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Immigrant fights for honor

He was a maverick who left his lush Vietnam for the dusty Texas plains to learn the ways of America.

She was a budding beauty evacuated to a California relocation camp in 1975 when Saigon fell.

It took Chris Nguyen three years to persuade Loan-Anh Pham to marry him. They moved to Tampa, where the humidity reminded them of home.

Chris Nguyen started an egg roll business, naming it Lo-An/Florida after his wife, and they built it into a multimillion dollar company. In 1990, the Nguyens proudly sold out to Sargento Foods for $5-million and 5-year employment contracts.

That was the last the public at large heard of the Nguyens, the toast of the local Vietnamese community, the immigrants made good.

Today, Chris Nguyen, 50, has no house, no egg roll business, no wife. Legal fees have depleted his savings.

What went wrong?

The rapid reversal in Nguyen's fortunes began six years ago over nothing more than rumors. Something was going on between Loan-Anh and Chris Nguyen's boss at Sargento, colleagues whispered.

Before long, Chris Nguyen had left Sargento, abandoned his wife and children in Tampa and fled to California. Now he is obsessed with a peculiar crusade: getting justice from the people he believes wrecked his life: Sargento executives. They ignored his pleas, he says, to squelch the rumors about the office affair or to give him and his wife a transfer. Nguyen says he deserves a public apology and wants money for himself and Vietnamese charities.

"It's eating me up," Nguyen says. "Live or die, I'll never give up."

In one dramatic moment, he knelt on his father's hillside grave in California and swore to fight Sargento to the end. And he has publicly pledged to go on a hunger strike if Sargento doesn't soon succumb to his demands.

Is Chris Nguyen crazy?

Not according to traditional Vietnamese standards, supporters say. Indeed, Nguyen is a cause celebre of sorts among America's Vietnamese population, more than 600,000 strong.

A half-dozen leaders of Vietnamese-American organizations across the country have sent letters to Sargento demanding redress. On Vietnamese radio and in newspapers, Nguyen's story is being told.

And Sargento finds itself trying to quell a small but growing wave of discontent.