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Opportunity, Empowerment, Growth: Orange County's Little Saigon Turns 25

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Phuoc Loc Tho, a.k.a. Asian Garden Mall, stands as the center of activity in Orange County's Little Saigon | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Orange County, with its flat terrain, coastal breezes, ultra-wide streets, and low-density sprawl, represents the epitome of SoCal suburbia, and, arguably, our region's closest semblance to Middle America -- both aspects of which are as celebrated as they are mocked. But traveling east along Bolsa Avenue from the 405 Freeway, the median suddenly turns into a lush linear garden, the architecture looks a bit more exotic, the air wafts with the aroma of noodle soup, and business signs bear familiar Roman characters, albeit adorned with unfamiliar accent marks.

You've reached Orange County's Little Saigon community, centered in Westminster -- not merely the heart of Southern California's Vietnamese community, but the cultural, spiritual and commercial capital of the Vietnamese diaspora.

This month, the community celebrates 25 years of its official existence when then-governor George Deukmejian signed a bill on June 17, 1988 authorizing Caltrans to erect 13 signs along the 405 and 22 freeways directing visitors to "Little Saigon," and granting official designation to the area, which is bordered by Westminster Boulevard, Bolsa Avenue, Magnolia Street, and Euclid Street.

"It's a source of pride and historical significance," said attorney Van Tran. "Without an official designation, it becomes difficult to identify and give a community its due recognition."

Tran still clearly remembers those days back in 1988. In his 20s, he worked as an aide to then-state senator Ed Royce while finishing up his studies at UC Irvine. He's been credited with successfully lobbying the Westminster City Council and other elected officials representing the region to support the designation of Little Saigon. In 2000, he was elected to the city council in nearby Garden Grove, and from 2004 to 2010, he served as a member of the California State Assembly -- the first Vietnamese American to serve in the state legislature.

How the Vietnamese community ended up in Westminster was, according to Tran, "A combination of geography, good luck, and divine blessing."

The end of the Vietnam war in 1975 sparked the beginnings of Little Saigon, when the U.S. government brought some 175,000 refugees -- many of whom were connected to the South Vietnamese military and government -- to four stateside processing centers, one of which was the Camp Pendleton Marine base in San Diego County. Following the processing of their immigration papers, numerous churches in Orange County sponsored the refugees and brought them up the freeway, less than an hour north.

In the mid-1970s, Westminster was a sleepy little town of some 60,000 bearing industrial machine shops and large parcels of its agricultural past in the form of strawberry fields, orange groves, and plant nurseries. The first Vietnamese-owned businesses were a doctor's office and a pharmacy, circa 1977.

"Rent was cheap, the location was prime, people congregated," said Tran. "True to Asian tradition, the Vietnamese stayed together as family units and through mutual associations such as people from the same hometowns."

By the late 1970s, businesses had multiplied, and shopping centers and other facilities were built.

"It grew in an organic fashion, not pre-planned like Irvine," said Tran.

In 1987, businessman Frank Jao, with the financing of overseas investors, built Phuoc Loc Tho -- otherwise known as the Asian Garden Mall -- a large, multistory edifice along Bolsa, replete with shops and a food court that has functioned as Little Saigon's "town square."

The Asian Garden Mall on Bolsa Avenue, also functions as a gathering space for the Little Saigon community | Photo: Elson Trinidad

On Saturday, June 15 from 2 to 8 p.m., the mall will host a large 25th anniversary celebration for Little Saigon, which will feature entertainment, food, and other activities. And on every Friday-Saturday-Sunday from June 14 to September 1, an outdoor bazaar, or "Night Market" -- a common sight in many Asian cities -- takes place on the front parking lot.

Certainly Little Saigon has attracted the most prominent Vietnamese American businesses in the U.S.: Both the San Jose-based Lee's Sandwiches fast-food banh mi shop and the popular South Texas-based seafood restaurant The Boiling Crab have multiple locations in the area.

Little Saigon also serves as a focal point for entertainment and arts. Entertainment company Thúy Nga is not only based in Westminster, but produces Vietnamese pop music -- made in Orange County -- that is distributed worldwide. And the Santa Ana-based Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA) serves the Little Saigon community through its various arts and cultural programs.

The Vietnamese community has also had tremendous growth politically over the past quarter century, according to Tran.

"The Garden Grove City Council [in the late 1980s] was initially not in favor of Little Saigon designation," said Tran. "But today, two of its five city councilmembers are from the Vietnamese community."

That political growth started in 1992 when Tony Lam was elected to the Garden Grove City Council and became the first Vietnamese elected official in the U.S. In 2012, Westminster elected Tri Ta as its first-ever Vietnamese American mayor.

Because of the community's staunch anti-Communist history, its benchmark growth during the Nixon and Reagan administrations and its Orange County geography, the community has traditionally voted Republican.

But according to Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education member Bao Nguyen, that's changing.

"There's been a shift in terms of party affiliation, less [Vietnamese Americans] are registering as Republicans and more as either Democrats or Decline to State," he said. "The younger generation leans more towards progressive issues. In the 2012 election, the majority of the Vietnamese community actually voted for Obama."

Political affiliation and intergenerational attitudes have no doubt caused controversy and division within the community.

"It is very much like the Cuban exile community in Miami," said Al Johnson, a Vietnamese American who has ties to Little Saigon. "They are staunchly anti-communist, which is fine. But they take it to extremes by insisting on flying a defunct flag of South Vietnam, like the Confederate flag. They protest anything that has to do with Vietnam today, including humanitarian aid and the upliftment of the people if it doesn't suit their own right wing political agenda."

Johnson elaborated that his mother was once unfairly branded as a "Communist" for doing charitable work in her native Vietnam.

For Cal State Fullerton professor Tu-Uyen Nguyen, another major issue in Little Saigon is community health, namely mental health. She cites concerns such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, addiction-related illnesses such as drug abuse and gambling, and overall awareness and de-stigmatization of mental health issues.

"Those issues will always be a major concern in the community," said Professor Nguyen, who grew up in Little Saigon, and whose father practiced dentistry in the community.

Concrete median sign welcomes visitors to Westminster's Little Saigon district | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Today, Little Saigon has grown out of its mere official status as a community within the confines of the city of Westminster. It's taken on a more regional identity today, via neighboring municipalities creating their own "Little Saigon" designations, such as Garden Grove in 2003 and Santa Ana in 2004. Even the Little Saigon Chamber of Commerce is based in nearby Fountain Valley. The multi-city Greater Little Saigon area in Orange County now boasts some 2,000 businesses and a population of some 125,000 residents of Vietnamese descent.

So what does the future hold for Little Saigon, 25 years from now? Former state assemblyman Tran expects the continued growth and development of the community, becoming more of a must-see destination for Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike.

For Tu-Uyen Nguyen, she envisions more interaction and dialogue between the Vietnamese community and nearby ethnic communities, namely Santa Ana's Latino community and Garden Grove's large Korean population.

"It starts with people learning about food, and from there we build community and collaborations beyond ethnic lines, where people can come together to celebrate art, poetry, music," said Professor Nguyen, who also serves as a VAALA board member.

A crowd of about 50 people got a glimpse of that future this week as VAALA hosted its inaugural first-Thursday-of-the-month event called "Common Ground" at its Santa Ana cultural center space. The open mic-style show featured performances by not just Vietnamese American artists, but Latino, African American, and Native American performers as well.

Among those in the audience that evening was school board member Bao Nguyen.

"Little Saigon is diverse; there isn't one definition for it," he said. "The next generation has the opportunity to define it for themselves. That's what makes Little Saigon distinguishable from Vietnam."

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