Statue Causes Controversy in Calif.

Tuesday, June 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WESTMINSTER, Calif. (AP) — A proposed war memorial depicting an American and a South Vietnamese soldier standing side by side has become a symbol of division in Westminster's Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam.

City officials and residents are fighting over what it should depict, where the 10-foot bronze statue should be erected and who should get credit for it.

The disagreements have led to name-calling on the airwaves and accusations of fraud.

``There are so many groups who want so many things,'' said Tony Lam, a city councilman and a key figure in the controversy. ``But you have to understand how important allegiance is here. If one side doesn't like what the other says, they call them a communist.''

For about two years, officials and residents of this Southern California community south of Los Angeles have worked to raise money for the privately funded statue, which is expected to cost about $500,000. To date, about $350,000 has been raised.

The statue, created by sculptor Tuan Nguyen, would depict an American soldier and a South Vietnamese soldier as friends and honor those killed during the war. It would be erected in Little Saigon, which has about 200,000 Vietnamese.

``This is the ideal place for a war memorial. This is the overseas capital of Vietnam,'' said Mayor Frank Fry. ``Everybody's for the statue. Nobody's going to say they aren't for it. It's a good thing.''

The problems began earlier this year after the artist unveiled a model of the sculpture, and one group — led by local Vietnamese activists — wanted it changed to better depict the fighting. The artist refused, saying it was meant to represent friendship between soldiers.

That was followed by the resignation of former South Vietnamese army pilot Uc Nguyen from the Vietnam War Memorial executive committee, the organization charged with making decisions about the memorial. That left the panel with three Vietnamese and five non-Vietnamese members.

Lam and community activists then came out against the committee itself, saying it did not represent all groups in the community.

The two sides also fought over the donations.

Lam and his allies solicited money from listeners of several Vietnamese-language radio shows. Supporters of the committee raised money on a competing show, where they have called their foes communists.

That was followed by accusations of fraud on both sides in connection with the handling of donations.

Outside Little Saigon, a few Westminster residents oppose the use of city property for the memorial. The memorial's groundbreaking last month was canceled after a location couldn't be agreed on.

Contributions for the memorial have dropped off since the bickering escalated. Some people called their banks to stop payment on their checks, said Jo Porter, the project secretary.

Who first proposed the memorial is in dispute, as well. Lam said he came up with the idea six years ago. Fry said he came up with it four years ago.

``The whole thing has become ridiculous and it's hurting the memorial. It's about healing and instead everybody is fighting,'' said the artist, Nguyen.

Division in Little Saigon is nothing new. In previous years, the battle lines were drawn over competing celebrations of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, in Westminster and Garden Grove. The Westminster parade was canceled earlier this year to avoid problems.

Last year, protests were held against a Little Saigon store owner who hung a poster of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in his window.

There are even two rival factions that help separate elections for leadership of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, which is supposed to represent the immigrant community.

A Vietnamese government official also has gotten involved, writing a letter of protest. Consul General Phong Xuan Nguyen said a memorial of an American and a South Vietnamese soldier would ``prolong the hatred'' toward the current Vietnamese government.

``We should have a statue that represents our relationship today,'' he said.