Enforcing the Silence: The Unsolved Murder of Lam Duong

Have you heard of Lam Duong? Chances are you haven’t. Tony Nguyen’s new documentary, Enforcing the Silence, wants to change that. Lam Duong was a left-wing Vietnamese American journalist and community worker in San Francisco who was murdered in 1981. The crime remains unsolved. Viet Thanh Nguyen reviews the film below.

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Lam Duong

Shot down on a Tenderloin street at 27 years of age, Lam Duong was a victim of anticommunist elements in the Vietnamese American community, according to Nguyen. That’s an incendiary hypothesis, so hot that the documentary won’t be shown at the Vietnamese International Film Festival in Orange County this year. Orange County and its Vietnamese American community may be a little too anticommunist to accept Tony Nguyen’s story. Instead, you’ll have to catch the doc at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on, of all days, April 30th, the anniversary of the Fall and/or Liberation of Saigon. Whoever’s programming the festival knows how to push a button. You can see a preview of the doc here.

Director Tony Nguyen

Tony Nguyen reconstructs the life of Lam Duong, a Vietnamese student who came to the United States in the early 1970s to study high school and then college at Oberlin. This is the first interesting part of the documentary, its focus on a pre-1975 Vietnamese living in the U.S., of whom there were thousands. They’ve been overlooked in the studies and stories of the Vietnamese American community, which have understandably focused on 1975 as the beginning of the community. The second interesting part of the documentary is the fact that Lam Duong had markedly left-wing and even Communist sympathies. The pre-1975 Vietnamese American community was ideologically diverse, and there were battles between pro-war and anti-war factions, between left and right wing, between pro-RVN government and anti-RVN government groups. That history is mostly uncharted if not totally forgotten, and Nguyen’s doc begins to shed some light on that through the figure of Lam Duong. After graduation, Lam Duong moved to San Francisco and started doing community and social work among the new Vietnamese refugees there. He also published a newsletter that said things that some in the Vietnamese American community did not want to hear, and it was this, Nguyen argues, that led to Lam Duong’s slaying.

As Nguyen notes, there was a wave of murders of immigrant journalists in the U.S. in the 1980s, tied to Cold War politics. Of the ten killed, five were Vietnamese American, and Lam Duong was the first. Nguyen argues that a militant faction of anticommunist Vietnamese veterans may have been responsible for the murder, and those rumors were discussed in the American press at the time. The title of the documentary, Enforcing the Silence, comes from Nguyen’s argument that the Vietnamese American community has swept these murders under the rug and does not want to talk about them, which seems to be true. Why is this documentary important? For bringing our attention to a history many do not know, or having known, forgotten or neglected, as it was in my case.

There are weaknesses in the documentary. Much of what’s potentially important in the story of Lam Duong is only implied or gestured at, mostly because the documentary is focused very much on the life and death of Lam Duong, one man, at the expense of providing us much context or opposing viewpoints. Most obviously, the film paints the anticommunist Vietnamese as a very threatening and mysterious group, and it would have been smarter to humanize them through interviews, history, and empathy, even if in the end to disagree with them.

Beyond this, the documentary could have treated Lam Duong’s tragedy as indicative of the larger tragedy of the Vietnamese American community, so torn and traumatized by the war that it was willing to shut down, perhaps even kill, people who spoke a different kind of story than the anticommunist one. The Vietnamese American community has been so focused on its own tragedy–its “Black April,” as some call it–that it hasn’t paid much attention to the conflicts within it, or to the ambiguities of what it means to go to war and suffer from it. It wasn’t just Communists who murdered people, seems to be one of the lessons of the documentary, but Vietnamese American uncles and fathers, too. Both sides have been eager to highlight the failures and atrocities of the other, without being willing to concede its own, and Nguyen’s documentary in its current release doesn’t address that historical complexity.

Still, if you’re in L.A., you should see the documentary and hope that it gets a wider release someday. Tony Nguyen is raising money to fund that release, and you can contribute money to make that happen.

Postscript:

Tony Nguyen was gracious enough to contact me after this review was posted. He offers a couple of corrections which I’m happy to include here. I saw his film on a screener DVD a few months ago and wrote the review from memory.

He writes: “In my film & in the synopsis, I try to state the facts: Local police have never convicted anyone in the killing, so the motive remains unknown. But within days of the killing, an anticommunist group claimed responsibility. So was Lam a victim of anticommunist elements? Possibly, but with the case yet to be solved the verdict is still out. Did an anticommie group claim credit & go out to claim credit in the murders of other Viet Am folks? Yes, that is true.”

He also writes: “I tried to interview one of Lam’s former co-workers at the Center for Southeast Asian Refugee & Resettlement who was anticommunist & critic of Lam, but was never able to reach this person. (Apparently this person now resides in Vietnam. Tried to reach this person in VN and was unsuccessful.) I also state in the film that “Several attempts were made to contact former Front leaders. But they could not be reached for comment.” The closest I came was I was told to call back at a certain time & day, which I did, but the phone just rang & rang. I also attempted to interview the Vietnamese informant for the FBI (on the string of unsolved murder cases – out of the FBI domestic terrorism dept) but this person also declined the interview. Actually the majority of Vietnamese Americans I tried to interview as primary & secondary sources on this subject declined.”

There you have it. Thanks, Tony.

–Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Los Angeles-based professor, teacher, critic and fiction writer, author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and numerous short stories in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative and other magazines. He is the editor of diaCRITICS. More info here. Read his latest short story “Look at Me” here.

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7 Responses to Enforcing the Silence: The Unsolved Murder of Lam Duong

  1. Dan Duffy says:

    Viet, I am just now reading back through Diacritics after several months’ distraction. It is lovely to hear about the documentary.

    I will have to see it but what you say about focusing on the one murder, treating it as news rather than history, and mystifying the killers as demons, sounds likely. Here are two other ways to look at the matter.

    First, I informed myself about the murders and oppression as survival background when I started work in the 1980s. There had been several people killed, including a college professor not of Asian descent.

    So when the community turned out to interrupt one of my conferences, or a William Joiner Center event, those of us inside would be on lethal alert. As we should have been, with our lens of the labor wars, Jim Crow, the real wars, and so.

    Those of us not of Vietnamese descent would of course push back as hard as privilege allowed us. Once a vet poet in Boston took a flagstaff from a protester, broke it, and went for a group threatening some writers from VN.

    Knowledge of the killings prompted this reactivity, as it also put fear into the hearts of such as Huynh Sanh Thong, who could barely appear in public. A strange knock at his door would make the man jump.

    Ask Ngo Vinh Long about his firebombing story.

    Anyways, so that’s a harder-boiled, that is, systematic, point of view than it sounds like the film-maker shows. The community had arrived here and cleaned house, using violence to widespread effect, and everyone at risk knew all about it.

    Working in France later provided me with some perspective on this wisdom. I arrived there nervous, since I have enemies on all sides, and a third country is traditionally the place to kill a bit player without blowback.

    But of course everyone was very nice to me and I was able to see in Paris what it is to have the Vietnamese nation, rather than a dissenting community as in the US, or the Party as in Viet Nam.

    What happened in France, as Gisele Bousquet has wonderfully narrated, is that the post-1975 people arrived and were greeted by the Party, who dominated French government social outreach to them. Both sides were surrounded by 200 hundred years of immigrants who are neither SG nor HN.

    It is a situation alive with political possibility, freedom. That is what the community stamped out when they arrived here in the Cold War.

    But they were already French, in the sense that SG street politics had been Parisian, demonstrating and waving flags as Americans really would prefer not to do, perhaps because abolition, Jim Crow, and the labor wars were so deadly.

    Hard to say what I am getting at. Here is a try:

    The RVN enforcers were deliberately suppressing Vietnamese liberty such as they had seen in France. But paradoxically these gangsters were being French in their politics, engaging in public life as we don’t do here.

    Now that their moment has gone, and the community has moved on to participation in the free part of US life, our economy, I am nostalgic for this gangsterism. But I still live in the NC countryside surrounded by friends with guns.

    Hope to talk about it sometime –

    Dan

  2. Sonny Le says:

    Hi Viet & Dan:

    It’s good to see two “old hands” chiming in on this deliberately neglected matter.

    Viet, since there is no lack of scholars/professors of Vietnamese descent in the halls of many prestigious American higher-learning institutions and with the protection of the “freedom of speech” that you have been afforded, maybe you can further help shed light on this subject matter. Both of you seem to agree that more light is needed to be shed.

    It has been rather drab to read about the Overseas Vietnamese communities in only two dimensions.

    It is good to hear from & read about you two gentlemen again.

    Regards,

    Sonny Le

  3. Viet Nguyen says:

    sonny, it’s good to hear from you. i never thought i’d be an “old hand”! i’ll do my best to shed some light in my fictional work, but i’ll leave the scholarly approach to others. you’re right–there’s so much left unsaid and uninvestigated in vietnamese american history, particularly from the 1960s and 1970s. graduate students and journalists out there should pay attention!

    • Tran Vinh says:

      I have not seen this film yet. Where can I find it?

      Do you have the bandwidth to do a documentary about the Hue Massacre back in 1968 where
      thousands of people were buried alive by the communist invaders?

      Thanks,

      Vinh

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