Lam's family moved from Hanoi to Saigon in the early 50s. During the war, his father served as a colonel in the Southern army. Unlike the other victims, Lam was not a refugee. According to Tony Nguyen, the director of a documentary about Lam called "Enforcing the Silence", a teenage Lam came to USA in 1971 as an exchange student through The American Field Service Intercultural Program (AFS). After experiencing racism in Athens Georgia, he asked AFS to be transferred. They moved him to Oberlin Ohio where he completed his high school and college education studying philosophy and mathematics.
The details of Lam's life and death was authored by Judith Coburn for Mother Jones magazine in 1983. Lam's activism was noted in college. He joined protest against Vietnam War and raised money for Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi which was devastated by American Christmas Bombing. Furthermore, he opposed the Honeywell Corporation for manufacturing bombs that were used in the war. In 1974, he went back to Vietnam to study at Van Hanh University, a Buddhist school embroidered in bitter resistance against then President Thieu's administration.
When the end of the war was near, Lam went back to the US. At the time, the political atmosphere set up the collision between Lam and the newly arrived Vietnamese immigrants who bitterly hated the communists. Like many other anti war activists, Lam supported ceasing US aid to Southern Vietnam, and called for the unification of the North and South. However, unlike them, Lam actually reached out to help many Vietnamese immigrants. He volunteered at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas to help the newly arrived refugees, and assisted in setting up college tuition aids for newly arrived Vietnamese.
Lam's passion to help his people in need continued when he moved to San Francisco's Tenderloin district. There he started working at the Center For Southeast Asian Refugee Resettlement where he butt head with Michael Huynh, its director. Lam's "Bui Doi" attitude and grass root activism clashed with Huynh's clean shaven, smooth iron suit, and institutionalized leadership.
The Vietnam Youth Development Center
In 1977, with the help the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, he started The Vietnam Youth Development Center (VYDC) to assist the community, especially with young refugees, to settle in the neighborhood. Lam's down to earth demeanor took him above and beyond in helping Vietnamese to navigate the complexity of American culture and social service system, such as finding them places to live, acting as their guarantor on apartment leases with hesitant landlords, translation services, school registration, and signing up for social programs, and according to a friend from the Church, Lam even took a young Vietnamese home himself to prevent him from committing suicide.
Pro-Viet, Not Pro-Communist
Close associates said Lam's dream was to rid of many bitter divides in the Vietnam War and to make peace between the refugees in the US and the new government in Vietnam. His way of looking at it was that Ho Chi Minh was a liberator and not a dictator. His philosophy was a blend of American Liberalism in the 60s and 19th Century European Socialist utopianism. In other words, he was a nationalist, not a communist, who spoke of unification, national pride and identity, and community. Lam didn't belong to any major activist groups at the time since he didn't take sides and often lamented his lonely endeavor.
Beginning of the Downfall
Lam was a free spirited young man who had never shied away from the dirty works of activism. He often went to rundown coffee shops to converse with young poor Vietnamese and tried to find out how he could help them. He would share with them his poetry, writings, and his ideas of an independently free Vietnam. Lam's mission was to change the way the boat people thought about the war and to change their mental attitude toward their situation in America. He wanted to open their mind and improve their prospects in this new land by encouraging them to unite, trust, and speak out. What Lam didn't know was that it would take a lot of time to build all of that. Understandably, the boat people in the community were very cautious of communist spies and they were scare of being in a new country. They would not talk to anyone, afraid to leave their houses, and pretty much kept all to themselves. Many of them still had family in Vietnam who could be persecuted if they say the wrong thing. Lam wanted to change all of that and unfortunately it led to his downfall. The mistrust between Lam and the community was created by his passionate open door approach and the Vietnamese's difficulty in assimilating to a new world after escaping a hellish old one. Overtime, the community doubted his kindness and labeled him as a communist sympathizer.
There were a series of explosive encounters that accumulated to Lam being public enemy number one in his own community. For example, Lam started a radio program at the University of San Francisco and drew fire from Vietnamese boat people. They claimed it was communist propaganda. They hated him and called for boycotting and didn't want him to represent Vietnamese in America. Lam responded with sarcasm and continued his controversial reputation. Since he thought that people perceived him as a communist, there was no reason for him to come clean. He was going to continue expressing himself the way that he liked at any cost, regardless of what people thought of him. As if he authored his own death sentence, he re-printed writings from Communist newspapers in Vietnam in his own newspaper called Cai Dinh Lang which he started in 1980. He then mailed the newspaper to all the Vietnamese in the community who either threw them out or simply tore them to pieces. These incidents further infuriate the people. They organized protests against him, spoke out against him at rallies, and distribute leaflets denouncing him to the community, and even at an event they burn Lam's effigy. The anger would continue until Lam, to protect himself, had to carry a pistol he borrowed from a friend. It was already too late.
In Cold Blood
In the morning of July 1981, Lam ran down the block from his apartment building screaming for his life when he was shot multiple times by a man in a white windbreaker. He died at the scene. Four days after he was killed, a group called Anti Communist Viets Organization (ACVO) sent a letter to the Associate Press in New York and said they murdered him. The mail post marked July 21, the day his murder took place. The group claimed their "Shock Squad" had punished Lam labeling him as a communist spy and warned others to not take part in serving the communist government in Vietnam.
In addition to that, VOECRN claimed they murder him through a telephone call to Vietnamese language newspaper. The two African American investigators, were ineffective due to the cultural differences, the ignorance of key evidence (such as the communiqué by VOERCN), failed to interview witnesses, not chasing after leads, having language barriers, and people wouldn't talk for fear of retaliation. Lam's been threatened for months before he was killed. A cashier and waiter at a local restaurant called Au Co that Lam had recently opened was arrested as a suspect but the detectives had a lot of trouble getting any info out of him. His name was Dat Van Nguyen, a young man in his 20s who was accidentally brought to the United States as a refugee while working as a radio tower repairman in Saigon's airport. He was a drifter that Lam took in and let him work at the VYDC. The two investigators interrogated Dat along with another young Vietnamese named Khoa Phung. Dat's lawyer claimed the two detectives forced Dat to confess to the killing and tricked him into agreeing for a mug shot. On the day that Dat was to be sentenced to jail, new evidence emerged and he was set free. Six months before the sentencing date, a key witness recanted his testimony of seeing Dat as the killer at the murder scene.
When they buried Lam, a Buddhist priest was to be there to give him the last rite. But at the last minute, he disappeared. People in the Vietnamese community protested his body be excavated from the cemetery. They didn't want a communist to lay to rest next to their country. His father had his body exhumed and cremated. Friends said that Lam was way ahead of his time in promoting unity and reconciliation. All his life, he was a lonely dreamer who yearned for Vietnam to be independent and to have a solid identity, such as he expressed in his poetry,
In the ice age of my dreams,
I see you, singing silent songs
Voiceless under-shadows stronger than yourself
Jealous of your warmth
They were dream-traps, set, hoping fire can be caught
But sunlight only melts an autumn snow.
- Name: Dương Trọng Lâm, Lam Trong Duong
- Age: 27
- Pen Name:
- Publisher: Cái Đình Làng, The Village Temple
- Publisher Column:
- Cause of Death: Gunshot outside of apartment complex.
- Date of Death: 21-07-1981, about 11 a.m.
- Location: San Francisco, California. Tenderloin neighborhood. Atherstone apartment, 545 O'Farell St, San Franciso.
- Kin: Sister, Father
- Top Suspects: Anti-Communist Viet Organization, VOECRN, The FRONT (Mặt Trận) through their kill squad called Khu 9, or Communist Spies
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