He is both loathed and revered — a former pilot for the South Vietnamese Air Force with deep ties to San Jose, and known in Vietnamese communities across the world for his anti-communist activism, daring stunts and extreme tactics.
Ly Tong, who became a hero to many after he went on a 2008 hunger strike over plans to call San Jose’s Little Saigon neighborhood the Saigon Business District, is dying of lung failure.
Tong, in his early 70s, fell into a coma Tuesday and was not expected to survive, said Hoa Thai Cu, the president of the South Vietnamese Air Force Association of San Diego, who began caring for Tong after he was admitted to the hospital on March 7.
“There was a part of him that was larger than life and I don’t say that about too many people,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who knows Tong well.
For a generation of refugees from a culture of vibrant, but often acrimonious political activism, Tong is regarded as both a folk hero and “freedom fighter,” though considered too extreme by others.
Tam Nguyen, a former San Jose City Councilman, met Tong during the hunger strike and later served as his defense attorney after he was accused of attacking a Vietnamese singer over political differences.
“Tong’s numerous dare-devil actions in his struggle against communism made him a hero among Vietnamese around the world,” Nguyen said Friday. “He is a stubborn man and very difficult to work with, but even his critics admire his courage and devotion. In many ways, Ly Tong will always remain a unique and heroic advocate for the Vietnamese refugees everywhere.”
Doctors had been waiting for Tong’s older brother to fly to San Diego to make a final decision about whether to pull life support, Cu said. According to the Nguoi Viet Daily News, his brother decided Friday against removing him from life support, saying Tong stirred when he visited.
Friends and fellow veterans gathered at the hospital to keep watch over Tong, the paper reported.
In 2012, Tong gained more local notoriety after he was sentenced to six months in the Santa Clara County jail for spraying Vietnamese singer Dam Vinh Hung, whose political beliefs he opposed, at the Santa Clara Convention Center with a tear gas-like substance two years earlier. Tong, who carried out the attack wearing a dress and wig, showed up to closing arguments in the case in similar attire.
Cortese said he found it “a little unfair” that some people who had found his civil disobedience elsewhere inspiring distanced themselves from Tong after he got into legal trouble in San Jose.
“My view was always, wow, how often do you see somebody stand on principle fearlessly, as he did,” Cortese said.
As a younger man, Tong’s A-37 fighter jet was shot down at the end of the Vietnam War, and he was captured by North Vietnamese forces. Tong was then imprisoned for several years at a re-education camp.
After several attempts, he managed to escape and spent nearly a year and a half fleeing on foot across Southeast Asia, eventually swimming across the Johore Strait to Singapore, where he requested asylum at the U.S. Embassy.
He settled in New Orleans in 1984 and got a degree in political science. In 1992, Tong traveled to Thailand, where he hijacked a plane leaving Bangkok for Vietnam and ordered the pilot to fly low while he dropped 50,000 fliers calling for a political revolution over Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon among refugees.
Tong parachuted out the cockpit window and landed in a swamp but was quickly captured by the Vietnamese government. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison but granted amnesty and released in 1998 after the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam.
The incident earned him, among fans, the nickname, “the Vietnamese James Bond.”
In early 2000, he flew a small plane over Cuba to distribute political newspapers, and later that year was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison for hijacking a plane to release more leaflets over Ho Chi Minh City. He hired a South Korean aircraft in 2008, but was arrested before he could distribute fliers over North Korea.
Around the time of Tong’s month-long hunger strike in 2008, during which he reportedly lost almost 30 pounds, he also joined protesters in Orange County against Nguoi Viet Daily News, the oldest and largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the country, for publishing a photo of a student’s art project — a foot spa painted with the colors of the flag of the former South Vietnam.
The student’s project was meant to be a homage to the student’s mother, a nail salon worker. But protesters felt the photo disrespected the flag and picketed for more than two months, harassing the paper’s staff and then-publisher Anh Do, a Los Angeles Times reporter whose father founded the newspaper.
Tong moved to San Diego six or seven years ago, said Hoa, who helped the activist find a new place to live and get settled in San Diego. Tong went to the hospital after having difficulty breathing, but quickly began to decline, Cu said.
Tong never married and has three children from previous relationships. Cu said the South Vietnamese Air Force Association of San Diego will help pay for the cost of Tong’s funeral and arrangements when he dies.
“He did have a kind of action figure aura about him,” Cortese said. “You knew you were dealing with somebody who was very bold.”
Contact Thy Vo at 408-200-1055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.