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date: 25 April 2017

Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, California

Summary and Keywords

Little Saigon is the preferred name of Vietnamese refugee communities throughout the world. This article focuses primarily on the largest such community, in Orange County, California. This suburban ethnic enclave is home to the largest concentration of overseas Vietnamese, nearly 200,000, or 10 percent of the Vietnamese American population. Because of its size, location, and demographics, Little Saigon is also home to some of the most influential intellectuals, entertainers, businesspeople, and politicians in the Vietnamese diaspora, many of whom are invested in constructing Little Saigon as a transnational oppositional party to the government of Vietnam. Unlike traditional immigrant ethnic enclaves, Little Saigon is a refugee community whose formation and development emerged in large part from America’s efforts to atone for its epic defeat in Vietnam by at least sparing some of its wartime allies a life under communism. Much of Little Saigon’s cultural politics revolve around this narrative of rescue, although the number guilt-ridden Americans grows smaller and more conservative, while the loyalists of the pre-1975 Saigon regime struggle to instill in the younger generation of Vietnamese an appreciation of their refugee roots.

Keywords: Vietnamese, Asian American, community, resettlement, immigrant, refugee, Little Saigon, Orange County, California, Cold War, diaspora, conservative, anti-communism, cultural politics, popular culture

Little Saigon in Orange County, California, is the largest diasporic community of Vietnamese, and home to nearly 200,000 Vietnamese, or 10 percent of the entire Vietnamese American population. It is also the cultural and political nucleus of the overseas Vietnamese population, which, in the West, has historically been a refugee-oriented and anti-communist demographic. The name Saigon holds tremendous nostalgic significance for overseas Vietnamese as a signifier for the country and capital city that ceased to exist under communist rule. Little Saigon’s business presence spans a multitude of adjacent small cities such as Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, and Westminster. The sheer size of Little Saigon has allowed it to sustain longstanding and culturally influential businesses and institutions at the local level, which has translated into greater visibility at the global level. As a result, Vietnamese throughout the world know of Little Saigon, sometimes via alternative references such as the town of Westminster or Bolsa Avenue. Spatially, Little Saigon follows a contemporary model of suburban ethnic enclave formation, which started with Asian-owned businesses occupying what used to be white-owned shopping centers and establishments.

Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, CaliforniaClick to view larger

Figure 1. In 1988, the State of California officially recognized “Little Saigon” as a Special Tourist Zone centered on the 9000 block of Bolsa Avenue in Westminster. Photo courtesy of Phuong Nguyen.

Vietnamese enclaves in San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego and other towns have chosen, sometimes after acrimonious debate, to adopt the moniker “Little Saigon,” which is generally reserved for Orange County, California, home to nearly 200,000 Vietnamese. The business presence of Little Saigon in Orange County spans a multitude of adjacent small cities such as Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and Fountain Valley, but its historically central thoroughfare—and Lunar New Year parade route—runs along the 9000 strip of Bolsa Avenue in Westminster. The sheer size of Little Saigon has allowed it to sustain longstanding and culturally influential businesses and institutions at the local level, which has translated into greater visibility at the global level. As a result, Vietnamese throughout the world know of Little Saigon, sometimes via alternative references such as Bolsa Avenue or the neighboring city of Santa Ana. Spatially, Little Saigon follows a contemporary model of suburban ethnic enclave formation, which started with Asian-owned businesses occupying what used to be white-owned shopping centers and establishments. Despite the turnover in the commercial sector, the residential makeup in and around Little Saigon is a little more diverse, consisting primarily of whites, Latinos, and Asians.

Unlike most immigrants, Vietnamese Americans, as refugees, have gained entry into the United States on moral, rather than legal, grounds. Their presence in the United States, once viewed as a melancholy reminder of an unfortunate war that Americans would rather forget, eventually served to portray America, as the receiving nation for half a million Indochinese refugees, in a far more positive light than the war ever could. Consistent with that logic, charitable and guilt-ridden white Americans have felt morally obligated to support the formation and preservation of a South Vietnamese refugee community as a way to atone for America’s failure to protect its wartime allies from communism.

Origins

Little Saigon first came into existence after the end of the Vietnam War—what Vietnamese history books refer to as the Second Indochina War or American War—in 1975. Prior to that time, only a small number of Vietnamese, mostly those possessing a student or marriage visa, lived in the United States. The defeat of the American-backed Saigon regime after a ten-year civil war created an exodus of refugees fearful of persecution under the new Soviet-backed communist government. Washington, fearing the worst, arranged for the evacuation of 130,000 select individuals from Saigon prior to April 30, 1975. On this list were high officials of the regime, relatives of American citizens, and U.S. government employees, most of whom were of Vietnamese origin. The chaotic nature of a hastily arranged evacuation, in which family and friends would be forever separated, resulted in many missed flights out of Vietnam while many unauthorized and undocumented individuals found their way into military custody. This cohort of 130,000 would become the first of many waves of refugee migration. Despite the inclusion of rural fishing families with no college education and poor English skills, this wave of exiles was collectively far more educated, urbanized, and Christian than the rest of the country. Prior to resettlement as civilians in the United States, they were housed by the U.S. military in makeshift tent cities at Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, and Eglin Air Force in Florida. Even in these transient surroundings, the Vietnamese managed to create the semblance of an ethnic enclave by organizing religious services, publishing poetry, attending music concerts, and scheduling dozens of weddings. According to one camp volunteer, the staff at Camp Pendleton journeyed approximately sixty miles “all the way to Chinatown in Los Angeles to get fish sauce and rice noodles” for the refugees because “Those things weren’t available in Orange County or San Diego County at that time.”1 Journalists of the period, borrowing from naming conventions of past American ethnic enclaves, referred to the military camps as “Little Saigon,” not realizing it would become the preferred title for most refugee Vietnamese communities.

Few Americans expected Little Saigon to survive beyond the refugee camps. It was the intention of the United States government to disperse 130,000 Southeast Asian refugees across every stretch of the country, mostly for the sake of easing the economic burden on local communities, but also based on the assumption that less exposure to co-ethnics would encourage refugees, most of whom spoke very limited English, to more quickly become self-sufficient. Camp newsletters and refugee pamphlets with names like New Life and New Horizon provided lessons on “American Ways” of body language, conversation, and customs. They stated that the best way to express gratitude for America’s generosity was to assimilate into the new society. Churches sponsored refugees in large numbers and often encouraged them to attend English-language Sunday services and convert to Christianity. Without any formalized diplomatic relationship between Washington and Hanoi, most observers assumed that all human traffic between Vietnam and the United States would cease after 1975.

Orange County in the 1970s was still a suburban metropolis in the making, as much of its semirural acreage had yet to be converted to valuable real estate beyond Disneyland. It was situated just north of Camp Pendleton Marine Base and in 1970 had a population of 1,421,233, almost all white. Like most rural whites of the 20th century, Orange Countians voted overwhelmingly Republican, to the chagrin of Democratic presidential candidates since Franklin Roosevelt. Despite the region’s ultra conservative political leanings, the editorial board of the local newspaper, the Orange County Register, made an impassioned case for admitting Vietnamese refugees during a time of economic uncertainty. “We have to accommodate them, absolutely must,” despite their anticipated burden on a sluggish job market. “We’ll think about those practical matters later,” they continued. “Right now we must think of the moral imperative.”2 For them, saving 130,000 was the least America could do to an ally it had abandoned. The area that would become Little Saigon consisted of postwar suburban formations that had never outgrown their semirural status while emerging suburban utopias such as Costa Mesa and Irvine, located strategically along the San Diego Freeway and close to a new University of California campus, hoped to fulfill that dream. The Los Angeles Times once described Westminster as a city “lined with bean fields and half-empty shopping centers.” Suburbs promised a refuge from the bustling city, but without economic growth, suburbs constantly flirted with bankruptcy for lack of sufficient tax revenue. Ed Bynon, former publisher of the Westminster Journal, once quipped that “If it were not for the Westminster Mall, there would be no Westminster.”3

What Orange County lacked in economic stability it made up for with generous churches willing to house and care for Southeast Asian refugees. Overall, faith-based organizations in the United States found sponsors for almost 75 percent of the refugee caseload in 1975.4 As one sponsor observed, “the church structure guaranteed a kind of built-in conscience which would guard against mistreatment.”5 This was important because sponsors were under no legal obligation to care for refugees, only a moral one. The United States Catholic Conference sponsored over fifty thousand while the American Lutheran Church exceeded their pledge to sponsor ten thousand refugees.6 Reverend Lester Kim of Los Angeles asked Asian American Christians to welcome their “sisters and brothers from Southeast Asia.”7

The ability of Southern California churches to absorb so many refugees allowed more families to stay intact, an early harbinger of things to come in terms of community building.8 According to Alicia Cooper of the International Rescue Committee, the Catholic and Episcopalian churches in Orange County outdid the rest when it came to accepting refugees. As she recalled, “it was nothing for a church in Orange County to take twelve or thirteen families.” By that standard, St. Anselm’s in Garden Grove acquired legendary status among Vietnamese Americans. It reportedly “never said no” to any of the refugees. “It did not matter if there were two people in that family or twenty people in that family,” said Cooper. “If you called Father Habibi and said, ‘I have this family, Father, and I have to get them out of here by five o’clock tonight or there’s to be serious trouble,’ he would say, ‘OK.’”9 Several bilingual Vietnamese who already served as volunteers in Camp Pendleton, most notably Mai Cong and Nam Lộc Nguyễn, became social workers who served as valuable cultural brokers for their co-ethnics in need of immigration services, job assistance, and public benefits. Because of generous churches and California’s desirable climate, Camp Pendleton’s refugee center was the first to close its doors on October 31, 1975, despite receiving over 40 percent of the first wave of refugees. By the end of 1975, approximately twenty thousand Vietnamese refugees found themselves resettled all over Southern California. With its proximity to Camp Pendleton and its abundance of altruistic Christian sponsors, Orange County received twelve thousand of them. By the end of 1976, up to seven hundred low-income refugees had crammed themselves into seventy-five units at the Villa Park apartment complex in Garden Grove, forming an early building block of the largest overseas Vietnamese community.10

Early Community Spaces

The refugee dimension of Little Saigon, and the politics of rescue associated with refugees, differentiates it from traditional immigrant ethnic enclaves. Refugees cannot simply rely on their country of origin in navigating strange new lands. The fact Vietnamese were scattered across all fifty states meant they barely interacted with Asians on a regular basis. The fact most lived beneath the poverty line meant that few had time for pursuits beyond individual and family survival. Places like Villa Park were the exception rather than the rule. It is thus not surprising that the first signs of ethnic community mostly took shape in existing spaces staffed by exceptionally charitable individuals. Little Saigon’s formation was wrapped in a discourse and history of American goodwill, with refugees conditioned to be grateful for every American intervention, from war to resettlement to a place of their own. At the same time, American goodwill was borne of a profound sense of guilt and obligation for the failure to secure a more favorable outcome to the Vietnam War. It is only within this nexus of guilt and gratitude that we can properly grasp the Vietnamese American experience.

The Vietnamese Catholic community in Orange County started out with three thousand would-be parishioners, and by October 1975 approximately two hundred of them attended their first post-camp Vietnamese mass at the auxiliary hall of St. Boniface Church in Anaheim. From the onset, diocese officials organized mixers for the refugees, who “cherished every opportunity to see each other.”11 Carpooling from as far as Norwalk and El Monte, often with the help of diocese volunteers, the Vietnamese soon convinced Monsignor John C. Keenan to grant them the 9:00 am time slot every Sunday at St. Catherine’s Military School. Initially, there was only one priest, Father Vũ Tuấn Tú, to serve the Vietnamese community. By the end of 1977, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange had three Vietnamese priests—as a result of secondary migration from colder climates in the United States—leading prayers in the vernacular at five different parishes.12 Attendance at St. Barbara’s in Santa Ana routinely exceeded its twelve-hundred-seat capacity despite the 6:30 am start time every Sunday. The concentration of Vietnamese Catholic services in Orange County gave a quarter of the Vietnamese population there, especially the elderly and poor, a prime incentive to live as close as possible to these churches.13

Vietnamese in their twenties and thirties took advantage of Southern California’s affordable and plentiful public higher education system to build small but significant social networks. Gayle Morrison, a guidance counselor at Santa Ana College in the 1970s, took a particular interest in the new influx of Southeast Asian students at her school by cofounding the New Horizons program and advising the Vietnamese Student Association. With her assistance, the VSA successfully staged one of the first refugee Tết lunar new year festivals at Santa Ana College on February 7, 1978.14 Knowing her students could not get far without financial assistance, Morrison petitioned the federal government to grant fee waivers for hundreds of Vietnamese community college students in Southern California who would take the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam (TOEFL) in order to successfully transfer to a four-year college.15 New Horizons also published a list of forty-five subsidized childcare centers in Orange County so that Vietnamese parents had no excuse to forgo a college education.16

Early on, it was necessary to travel all the way to Chinatown in Los Angeles to secure ethnic foodstuffs, pick up a newspaper, go dancing, and converse with people from the old country. As social worker Mai Cong recalls, “I rarely saw Asian people (in Orange County). I only ran across whites. Therefore, I dreamed of seeing Asian people when I went to the markets . . . I felt so happy when meeting with any Asian because I was actually homesick.”17 As future politician Tony Lâm explained, “We either met each other in Chinatown or we called every Vietnamese name in the phone book.”18 Social worker Nam Lộc Nguyễn stated it even more emphatically: “Every weekend, people from Orange County drove to Chinatown or Hollywood. That was their treat . . . after a hardworking week, go to Chinatown, go to Hollywood. There was a Vietnamese nightclub and Vietnamese restaurants on Hollywood Boulevard.”19 One could also shop at Man Wah Company, just off College Street, for bootlegged Vietnamese music cassettes, Chinese herbal medicine, Vietnamese periodicals and books, fish sauce from Thailand, shrimp paste from the Philippines, Chinese sausage from Canada, pickled scallions from Japan, and instant noodles from Taiwan.20 Also among of the first refugee markets in Chinatown was Ai Hoa, which continues to operate at 860 N. Hill Street. Many businesses catering to Vietnamese, especially grocery stores, jewelry, and commercial real estate, were owned by Vietnamese of Chinese ancestry, many of whom worked as merchants in pre-1975 Saigon. Even those with little to no business background were better positioned than their Southeast Asian peers to become ethnic entrepreneurs right away. Their ethnic background and fluency in Cantonese enabled them to potentially link up with Chinese businesspeople across North America and in Asian countries not embargoed by the United States. Just as importantly, it gave them access to a larger customer base as Chinese have always outnumbered Vietnamese in the United States. Potential access to longstanding import/export networks gave Sino-Vietnamese (and other refugees) of Chinese descent a twenty-year head start on the rest of Little Saigon.

Growth in Orange County

Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, CaliforniaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Supermarkets quickly became a pillar of the Little Saigon economy by stocking essential foodstuffs, selling Vietnamese-language periodicals, and catering to a working-class community by accepting food stamps. Photo courtesy of Phuong Nguyen.

Upon his arrival in 1979, newspaper publisher Yến Đỗ remembered “only 12 businesses in Orange County,” which included places like Saigon Market, which opened its doors on 2329 W. First Street in the summer of 1976, as well as Hoa Bình Market, which did the same on Bolsa Ave in 1978. Danh’s Pharmacy opened virtually next door, and has remained there to this day. Scanning the rest of the business district, one took notice of bean fields, strawberry patches, and Anglo-owned family businesses. But by 1980, over one hundred Indochinese businesses had sprung up all over Orange County, and in the process transformed a majority-white suburb just as Chinese entrepreneurs were doing in the suburban Los Angeles to the north.21 On the supply side, entrepreneurs like Roger Chen, the owner of Man Wah Market in Chinatown, joined forces in 1981 with Frank Jao, then a fledgling entrepreneur, to buy up properties on the 9000 block of Bolsa Avenue in Westminster.22 That same year, Duong Huu Chuong, a pharmacist from Vietnam, opened up Wai-Wai, the largest Asian supermarket in Orange County at the time.23 Back in 1979, he had just opened up his first grocery store with $5000 he had managed to smuggle out of Vietnam. By 1984, he, along with Chinese friends in Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States operated an import-export business that stocked over one hundred grocery stores in Southern California.24 From 1975 to 1984, developers from Taiwan and Hong Kong had invested $10 million along Bolsa Avenue alone.25 Frank Jao would go on to dominate Little Saigon’s commercial real estate market, becoming by far the wealthiest Vietnamese American.

Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, CaliforniaClick to view larger

Figure 3. The inside of the Asian Garden Mall (known to Vietnamese as Phước Lộc Thọ) on 9200 Bolsa Avenue. Built in 1987, it remains the most talked about Vietnamese mall in the diasporic community. Photo courtesy of Phuong Nguyen.

Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, CaliforniaClick to view larger

Figure 4. Local officials have invested heavily in commodifying the sprawling suburban ethnic enclave of Little Saigon into a tourist-friendly destination, as evidenced by $20,000 worth of gateway signs that went up in 2003. Photo courtesy of Phuong Nguyen.

This growth occurred in Westminster in particular because of affordable real estate and local politicians who proved far more accommodating to Vietnamese refugees. In 1981, Westminster’s new mayor Kathy Buchoz championed Little Saigon’s growth despite the outcry of angry white residents who had gathered 170 signatures opposing further Indochinese business expansion. After walking away outraged from meetings with them she likened to “being with the Ku Klux Klan,” Buchoz convinced the city council to continue issuing business licenses, to the delight of Vietnamese Americans. During the 1980s, Vietnamese businesses in Orange County generated $300 million per year in annual sales. Buchoz’s successor, Chuck Smith, followed the same course. U.S. Census data indicated that between 1982 and 1987, the number of Vietnamese-owned businesses increased from 4989 to 25,671, an astronomical 415 percent rate that far exceeded the 135 percent increase in their population during the same period. No other Asian American group saw such a dramatic rise in their business sector.26 Under Smith’s watch, Little Saigon became an officially recognized and designated Special Tourist Zone. At a June 17, 1988, ceremony held at Frank Jao’s Asian Garden Mall, Governor George Deukmejian formally unveiled the “Little Saigon” freeway sign to an audience of nearly four hundred awed spectators. “Each year, Little Saigon attracts thousands of tourists, shoppers and business people,” said the governor to enthusiastic applause. “The dedication of this new freeway sign is further recognition of the importance of Little Saigon as a major cultural, social and commercial center.” For a people whose home country literally erased the name “Saigon” from the map, seeing “Saigon” back on the map thirteen years later brought forth tears of joy, affirmation, and gratitude. “Only in America is Saigon being resurrected,” said future politician Văn Thái Trần, who was in attendance.27

On the demand side, Little Saigon’s population grew by leaps and bounds since the 1970s, providing businesses with thousands of paying customers. Some of it was the result of secondary migration as first-wave refugees across the United States packed their bags for Southern California. Many more came directly from Southeast Asia as the boat people crisis of the late 1970s convinced much of the non-communist world that hundreds of thousands would not risk death at the open sea or in the Cambodian jungles unless life in communist Vietnam was much worse. When the United States in 1979 agreed to admit over ten thousand Indochinese refugees per month, California’s relatively robust social welfare system provided thousands of Southeast Asians with the means necessary to pay for food, shelter, and medical care. This fact enabled supermarkets and physicians to profit despite widespread poverty in Little Saigon. During the 1980s, Vietnamese Americans very infamously exploited welfare benefits to help themselves and their loved ones. As publisher Yến Đỗ admitted, “For health [care], some people overused Medi-Cal vouchers to buy drugs for relatives back home [while] some people applied for housing [assistance] in more than one place while the rules say every citizen should apply for housing in only one city. Some refugees applied for their relatives even before the relatives arrived. It may look like fraud, but that’s the way they survived.”28 Many outside observers, unaware of these extenuating circumstances, hastily labeled Vietnamese as model minorities who went from rags to riches with minimal government assistance. The residents of Little Saigon, under extreme pressure to assimilate, refute new stereotypes of themselves as thugs, and justify an unpopular war that cost 58,000 lives, billions of dollars, and a great deal of American prestige, were all too willing to play along with the model minority stereotype.

Cultural and Business Institutions

Little Saigon is home to many culturally influential businesses and institutions of the Vietnamese diaspora such as newspapers, radio, television, and music production. Yến Đỗ, a former newspaperman in Saigon, arrived in Orange County in 1979 determined the combine his old trade with the new skills he had acquired as a social worker in Texas. He started Người Việt News and filled it with articles on, “how to get jobs, how to apply for welfare, how to apply for a driver’s license, even how to buy insurance.”29 Within a few years, it became the most successful Vietnamese newspaper in America. Over the years it has competed with dozens of publications as a part of an ethnic media niche that has managed to remain strong in the early 21st century even while mainstream newspaper readership has declined. Besides providing readers valuable updates about life in post-1975 Vietnam, Người Việt News and its competitors once served as the unofficial “yellow pages” of Little Saigon via ad copy. Accompanying ads for restaurants and doctors were those for brand new tract housing starting at $40,000 and new shopping centers in need of tenants, which reflected a growth potential in Orange County not possible in Los Angeles.30

Music is the dominant form of entertainment produced by the Vietnamese American community, all by companies based in Orange County. This particular industry is unique because many of its world-famous—within the diaspora—artists specialize in music created during the short-lived Saigon regime that lasted from 1954 to 1975. These songs range from dance tunes and love songs about soldiers and spouses to the antiwar music of Trịnh Công Sơn. Through new arrangements and new voices, music producers have breathed new life into old covers, and maximized profits without having to invest in a new generation of songwriters. The first wave of refugee artists like Phạm Duy, Khánh Ly, Hoàng Oanh, and Thanh Tuyền sold analog copies of whatever music tapes they carried with them, charging $5 per tape. The arrival of later waves of refugees reunited established stars with their old profession and created opportunities for new talent like emcee Nguyễn Ngộc Ngàn and vocalist Như Quỳnh. During the early 1990s, music companies began selling epic-length concert videos under brands like Hollywood Nights, Paris by Night, Asia, and Vân Sơn. Because of Cold War barriers that banned pre-1975 Saigon music in post-1975 Vietnam, these songs were especially meaningful to new refugees who could finally enjoy this music without fear of persecution.

The continuing growth and competition in Little Saigon often pits these businesses and institutions against each other. During the 1990s, as many as three lunar new year’s festivals competed against each other, often diluting the quality of each. Historically, the onset of external threats led these competing interests to find common ground.

Politics of Little Saigon

Vietnamese Americans have traditionally been politically active on issues related to their Asian homeland. During the Cold War, they campaigned on two major issues: reuniting with family members still in Vietnam and regime change in Hanoi. The former issue energized much of Little Saigon prior to the 1990s. When the boat people crisis saw tens of thousands Indochinese languishing in refugee camps across Southeast Asia, hoping to be granted asylum, community members rallied in downtown Los Angeles, carrying signs that read “Sending the Refugees Back is Murder” or “Please do not send Vietnamese refugees back to Vietnam.” Fourteen Vietnamese refugees in Santa Ana participated in a hunger strike to protest human rights violations in Vietnam while hundreds marched in front of the White House. Events like these inaugurated a tradition of protest urging America not to turn her back on old allies in need. The State Department reached a series of agreements with Hanoi to grant exit visas to people with special ties to the United States such as relatives of Vietnamese Americans, Amerasian children, and former political prisoners. Having largely succeeded in their efforts to win asylum for the boat people and ensure that Vietnamese Americans were reunited with family members, this coalition often appears at community functions with signs reading, “Thank you, America.”

The coalition agitating for regime change in Vietnam is better known, but has enjoyed far less success. Whereas the cause of family reunification attracted broad nonpartisan support, the cause of regime change has appealed primarily to American conservatives. During the Reagan years—when the United States secretly funded anti-communist insurgents throughout the world—various diasporic Vietnamese groups raised money to ostensibly build their own army of insurgents to reclaim the lost homeland. Organizations like the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam raised millions of dollars through grassroots fundraising and a chain of restaurants, but never recruited an army of ten thousand men as they often claimed. Nevertheless, the resistance movement created a climate of fear and paranoia in which those who dared to question its motives and methods would be branded as communist sympathizers, a crime for which the fortunate received only death threats. Five not-so-lucky Vietnamese American journalists paid with their lives. Consequently, Yến Đỗ publisher of Little Saigon’s largest newspaper, Người Việt News, mastered the art of pretending to outsource news from the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, quoting from stories his own reporters leaked to the English-language papers, in order to avoid charges of pro-communist bias. Mainstream observers hoped that this negative component of Little Saigon would fade away over time as the younger American-born generation replaced the refugee generation.

Orange County was home to many firsts in Vietnamese American electoral politics. In 1992, businessman Tony Lâm ran for one of the vacant seats in the Westminster City Council. Having lived in Orange County since the late 1970s, where he ran the Viễn Đông restaurant and co-founded the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, Lâm had built a wealth of contacts and allies all the way up to Mayor Chuck Smith. His victory garnered national headlines as he became America’s first elected official of Vietnamese descent. In 2004, attorney Vân Thái Trần, a protégé of State Senator Ed Royce and U.S. Representative Bob Dornan, became the first Vietnamese to serve in a state assembly, where he represented the 68th district. In 2007, Janet Nguyễn became the first Vietnamese to be elected as county supervisor. In 2012, Trí Ta of Westminster became the first Vietnamese to win a mayoral election in the United States. All four politicians ran as Republicans based partly on their own conservative and anti-communist values, but it was also the only realistic way to move up the power structure in a region dominated by Republicans. In addition, Republicans were among the white politicians speaking in defense of Vietnamese Americans in times of need. Mayor Pete Wilson of San Diego was among the first to welcome Vietnamese in 1975 when 54 percent of Americans felt otherwise. Westminster Mayor Kathy Buchoz defended the Vietnamese against white nativists. Her successor, Chuck Smith, helped get Little Saigon designated as a Special Tourist Zone. State Senator Ed Royce reminded locals that the arrest of twenty-four Vietnamese for health insurance fraud should not reflect on Little Saigon as a whole. And Congressman Bob Dornan tirelessly advocated for the two major political constituencies within Little Saigon. Despite the Republican Party’s general insensitivity toward blacks, women, immigrants, and other minorities, there emerged a cozy relationship between them and Vietnamese (as well as Cuban) refugees, partly because the accelerated rags to riches journey of the refugees provided a morally uplifting conclusion to the Vietnam War, an ending that portrays America in a very positive light, an ending conservatives would like to see more of in U.S. textbooks and collective memory.

In November 2014, Bảo Nguyễn became the first ever Vietnamese mayor of Garden Grove, California, defeating incumbent Bruce Broadwater by fifteen votes. Nguyen is best known in the community as the University of California, Irvine, student who in 2000 protested against Senator John McCain for his casual and problematic distinction between “good” Vietnamese Americans and the “gooks” who tortured him for six years in a communist prison. Elders in the refugee community, seeing McCain as a rare political ally they could not afford to alienate, attacked Bảo Nguyen and his comrades. After graduating from UCI with a degree in political science, Nguyen eventually joined the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Trustees. A Democrat who is fluent in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, Nguyen’s success will likely serve as a template for future candidates and coalitions that speak on behalf of constituents not as well served by the traditional Vietnamese-Republican alliance.

Post–Cold War Era and Saving Little Saigon

The post–Cold War reconciliation between Washington and Hanoi carried significant ramifications for Little Saigon. Neoliberals like President Bill Clinton embraced normalization between former enemies as a victory for U.S. capitalism while decades of modernity in Asian republics convinced Hanoi’s communist leadership that capitalism could be treated as an inevitable outgrowth of Eastern society. Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon felt more ambivalent about lifting the American embargo in the absence of mandatory political reforms. Normalization effectively killed the possibility of regime change in the near term and introduced the possibility that the free flow of pro-Hanoi immigrants to America would, in the long term, transform Little Saigon into Little Ho Chi Minh City, and that refugees would lose one of the few spaces left for them to enjoy their version of Vietnamese culture, history, and identity, a version banned in the homeland. The arrival of over 200,000 former political prisoners during the 1990s—known informally as the H.O. people—intensified anti-communist sentiment in Little Saigon, for these families had endured the worst brutalities under the post-1975 regime and thus had the greatest incentive to see that it never gained a foothold in the United States.

The H.O. people were among the thousands who gathered for nearly two months outside a video store displaying the current Vietnamese flag and a portrait of communist hero Hồ Chí Minh. The problems began in January 1999 when the owner of the Hi-Tek video store, Trần Văn Trường, decided after a winter trip to Ho Chi Minh City that he would proudly display these communist symbols at his Bolsa Avenue store in order to “further the dialogue” on how much Vietnam had progressed for the better. He was eventually arrested and evicted from his property for selling pirated videos, but mainstream media treated him as a champion of free speech and the protestors as the champions of intolerance. Westminster city council member Margie Rice, exasperated from Anglo complaints, confessed that, “I feel like (the Vietnamese) are taking over our city, plain and simple. I would think that after 20 years or so of being here and being given the freedoms that they want, they would calm down. By God, how long can you go on fighting this war?”31 In a 2004 documentary entitled Saigon USA, filmmakers Lindsey Jang and Robert Winn explored what they saw as a widening generation gap between anti-communist—i.e., paranoid—parents and their Americanized—i.e., normal—children.32

Mainstream media, by refusing to view the incident through a transnational lens, left the impression that protestors were ignorant of American laws and customs—such as free speech—when in fact the protesters were fully aware that only in America could they engage in dissent against the government of Vietnam and have it heard around the world. When viewed through a transnational lens, refugees were not refusing to become American, but rather taking full advantage of their status as Americans. The high concentration of Vietnamese in Orange County gives them the political leverage at the local level necessary to maintain the types of “Cold War refuge” that is not possible in communities with a smaller percentage of Vietnamese Americans.33

Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, CaliforniaClick to view larger

Figure 5. Since 2003, Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon have gathered at the Vietnamese-American War Memorial to commemorate the end of the war, a day known in the community as Black April. The portrayal of South Vietnamese and American soldiers standing side by side as equal partners is more a reflection of the social standing Vietnamese Americans have attained in Little Saigon than any actual Anglo memories of the wartime relationship. Photo courtesy of Phuong Nguyen.

The political priorities of the H.O. people in the midst of normalization helped to frame the transformation of Frank Fry from local bête noire to populist friend of the South Vietnamese. Starting in 1996, Mayor Fry supported the construction of a Vietnam War Memorial that also honored America’s allies, telling his constituents, “It’s the only place in the world where you’ll see an American and a [South] Vietnamese standing side by side on the battlefield.”34 Indeed, the memorial displayed a level of American respect and admiration for South Vietnamese that hardly existed during the actual war. But when an official from communist Vietnam demanded that the statue instead depict American and North Vietnamese soldiers standing side by side in a show of friendship, the entire community of Westminster rallied behind the refugee statue. The memorial was finally unveiled on April 2003 to a packed audience at Freedom Park in Westminster.

Following the Hi-Tek protests of 1999, community members took more preemptive, yet controversial, measures to save Little Saigon from extinction. The majority-white city leaders of Westminster and Garden Grove, wanting no repeat of the costly and embarrassing Hi-Tek protests, were happy to have their towns declared Communist Free Zones. Little Saigon led the way in city councils passing resolutions recognizing the yellow flag of the defunct Republic of Vietnam as the official flag of the overseas Vietnamese community, fixing a refugee identity on a population in flux. Beginning in 2000, local refugee newspapers published oral histories from the older generation. Cal State Fullerton University did the same in 2000, while the Southeast Asian Archive at UC Irvine followed suit in 2011. Vietnamese now make up over 40 percent of Westminster, the largest concentration in any American city, giving this Asian American group tremendous potential political clout, assuming they can reach consensus on issues. When asked if Little Saigon would survive the double onslaught of cultural assimilation and immigration from post–Cold War Vietnam, one prominent community member postulated, “The day you see democracy in Vietnam is the day Little Saigon is no longer needed.” Whether they succeed in preserving Little Saigon will also depend on how committed the younger generation remain to refugee identity, how morally obligated the rest of American society feels about keeping Little Saigon intact, and how new migrants from Vietnam feel about maintaining a community whose ethnic history and identity, though claiming to be authentic, is not currently allowed to exist in the homeland.

Discussion of the Literature

The literature on Vietnamese Americans has primarily focused on the question of assimilation. Social scientists of the 1970s and 1980s used case studies of Vietnamese Americans to determine whether the particularly traumatic experiences and memories of refugees put them on a different trajectory of structural adaptation than that of regular immigrants. These studies by concerned liberal scholars treated the refugee experience, one borne of war and trauma and the desire to return home, as something inherently problematic with unforeseen effects on the mental health and economic well-being. They wondered whether refugees could become American. Representative studies of that period include Gail Paradise Kelly’s From Vietnam to America: A Chronicle of the Vietnamese Immigration to the United States (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977); Darrel Montero’s Vietnamese Americans: Patterns of Resettlement and Socioeconomic Adaptation in the United States (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1979); and Walter Liu’s Transition to Nowhere: Vietnamese Refugees in America (Nashville: Charter House, 1979).

Early ethnic studies scholars, who had posed an alternative model of Americanization whereby immigrants become racialized in the United States, wondered aloud if Vietnamese Americans’ apparent obsession with the past and returning to the homeland functioned as a form of false consciousness that obscured their ability to collectively mobilize against social issues in their midst. In other words, they wondered if Vietnamese refugees could assume the socio-historical identity known as Asian American, as people aware and equipped to deal with racism and economic inequality. A few studies attempted to awaken an Asian American panethnic consciousness within Vietnamese Americans. These include Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore (Boston: Penguin, 1989); Nazli Kibria’s A Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995); and Min Zhou and Carl Bankston’s Growing up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999); and Sucheng Chan’s, The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight and New Beginnings (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

A new generation of ethnic studies scholars, influenced to a certain degree by cultural studies, have not treated refugee identity as simply false consciousness, but as a social reality shaped by historical, material, social, and cultural forces in and outside the United States. Such works highlight the contingent and contextual nature of social identities, particularly the structural conditions that encourage refugee gratitude toward the United States. Studies in this mold include Karin Aguilar-San Juan’s Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Nhi T. Lieu’s The American Dream in Vietnamese (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Mimi Nguyen’s The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Kieu-Linh Valverde’s Transnationalizing Vietnam: Community, Culture, and Politics in the Diaspora (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013); Yen Le Espiritu’s Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); and Phuong Nguyen’s forthcoming social and cultural history of Little Saigon, Becoming Refugee American.

Primary Sources

The Southeast Asian Archive at the University of California, Irvine, is the single largest repository of primary sources on the Vietnamese in America. There one can locate archived periodicals in English and Vietnamese such as the Orange County Register, Người Việt Daily News, Viet Weekly, and Viet Tide. In 2011, the Archive embarked on an ambitious oral history project to collect stories from hundreds of local Vietnamese Americans. Their offices house a variety of State Department reports related to Vietnamese refugees from 1975 onward. The Special Collections Department contains a variety of rare documents such as the records of Washington, DC’s, Southeast Asia Resource Center (1975–2003); photographs from refugee camps in Southeast Asia; the Gayle Morrison Files on Southeast Asian Refugees in Community Colleges; interviews and clippings by scholar Sucheng Chan; and photographs from a variety of locations from 1975 to the present.

The Hoover Institution at Stanford University has an extensive collection of refugee case files from 1946 to 1989, a time span that includes refugees from Europe after World War II, from Hungary after 1956, from Cuba after 1959, and Vietnam after 1975. These documents will be in English. Both the SEAA and Hoover materials, along with other primary sources, can be located on the Online Archive of California.

The Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on the U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. As such, most of the documents are in English and can be easily located through their online search engine. The Center promotes all points of view about the Vietnam War and administers scholarships, outreach programs, conferences, and symposiums to bring people together to better understand this important period of history. The VNCA website can be found here.

Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, is home to a vast collection of newspapers and periodicals such as the newspapers from the 1975 U.S.-based refugee camps and those of diasporic communities in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Berkeley, Washington DC, Quebec, Tokyo, and Portland. They also have publications from post-1975 Vietnam and pro-Hanoi publications in the United States such as Thái Bình. They have several copies of the newspaper Kháng Chiến, published by the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, a major anti-communist organization from the early 1980s. Most of these documents will be in Vietnamese.

Further Reading

Aguilar-San Juan, Karin. Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Chan, Sucheng. The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight and New Beginnings. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Do, Yen, and Jeffrey Brody. Yen Do and the Story of Nguoi Viet Daily News. Fullerton, CA: Jeffrey Brody, 2003.Find this resource:

Espiritu, Yen Le. Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Kibria, Nazli. Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Lieu, Nhi T. The American Dream in Vietnamese. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Nguyen, Mimi. The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Valverde, Kieu-Linh Caroline. Transnationalizing Vietnam: Community, Culture, and Politics in the Diaspora. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

The Vietnamese Community in Orange County: An Oral History. 4 vols. Santa Ana, CA: Newhope Library, 1991–1992.Find this resource:

Zhou, Min, and Carl Bankston, III. Growing up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Interview with Alicia Cooper, The Vietnamese Community in Orange County: An Oral History III: Refugee Service Programs and Mutual Assistance Associations (Santa Ana, CA: Newhope Library, 1992), 117.

(2.) “The Evacuees,” Orange County Register, April 25, 1975, C6.

(3.) Andy Rose, “Down on its Luck: Westminster’s Saddled with a Corrupt Past and an Uncertain Future,” Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1986, OC-A1.

(4.) The combined total of the U.S. Catholic Conference (52,100), Church World Service (17,864), the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (15,897), and United Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (3,531), amounted to 74.7 percent of 119,591 total 1975 refugees resettled in the United States. Gail Paradise Kelly, From Vietnam to America: A Chronicle of the Vietnamese Immigration to the United States (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977), 152. For more on the role of churches in receiving refugees see Helen Fein, Congregational Sponsors of Indochinese Refugees in the United States, 1979–1981: Helping Beyond Borders (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987); Ann Crittenden, Sanctuary: A Story of American Conscience and the Law in Collision (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988); and William E. Nawyn, American Protestantism’s Response to Germany’s Jews and Refugees, 1933–1941 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981).

(5.) Ellen Matthews, Culture Clash (Chicago: Intercultural Press, 1983), x.

(6.) “Lutherans to Care for 10,000 Viet Refugees,” Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1975, A7.

(7.) John Dart, “Southland Churches Gear Up to Aid Asian Refugees,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1975, A26.

(8.) Out of 24,522 families surveyed at Camp Pendleton, approximately 37 percent of families—including extended families—had five or more members. Walter Liu, Transition to Nowhere: Vietnamese Refugees in America (Nashville: Charter House, 1979), 45.

(9.) Interview with Alicia Cooper, The Vietnamese Community in Orange County: An Oral History III: Refugee Service Programs and Mutual Assistance Associations (Santa Ana, CA: Newhope Library, 1992), 119.

(10.) Howard Seelye, “Agencies Take Steps to Ease Overcrowding,” Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1976, OC1.

(11.) Phạm Văn Phổ, “A Lot Changes in 20 Years,” Hiệp Nhất 28 (April 1995), 17.

(12.) Monsignor Nguyễn Duc Tien, “The Vietnamese Catholic Community at 20 (1975–1995)” Hiệp Nhất 28 (April 1995), 5.

(13.) For more on Vietnamese Catholicism and religion in general, see Paul James Rutledge, The Role of Religion in Ethnic Self-Identity: A Vietnamese Community (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985); The Vietnamese Community in Orange County: An Oral History II: Religion and Resettlement of Vietnamese Refugees in Orange County (Santa Ana, CA: Newhope Public Library, 1991); Jesse W. Nash, Vietnamese Catholicism (Harvey, LA: Art Review Press, 1992); and Douglas M. Padgett, Religion, Memory, and Imagination in Vietnamese California (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2007).

(14.) Letter from Vietnamese Friends Club, Santa Ana College, to Community Business Managers, January 12, 1978; Program for Tet Santa Ana College, February 7, 1978; Gayle Morrison Collection, University of California at Irvine.

(15.) Letter to HEW Refugee Task Force, June 27, 1978, Gayle Morrison Collection, University of California at Irvine.

(16.) Santa Ana College, New Horizons, Orange County Child Care Resource Guide, October 1979, Gayle Morrison Collection, University of California at Irvine.

(17.) Interview with Mai Cong, The Vietnamese Community in Orange County: An Oral History III: Refugee Service Programs and Mutual Assistance Associations (Santa Ana, CA: Newhope Library, 1992), 73–74.

(18.) Interview with Tony Lam, Westminster, CA, April 2007.

(19.) Interview with Nam Loc, April 2007.

(20.) Trang Den magazine, advertisement for Man Wah, March 6, 1976, 1:1, 42.

(21.) For more on the San Gabriel Valley’s transformation, mostly by sociologists, see Leland Saito, Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb (Urbana and Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 1998); John Horton, The Politics of Diversity: Immigration, Resistance, and Change in Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995); Timothy Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); and Wei Li, “Building Ethnoburbia: The Emergence and Manifestation of the Chinese Ethnoburb in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley,” Journal of Asian American Studies 2, no. 1 (February 1999), 1–28.

(22.) Jeffrey Brody, “Frank Jao: Real-Estate and Power Broker,” Orange County Register, January 11, 1987, C01.

(23.) Rev. Nguyễn Xuan Bao, the founder of Vietnamese Christian Reformed Church, remembers upon his arrival to Orange County in 1982 that, “the biggest market among many others was Wai-Wai (which was owned by Duong Huu Chuong).” The Vietnamese Community in Orange County, An Oral History, vol. 2: Religion & Resttlement of Vietnamese Refugees in Orange County (Santa Ana, CA: Newhope Library, 1991), 46.

(24.) Holley, David, “Orange County’s ‘Little Saigon’: Chinese, Vietnamese Feel Tension, But They Coexist,” Los Angeles Times, OC edition, October 3, 1984, 1.

(25.) Holley, David, “Orange County’s ‘Little Saigon’: Chinese, Vietnamese Feel Tension, But They Coexist,” Los Angeles Times, OC edition, October 3, 1984, 1.

(26.) Associated Press, “Businesses Up 415% Among Vietnamese,” Sun-Sentinel, August 5, 1991, 33; Ronald Campbell, “Vietnamese-Americans Make Business Their Life,” Orange County Register, August 2, 1991, A1.

(27.) Paddock, Richard, “Governor Courts ‘Little Saigon’ Votes,” Los Angeles Times, 18 June 1988, 1.

(28.) Do, Yen, with Jeff Brody, Yen Do and the Story of Nguoi Viet Daily News (Fullerton, CA: Jeffrey Brody, 2003), 45–46.

(29.) Do and Brody, Yen and the Story, 15.

(30.) The ad for Kingsplace tract homes appeared in the April 24,1980, issue of Người Việt Ca Li. The ad for the Saigon Shopping Center at the corner of Bolsa and Magnolia, complete with 20,000 square feet of retail space and 60,000 square feet of parking space, appeared in the Tết 1982 edition (nos. 41 and 42) of Người Việt.

(31.) Schmidt, Steve, “Little Saigon still reeling from Ho Chi Minh Poster,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 3, 1999, A1.

(32.) The protests in front of the Hi-Tek video store also brought out clear divisions among Vietnamese Americans. Most conspicuously, it revealed the growing voice of younger, American-raised ethnics who had no memories of suffering under the Communists or any interest in Vietnam whatsoever. More likely their parents or grandparents to identify as American, this generation did not suffer from refugee nationalism’s deference to the host country. Therefore they found it easier to not vote Republican without feeling vulnerable against conservative attacks questioning their loyalty to America.

(33.) Maureen Feeney, Freedom to Speak: Vietnamese Reeducation and the Search for Cold War Refuge (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2002).

(34.) Gail Schiller, “Vietnam War Dead Saluted,” San Jose Mercury News, April 28, 2003.