A supervisor, newspaper and Buddhist monk: Why a Vietnamese statue is going up next to Ronald Reagan’s at Miles Square Park

President Ronald Reagan announced his bid for re-election in 1984 before an enormous crowd at Mile Square Regional Park. Since that proud moment for Orange County, he has returned to the park at least twice – in the form of a statue.

The sculpture of a waving Reagan – slightly smaller than real life – was unveiled June 12. But shortly thereafter, it went into storage while awaiting a loftier foundation.

“The original base was only 18 inches high,” said Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do. “We had concerns that because the statue was so accessible, it might be vulnerable to vandalism.

“I could totally see kids hanging on it, climbing it, jumping onto the base on their skateboards,” he added. “It would happen.”

Early this month, the Reagan statue was resurrected on a grander pedestal almost four feet higher than the original concrete slab. And now he has company, some 40 yards away.

Last week, workers at the Fountain Valley park erected a statue of 13th-century Vietnamese hero Gen. Tran Hung Dao on a 5-foot-tall foundation identical to Reagan’s.

On Sunday, the statue’s unveiling will take place at 11 a.m. It arrives in time for the Orange County Tet Festival, which this year relocates to Mile Square Park from its longtime Garden Grove home. The festival, which celebrates the Vietnamese New Year, will run Feb. 12-14.

And later this month, weather allowing, yet one more statue – that of the Rev. Miguel Hidalgo – will blossom at the park. Hidalgo was a priest who helped inspire the Mexican War of Independence against Spain in the 1800s.

Since becoming a supervisor less than a year ago, Do has guided and nurtured the profusion of statues near the park’s Freedom Lake

“I wanted the park to have a theme of heroes who are important to the members of our community and who have fought for democracy,” Do said.

All costs for the three statues and their foundations have been covered by donors, Do said. “The county is not paying for anything.”

Still, the cornucopia of statues has been fodder for head scratching. Originally, Do listed the donor of the Reagan statue as anonymous, begging the question: Why the secrecy surrounding an effigy of one of Orange County’s most esteemed political figures?

Pressed by media requests, Do’s office identified the donor as Thich Chon Thanh, chief abbot of the Lien Hoa Temple in Garden Grove.

“The whole underpinning of Buddhism is humility,” Do said. “He did not want his name out there.”

That revelation introduced another puzzle: Why would a Buddhist monk from Vietnam quietly purchase a statue of an American president?

“He was actually sponsored by President Reagan when he came to the United States,” Do said. “He knew him personally. He lovingly refers to President Reagan as ‘dear old Dad.’”

But the abbot’s perception of “sponsorship” by Reagan is not as literal as Do assumed.

In an interview at his tranquil temple and courtyard complex, Chon Thanh, 81, said that he “feels in his heart” that Reagan endorsed his 1985 move to the United States.

“I think of him as sponsoring me because at that time he was head of the USA.,” Chon Thanh said with a broad smile. “I have never met him except in my mind and heart.”

Whatever the details of the relationship, Chon Thanh so reveres the Republican icon that he waited in line for nine hours at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley to touch the former president’s casket.

After reading in a Vietnamese language newspaper about Do’s plans for a statue, Chon Thanh said, “I volunteered to donate the entire amount.”

Ultimately, Chon Thanh, born Thu Van Nguyen, paid about $10,500 for the bronze statue, created by an East Coast foundry. He ultimately kicked in more than twice that amount – another $25,000 – for the second base, he said.

“I didn’t donate it for any group or person, but for the Vietnamese community,” Chon Thanh said. “We all love and respect Ronald Reagan.”

Chon Thanh attended the statue’s unveiling last summer. However, he has not yet inspected the new foundation’s plaque. “I don’t care if my name is there and I don’t care if it’s not,” he said.

For the record, Do confirmed, Chon Thanh’s name is included on the plaque.

Do said that Westminster-based Nguoi Viet Daily News, the largest Vietnamese newspaper in the country, donated about $40,000 for the Tran Hung Dao statue.

Both the Reagan and Dao statues were created by All Classics in Newark, Del., Do said. The image of Reagan was cast from an existing statue, and the Tran monument was custom-made, using the general’s illustration on Vietnamese money.

Hidalgo’s statue was designed by a Mexican artist and donated by the government, Do said.

“I have worked pretty closely with Mario Cuevas, the consul of Mexico (in Orange County),” Do said. “I mentioned to him my idea of recognizing the heroes that are respected in the different communities in my district. He and his staff worked with us.

“Hidalgo’s statue signifies the importance of Orange County’s ties to Mexico both economically and culturally.”

Third in the trio, the Hidalgo statue has already been shipped, Do said, but its base is still under construction. “It’s wrapped up and in storage at the park,” he said. “I would feel bad if I scratched it trying to take a peek.”

The statues are distinct in size and color. Reagan, a dark brown, stands at 6 feet. Tran’s statue, a patina green, portrays him atop rocks, elevating it to 8 feet. And Hidalgo, a shinier bronze, boasts an 8-foot-tall body and carries a flag that adds another five feet.

Each statue will feature a plaque providing the history it represents.

“My philosophy is that a park is more than just a piece of grass,” Do said. “Parks around the world have statues that provide reminders of the past and teach cultural values. A park is where families congregate with children to re-create. We shouldn’t waste that opportunity to teach them about our history.”

Contact the writer: sgoulding@ocregister.com

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