Saturday, June 28, 2008


In 2006, Time Magazine did a full page feature on Tila Tequila, a phenom of "..........Tila clearly grasps the logic of Web 2.0 in a way that would make many ceos weep. She sells Tila posters, calendars, a clothing line of hoodies and shirts. She has been on the cover of British Maxim. She has a single due to be released online. She has a cameo in next summer's Adam Sandler movie. She has four managers, a publicist and a part-time assistant. It's hard to know how to read the rise of Tila Tequila. Does she represent the triumph of a new democratic starmaking medium or its crass exploitation for maximum personal gain? It's not clear that even Tila knows. But she knows why it works. "There's a million hot naked chicks on the Internet. There's a difference between those girls and me. Those chicks don't talk back to you.", she said......."

By 2008, Tila Tequila is already into her second season of her own MTV reality show - A Shot At Love II. Her friends have double to over 3 millions. Her on line hit singles are played a total of 102 millions times. She even has her own hotline for her fans to call in. So far 431 thousands people have done so. But not somebody who is resting on her laurel, she is branding herself into the movie industry also. Not too bad for a 27 years-old California blond who as the Time put it : "Vietnamese by heritage and blond by choice"

In 2001, Anh Tran and his friend Danny Ting founded an adult movies-by-mail while having lunch in SF Chinatown. In typical Silicon Valley entrepeneurial fashion, the two young men drew up their plan on a napkin. WantedList is now the largest player in the rental porn-by-mail niche. It is the NetFlix of the porn video world. The two founders now have a drastic change of lifestyle. Instead of a cubicle life in front of the computer, they can be seen hobnobing and flirting with hottest porn stars and throwing lavish parties at AVN Adult Entertainment Expo. Not too bad for a couple of tech geeks who used to work as consultants for Arthur Andersen with clients like Intel. No word yet on what kind of marketing synergy that Tila and WantedList could create with each other.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Strange Bedfellows

As Madison Nguyen recall effort is in full swing, the Viet politics in San Jose is heating up just in time for the summer. The recall team, after the first 4 weeks relying on recall stations at strategic locations to obtain signatures, now adopts the standard get out the vote tactic of precinct canvassing with precinct captains and door to door visit. Meanwhile, Madison Nguyen is relying on a myriad of elected officials sending out anti-recall messages at public events and letters to show soliditary behind her.

Mayor Chuck Reed has been her most ardent supporter. At the recent Vietnamese Armed Forces Day, Madison Nguyen showed up with him to let everybody knows that she has the support of the mayor and the entire city council against the recall. Mayor Chuck Reed was an Air Force pilot stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War. His daughter is also an Air Force pilot and a Gulf War heroine.

In early March of this year, at the city council hearing, after listening for 5 hours of hundreds of Vietnamese-Americans expressing their wish for the name Little Saigon while some implying that he and Madison Nguyen are pro-communist, the mayor could not resist but to lash back at the community: " I resent the people who called me pro-communist or even a communist for that matter. I served my country against the communist during the Vietnam War. I saw many of my friends never returned from their missions. I have never spoken to the communist government, dealt with or ever want to deal with them or have anything to do with them, period." Of course, the mayor would later vote against the name Little Saigon. It took another month of intense drama before the city council decided to temporarily give in to the masses.

It was rather a strange decision for a man who once was the most popular politician in the community. He established his relationships with the community in earnest at the beginning of his political career in San Jose. As city councilmember , he spent a lot his time courting the community to a point that his personal assistant would note that Chuck Reed never seemed to miss a Vietnamese-American event no matter how trivial. Even when he decided to support an unqualified Vietnamese-American candidate (Hon Lien, the woman in the brown dress) who has a multimillion dollar seafood processing factory and seafood export business in Vietnam to replace his vacant council seat, the community still gave him the benefit of the doubt. Hon Lien in the primary beat out another Vietnamese-American candidate, Bryan Do, but lost to a Tawainese-American candidate in the run-off. However, with the Little Saigon fiasco and his unequivocal support of Madison Nguyen, many people in the community are questioning his intention.

Unlike Chuck Reed, the former mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown was never well received by the community. He does not bother to hide his close relationship with the communist government and its consulate in SF. In the picture, he was giving a toast at a New Year's celebration organized by the consulate with the former Consulate General Tran Tuan Anh (The guy with the mustache) looking on. Because of the formal sister city relation between San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh City, the mayor opposed the Freedom Flag resolution which recognizes the old flag of the now nonexisted Republic of South Vietnam as the official flag of the Vietnamese-American community living in SF. He would not be caught dead associating himself with this anti-communist symbolism.
And yet it was he who approved the naming a 12 blocks area on Larkin Street, a stone throw away from the city hall as Little Saigon. And of course, the community just broke ground on June 19, 2008 for the gates to welcome tourists to Little Saigon of San Francisco. Best of all, most of the construction cost is paid for by the city.

In politics, a lot of time, it is not what you see is what you get. The true measure of political loyalty and commitment that the community has yet to learn is about "which is my piece of the pie?" and not empty gestures to pull the Freedom Flag over their eyes.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Irony of Little Saigon Gate

In the mid 1990s, Frank Jao, the successful developer of Asian Garden Mall in the original Little Saigon district in Wesminster, proposed to have a pedestrian bridge built across the Bolsa Avenue. The intention was to relieve traffic congestion on the very busy road at the heart of Little Saigon. The city council approved the project. Frank Jao would pay out of his own pocket. It was supposed to be a straight forward endeavor. Well, it turned out to be at that time the most fractious and divisive fight the community had to endure. For about 6 months, waves of nasty attacks between opponents and proponents of the bridge played out on radio and in articles in daily newspapers. The contention - which design of the so called Harmony Bridge would most appropriately represent the cultural values and historical significance of the Viet community in Little Saigon.

In the end with no concensus and not wanting to upset any particular groups, Frank Jao withdrew the project and said: " I am just businessman trying to improve the business condition of the area, in this case traffic. But if the community cannot decide and just tearing each other apart, I have to move on."

A little more than a decade later, Janet Nguyen, the first Vietnamese-American OC supervisor, proposed a $2.5-million pedestrian bridge across the same Bolsa Avenue to help relieve heavy traffic at Little Saigon's busiest intersection. The project will be funded from Proposition 1-B bond act which allocates money to improve highway safety, air quality and traffic reduction. The structure, temporarily named the Freedom Bridge, is waiting for Wesminster city council's approval.

But here is the catch, the two Vietnamese-American city councilmembers are opposing the idea. Why? Because it comes from Janet Nguyen, a political antithesis of State Assemblyman Van Tran. As the last two supervisorial elections showed, Van Tran threw everything he had at his political disposal to undermine Janet's career. His underlings in Wesminster city council, Andy Quach and Tri Ta, are in marching order to not allow this project becoming a reality since it would give Janet Nguyen more political clout within the community. Besides, Van Tran and his team already initiated a project to build two Little Saigon archways at a cost of $500,000 a piece. Most of the cost will be paid for by private funds (i.e. the community) which yet to be raised.

Not to be out done, in San Jose, the naming Little Saigon for a 3 blocks stretch on Story Road took on a dramatic political battle as Madison Nguyen, the only elected Vietnamese-American in the city council, opposed the name wanted by the majority of the community in favor of the name Vietnam Town Business District as a quid pro quo payback to Tang Lap, the biggest developer of Vietnamese strip malls in San Jose. The aftermath right now is a contentious recall effort of Madison Nguyen where the community will be once again deeply divided. In a district where 38% of the voters are Vietnamese-Americans and 43% are Hispanics, the conventional wisdom is that the recall ballot aiming for early 2009 is closer to reality than ever. Whether the community can muster 4,000 to 5,000 votes necessary to recall Madison Nguyen is still to be seen.

The two areas that have the largest concentration of Vietnamese-Americans in the US often show political diversity, unity and conflict exhibited in any typical ethnic community. In San Francisco where there is a relatively small population of Vietnamese-American and no elected Vietnamese-American officials, the community just broke ground for Little Saigon Gate to mark a 12 blocks area near SF City Hall as a Vietnamese-American business district. The project is mostly funded by the city and approved in 2003 by former Mayor Willie Brown under the sponsorship of city supervisors Fiona Ma and Chris Daly. Former Mayor Brown and the now State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma are infamous within the community for their fierce opposition to the Freedom Flag resolution which recognizes the flag as the official flag of the Vietnamese-American community in San Francisco.

In case one is not in tune with the Vietnamese-American politics, this is a classical political irony of strange bedfellows. Why? The Freedom Flag recognition has been the mainstay of anti-communist politics in the community. There are at least 3 dozen major cities in the US that have some kind of resolution adapting the Freedom Flag as the official flag for the diasporic community. The Freedom Flag is the old flag of the Republic of South Vietnam. It is not diplomatically recognized worldwide since 1975.

Politicians like Van Tran and his cohort of elected officials including Madison Nguyen always use the issue of Freedom Flag resolution to get the votes. To them, this is what the community really cares about, everything else is for show.

Mr. Tien Nguyen, a respectful leader of the San Jose community was asked about the recent success of the Little Saigon Gate in San Francisco. He replied:" They are successful because they do not have a Vietnamese-American elected official in city council."

A Ground Breaking Ceremony

Last Thursday, June 19, 2008, a ground breaking ceremony for the Little Saigon Gate was held and attended by about 200 people, including the city manager and City Supervisor Chris Daly.

The gate will be paid mostly by the city (the total cost is about $108,000). The Little Saigon district is 12 blocks long on Larkin Street running north and south from McAllister Street to Geary Blvd. It is one block away from San Francisco City Hall and Civic Center Plaza.

In a city of 766,000 people, the Vietnamese-Americans constitute about 2% of the population. However, their economic and cultural contributions to revitalize a once debilating segment of town was recognized by the city in September of 2003 when the board of supervisors unanimously voted to name the 12 blocks area Little Saigon.

In contrast, the Little Saigon naming effort in San Jose drew nation wide attention for its controversy. In a city where 10% of the population is Vietnamese-American, a Vietnamese-American city councilmember (Madison Nguyen) elected by her own people decided to go against the wish of the majority of the community. Despite the economic, cultural and political contributions of the Vietnamese-Americans to the city for the last 30 years, the city council voted against the name Little Saigon. After 5 months of weekly protest in front of city hall, a hunger strike and a threat of a civil right lawsuit that paralyzed the city government, the city council gave in but refused to financially support the building of a welcoming gate at a cost of about $150,000 - $200,000.