of the city's large Vietnamese American community.

But citing the thousands who have spoken out publicly for the name, Vice Mayor Dave Cortese and Kansen Chu called for the council to name the area "Little Saigon." They said it is time to resolve the issue and move on.


Contact Joshua Molina at or (408) 275-2002