San Jose Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen tells her story

Posted on August 6, 2012

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San Jose City Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen in the San Jose City Council Chambers ( Nhat V. Meyer )

SAN JOSE — In what she acknowledged could be read as a move to burnish her image in preparation for a possible mayoral run, San Jose Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen has published an autobiography in which she reveals her pain and anguish over the “Little Saigon” controversy that threatened to derail her political career.

Self-published in Vietnamese and English and sold directly by Nguyen, “Vietnam to America: My Journey of Dreams” starts with the story familiar to those who have followed her career of how she came to the United States as a child with her family from war-torn Vietnam and picked fruit for a living before going to college and entering politics.

But Nguyen devotes more than half of her book’s 138 pages to confronting the furor that erupted five years ago over naming a strip of mostly Vietnamese shops on Story Road in her district to recognize the achievements of San Jose’s large Vietnamese immigrant community.

“It’s important that people know the real Madison Nguyen,” she said in an interview.

Nguyen has been publicly stoic about the uproar, but the book reveals her most personal public account to date of the tremendous emotional toll it has taken on her. She acknowledges in the book being “never prone to showing emotions publicly.” But she describes an emotional breakdown after being confronted by critics in the naming controversy at a Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration. She detailed driving in circles afterward, “literally lost in despair,” and upon arriving home crying herself to sleep.

A vocal group wanted the Story Road area designated “Little Saigon,” arguing the name has cachet and recognition among Vietnamese émigrés worldwide as a tribute to the former capital of South Vietnam, which fell to communist forces in 1975 and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

But Nguyen had said many in the district didn’t like that name and in 2007 proposed “Saigon Business District” as a compromise. In the end, San Jose dropped the “Saigon Business District” designation and in a deal with protesters agreed to allow “Little Saigon” banners and signs if they were privately sponsored and paid for by a community group.

But for Nguyen, the controversy didn’t end there. Weeks later, “Little Saigon” advocates mounted a recall campaign. Nguyen ultimately survived the March 2009 recall election and a challenge to her re-election by a “Little Saigon” advocate the following year.

But the controversy keeps dogging her. Just this week, “Little Saigon” advocates went before a San Jose committee, on which Nguyen sits, seeking a city resolution to support freeway signs directing traffic to “Little Saigon.” Nguyen and Mayor Chuck Reed, a close ally, blocked the move, arguing the city already has told state highway officials it doesn’t oppose the signs.

In her book, Nguyen again acknowledges mishandling the “Little Saigon” affair.

“I have made a few, well maybe more than a few, mistakes along the way,” Nguyen wrote, “and have paid dearly for them, personally as well as politically.”

But she urged the Vietnamese community to come together to solve problems.

Whether her words resonate with her critics remains to be seen. H.G. Nguyen, founding president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce of Santa Clara Valley and no relation to the vice mayor, said she has not read the book and doesn’t plan to. To her, the vice mayor’s action this week blocking the council resolution shows she hasn’t learned from her mistakes.

“They still don’t want to work together with the community,” H.G. Nguyen said.

But Vivian Truonggia, founder and publisher of Viet Tribune Newspaper and Radio, who read the Vietnamese version of Nguyen’s autobiography and bought the English version for her children, called it a “good book.”

“She is very sincere to talk about her past and about the hard time to deal with the Vietnamese community for the “Little Saigon” issue,” Truonggia said. “She works hard. She is the good example for the young Vietnamese-American generation.”

John Woolfolk

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Posted in: Politics