Discord rips through Sacramento’s Indochinese community

Tommy Phong, left, and Richard Phang, former presidents of Sacramento Chinese of Indochina Friendship Association, are supporters of John Liang, who was appointed by Phang and ousted by an opposing faction after losing a lawsuit in Superior Court.
Tommy Phong, left, and Richard Phang, former presidents of Sacramento Chinese of Indochina Friendship Association, are supporters of John Liang, who was appointed by Phang and ousted by an opposing faction after losing a lawsuit in Superior Court. Aseng@sacbee.com

They fled their war-torn homeland of Indochina decades ago, settling into Sacramento’s Little Saigon and Lemon Hill areas and transforming neighborhoods known for crime into bustling centers of commerce.

Now, the leaders of the region’s Indochinese community find themselves engaged in a high-stakes fight for control of the association, temple and school that have served as symbols of the progress they have made in the United States.

At the heart of the dispute is money, and claims that the longtime leaders of the Sacramento Chinese of Indochina Friendship Association have used the nonprofit group to enrich themselves for years and improperly altered association bylaws in a failed bid to remain in power. Members of the ousted leadership group vehemently deny the allegations and contend control of the association was unfairly wrested away from them.

“There is little doubt that (they) are mismanaging the association and are using it as their personal piggy bank,” lawyers for a new group seeking control of the association charge in Sacramento Superior Court documents filed in a legal fight that has dragged on since March.

The accusations have been lodged by a camp led by Linda Lui, a nurse practitioner who was born in Vietnam and came to the United States in 1981 at age 11.

Lui, who contends she was elected president of the association in a lopsided 385-5 vote in May, won a court order last month declaring her the rightful president and ordering the former leadership to turn over the keys and financial records of all association property.

Since then, she said, she and her allies have been struggling to obtain all the financial documents and to account for how tens of thousands of dollars have been spent.

“They’re hiding it,” Lui said, adding that she is looking into whether the other faction inflated charges made to association members for services such as funerals and the sale of burial plots.

Leaders of the opposing faction adamantly deny the claims, saying Lui and her group have hijacked leadership of the association in a turf battle that has split the community and left many members afraid to venture out to the association’s headquarters near 47th Avenue and Stockton Boulevard.

“This association is a community,” grocery store owner and former association president Tommy Phong said in an emotional response to Lui’s charges. “It’s not mine. It’s not yours.

“There’s no income, not a penny. We don’t get a penny. We’ve put our hearts into this.”

As members of the Indochinese community – the ethnic Chinese who came from Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos – have prospered in business over the years, the association, formed in 1981, has played a central role in maintaining the cultures and languages of their homelands.

The association’s center on Elder Creek Road offers a banquet hall with free meals, an activity room where many once gathered to chat or watch television, and a colorful temple dedicated to Guanyin, the Eastern goddess of mercy.

It features a Chinese school where hundreds of students raised in America can learn Chinese and study the customs of their elders. The center also has served as a base for fundraising to help the needy, as well as to donate funds to relief efforts for everything from the Haiti earthquake to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, members say.

But the fact that the association has been controlled for years by a small group of leaders – and that much of the money donated to the association comes from immigrants who prefer to use cash instead of credit cards or checks – has raised suspicions by some about where all the money has been going.

The matter came to a head last year, when Phong, who was then chairman of the association board, and his allies made changes to the group’s 1997 bylaws governing who could run for president, weakened oversight on expenditures and chose a new president without an election by the association members, Lui’s group charges in court papers.

Lui’s contingent, represented by the influential Sacramento law firm Downey Brand, charged that the rival group tricked some community leaders into signing a petition supporting the new bylaws by telling them the document was needed to approve a remodel of the association center’s kitchen.

By last December, Lui and her supporters were asking to see the association’s financial records but were rebuffed, and then-President Richard Phang “unilaterally” appointed one of his supporters, John Liang, to the post of president, according to court documents.

Lui’s group contends in court documents that the appointment was illegal, because the association’s 1997 bylaws require a president to be from Indochina, and Liang is from mainland China.

Liang, 68, said he only grudgingly took the presidency after no other members came out for the election.

“I’m too old, and I don’t have any money,” Liang said in Mandarin. “But the board members overwhelmingly wanted me to be president.”

Liang, a native of the Chinese southern province of Guangxi, came to the United States in 1997, first settling in Oakland. A construction worker by trade, he became involved in various overseas Chinese groups in the Bay Area before moving to Sacramento in 2002. Most recently, he was chairman of the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Chinese School at the Indo-Chinese association, largely because of his language abilities.

“I saw that this association had a future,” Liang said. “Chinese people have a saying, ‘Do good for the children.’”

But his appointment resulted in a protest by 600 people in January, and subsequently seven former association presidents, including Tommy Phong and Sau Vong, owner of Vinh Phat market on Stockton Boulevard, formed an election committee to settle the matter.

Vong, a supporter of Lui’s group, is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Phong contends that Vong orchestrated the vote that led to Lui’s victory rather than remaining neutral as the chair of the election panel.

Lui was elected in May by a vote of 385-5 after the other candidate dropped out. She plans to be inaugurated next Sunday at a $25-a-head dinner at an area restaurant.

Phong and his group insist that election, which was held at night at the King Palace Seafood restaurant, was illegal because the bylaws require elections to be held during daytime hours at the association to ensure that everyone who wants to vote can.

“Even the (Chinese) Communist Party doesn’t call an election at 10 p.m. at night,” Phong said. “This is real dirty. The voting was fraud.”

Lui eventually went to court to gain control of the association. Judge David I. Brown ruled in favor of Lui’s group in September, concluding that there had been “no public notice, election or voting by the general membership” to select Liang as president.

Since then, Lui says, she has received some, but not all, of the association’s bookkeeping records and is trying to determine the state of its finances.

She said she has questions about where some money has gone, including funds some people paid to obtain burial plots for family members. For years, the association has offered the plots it purchased for about $900 each to members to help offset high funeral costs.

Lui’s group charges that the rival group “sold the plots for a substantial profit” to members, and that it also charged rates as high as $1,800 a day for members to use the center for funeral services, something Lui says should have been provided for free except for a nominal charge for utility usage.

Her group also charged in court papers that two hours after the judge ruled in her favor, an association bank account was drained of $8,510, apparently to pay for the losing side’s legal fees. The money has since been repaid.

Contributing to the acrimony was a raid on the center in June by Sacramento police, who cited 33 individuals with misdemeanors for gambling on the premises.

Phong’s group believes a Lui ally called police with allegations of marijuana and weapons trafficking to trigger the raid, which Phong said disrupted a peaceful day where members were playing mahjong and watching a World Cup match on TV.

“There was no drugs, no guns and no gambling, so they used the mahjong to take people’s money,” Phong said.

That incident, which members say included dozens of officers and a police helicopter flying overhead, has frightened many members from returning to the center, Phong claims.

Seniors who once gathered for vegetarian meals at the association no longer show up, Phong and others said. Even portraits of former presidents have been taken down from the association’s halls.

Vicki Beaton, a longtime Chinese community leader and former reporter at the Chinese language daily World Journal, said she has never seen a dispute of this magnitude within the greater Chinese community in Sacramento.

“The Indochinese are a model for the community because they are so united,” Beaton said. “Now, there’s big regret in the community. It’s an embarrassment.”

The battle has been on display for months in the World Journal. Linda Lui’s camp has taken out full page ads in the paper to attack John Liang’s mainland Chinese heritage. Last month, Lui’s camp was the subject of a story in the newspaper highlighting its court victory.

After taking hold of the association, the Lui side mailed out letters to members in which they accused the former board of embezzling $500,000 from the sale of burial plots, something that rankles members of the Chinese community who believe disputes should be handled privately.

Accusations that the former leadership enriched itself through association funds are particularly difficult for Phong, who says he donated the $55,000 paifang, or Chinese-style gate, that’s posted at the entrance.

Phong also said he loaned the association $100,000 for the Chinese school, which cost $380,000 to build in 2011. One of the reasons Lui’s group is asking for all the association’s financial records is to verify the loan.

Phong, 50, and his family have deep ties to the association. As refugees of the Vietnam War, family members fled first to Hong Kong, then to the Philippines before landing in Sacramento in 1983.

Today, Phong is a successful businessman and owns the Welco Supermarket on Fruitridge Road. The hardships he experienced while adjusting to American life drive his resolve to help Chinese immigrants, he said.

“It really hurt me,” Phong said. “We built the temple because we believe in our traditions. We built the school because we want our kids to remember their roots and talk in Chinese.”

Despite the court’s decision, Liang’s camp hasn’t given up hope. A petition calling for Lui to step down and demanding a new election has garnered 365 signatures from the Indochinese community, and Phong said he is open to reconciliation.

“I just want peace,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916)321-1091.