Commerce: The American Way | Essay | Chicago Reader

Commerce: The American Way 

Tuan Anh Vu came to "this wonderful land" and took to laissez-faire capitalism like a pig to slop. And today, for absolutely free, he's going to show us how he made his millions and how we can, too!

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"This must be the place," says a graying man in a business suit. People are lined up and down the stairs and escalators. There must be about 500 of them, all trying to get into the Great Hall of the Congress Hotel.

It's billed in the lobby directory as the Tom Vu Profit Seminar. These are the people who watch those 30-minute get-rich-quick commercials in the wee hours on UHF. Tom Vu's is one of them, probably the most outrageously capitalistic of them all. It shows Tom on the deck of a yacht surrounded by seven or eight women in bikinis. In his choppy oriental accent, Tom says that you can have all this, too, if you learn his secret to success. Cut to a picture of the Vu family in 1975, mom and dad and Tom and his nine siblings huddled in front of a tent in a refugee camp in Florida, downtrodden and broke. Cut back to Tom and his babes, Tom coming out of his private helicopter, Tom shaking hands with the millions of ecstatic people (just like you and me) who have taken his seminar and made millions!

Tuan Anh Vu, according to his own account, fled for his life from Vietnam as the Communists closed in. In "this wonderful land called America," he adopted the name Tom and took to the laissez-faire free market like a pig to slop. And today, for absolutely free, he's going to show us how he made his millions and how we can, too!

A suntanned couple in line are holding hands. She's blond; he's wearing a shirt and tie, shorts, and gym shoes. His hair is heavily moussed. The smirk on his face says they might be there as a joke. When an oriental man comes up the steps, she says, "Is that Tom?"

A toothless black man says, "I don't know. They all look alike."

But that can't be Tom. He's not surrounded by babes in bikinis.

Inside we're all handed a booklet with the word "profit" emblazoned in capital letters on the cover six times. It tells us all the exciting reasons that we should take Tom Vu's seminar. Now the catch is clear. This is only an introductory session. A weekend seminar explaining all the fine details will be held soon at a local hotel. There's no mention of how much it costs. A man in a camouflage hat with a marine haircut and a slightly crazed look in his eyes flips through the booklet. He seems quite satisfied. He's going to be a millionaire. Jorge, a meek-looking young man in a T-shirt advertising a martial-arts tournament, fills out the information slip. He checks off the box that says he has a yearly income between $5,000 and $10,000.

Tom's late. The crowd's getting restless. Time is money. A staccato clapping starts just as Tom enters, walking unassumingly up the aisle with no introduction and no women in bathing suits on his arms. All he has is a manila folder stuffed way beyond capacity. Tom settles into the big chair on the stage behind the podium. He flips on the overhead projector and lays down a transparency that reads: "Hi!"

"Are you ready to make biiiig money?" he says with a biiiig grin.

He has us all shake hands with our neighbors and wish them luck in becoming millionaires fast. "What are you here to make?" preacher Tom exclaims from his pulpit.

Money!

"I don't say the whole group of you will go out and every one of you will get rich now. However, I say there is going to be quite a few who see the light today of my system and make yourself a fortune! You know because I have taught this system for five years all over the country. In every group of people, there is some self-motivated person who will rise above the crowd and make a fortune."

An enthusiastic black man in the front row jumps up, waves his hand, and says "Right here." He's feeling the power of the gospel.

Tom tells us a little about himself. We hear again about the Commies closing in and the refugee camp in Florida. He was 17 years old. He spoke no English. "People kept saying, 'Hey, Tom, why don't you make any money?' I kept saying money is not important to me. Can you tell me why did I say that?"

A murmur runs through the crowd.

"Because I had nothing. Until one day my mother was sick and several hospitals refused to take her. We had no insurance in America. That was the first day I was determined to become a rich person. So I set my goal, and I discovered this wonderful system to make a lot of money. So some people will become filthy rich just like me."

Applause.

Tom projects a cheap, handwritten graphic: "To someone in this room today is the most important day of your life." Tom informs us that unless we do something soon with our lives, 98 percent of us will retire into poverty.

"Why? Because we are programmed the wrong way, my friends. We are told to go out and get some kind of education, then find a job and work for somebody else. And Uncle Sam say, 'Don't worry. At the end of your life, we'll take care of you.'"

Everybody laughs.

"Good joke, right? How many people here believe we can honestly depend on any government?"

Nobody.

"There's only one person you can depend on. Who's that?"

Yourself!

"There are two kinds of work in America today. Hard work and smart work. Today we will talk about what?"

Smart work!

"In the next hour or so I will try to tell you as much as I can. But you know it is difficult for me or anyone else to condense such a powerful moneymaking system into a couple hours."

The good news, of course, is that we can all come to his two-day seminar and learn everything there is to know. How much will it cost us?

"Don't worry about it," Tom says. "Can you imagine a school that has graduation in two days? There's only one school I ever heard of in this country. My school."

How much will it cost us?

"It is at a tuition rate that anyone who is serious about their future can afford." He reveals a transparency that says $995. "What can you do with $1,000? You can make two car payments, or you can invest in the knowledge that's made lots of people in Chicago filthy rich." And if we stick around for a little while, Tom will even tell us how we can take the class without paying any of our own money up front.

Tom lets us in on a little of his secret. "In America today, 90 percent of the richest people make a fortune off of what?"

Real estate!

"Let me ask you this. How many people here today honestly wish you had bought a lot of property five or eight years ago?"

Lots of hands.

"Because you would be what today?"

"Rich," Jorge chimes in, beginning to feel the rapture.

"There are two ways to make money in real estate. There's the old way and the new way, Tom's way. There's the long-term and there's the short-term fast-cash profit. No tenant, no mortgage, no credit. No one even asks if you got a job. How would you like that, huh?"

The next transparency reads: "Tom's way buy at bargain." The way? Look for people in distress situations who have to sell fast. Some examples: "People die, nobody around to make the mortgage payments, so the estate has to get rid of the property. And everyone will eventually die, so we don't have to worry about running out of the supply. How about drug-abuse problem around here? Cocaine problem, crack problem. Alcohol-abuse problem. What is the divorce rate in America? Is it going up or down?

Up!

"Is that good or bad? It depends, right?"

Applause.

"I see a lot of happy eyes and happy souls in this room at this moment. A lot of people want to hug me, kiss me right now. I just gave you the solution to make a million!"

And if we come to the seminar and pay $995, he'll show us a way to get into the real-estate business with an investment of just $10. Just $10! But we'd better hurry. Classes are filling up fast!

"Let me remind you, I will not attempt to teach you to be a real-estate scholar. I remember one time I saw an expert on cable TV. He tells the people he got a big box of real-estate books. Got about 20 books in it! Take two years to read it! What for? You don't need to know that much to earn your millions! You'll be shocked to learn this, my friends! Look at me! I don't know anything about real estate! I only know how to make millions! That's all you need to know! You make your millions and forget about being a scholar! There's a lot of scholars out there broke!"

Tom shows us a transparency of a check for $27,000. It can soon be ours! "You pay $1,000 to go to this school and sit there for two days. Turn around to the back of [this] check, sign your name, go to the local bank, cash it, hold a stack of $100 bills in your hand, smell it, do whatever! You're happy!"

Big laugh and applause.

"And by the way, I know some of you think, 'Well, Tom, I got to be at work this weekend. I work weekend shift.' Hey! Get smart about it! Who cares about you? You or your boss? If you don't go to my seminar, five years from now, what will you do? Same old thing. Seventy-five years old and more stress. Say 'I got enough!' Friday night before the seminar starts, pick up the phone, call your boss, tell him firmly, you sick! Huh?"

Big laugh!

"You sick and tired of this work!"

I call the 800 number you're supposed to call to sign up for Tom's class and ask the bubbly operator how I can arrange to take the class without paying money up front. She says I can borrow the money from a friend or relative or borrow their credit card. That way, it doesn't cost me any of my own money until I have to pay the friend or relative back. It doesn't matter where we get the money, just so we have the $995 in full when we show up for class.

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