Orange County’s ethnic enclave has become the blueprint for cities worldwide. Its influence reaches Vietnam.
Given that it hasn’t existed as an official city in nearly four decades, Saigon remains a powerful idea.
In the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, the sprawling metropolis known as Saigon until Communists took over in 1975, there is an 18-room boutique hotel near City Hall called … Little Saigon.
In Beijing; Singapore; Munich; Newcastle upon Tyne, England; Dayton, Ohio; and Springfield, Ill.; there are restaurants called … Little Saigon. In Houston, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle; even in Biloxi, Miss. – banners, street signs or simple word of mouth proclaim entire neighborhoods … Little Saigon.
And in San Jose, a city councilwoman faced a recall battle and an activist staged a hunger strike when officials were slow to designate a mile-long stretch of street as … Little Saigon.
THE ‘GRANDDADDY OF LITTLE SAIGONS’
A reason for all that – and more – is the Little Saigon in Westminster, one of Orange County’s most visible and influential cultural exports. The densely packed neighborhood of shopping malls and pho joints generates trends in music, food and business that resonate around the world – even in Vietnam itself.
Approximately 3 million people who identify themselves as Vietnamese now live outside Vietnam. For older members of that diaspora, Orange County’s Little Saigon is a powerful symbol of Vietnamese resilience and success. Just the name “Saigon” is a reminder of a pre-Communist era, a demonstration that exiled Vietnamese can start over and thrive, no matter where they end up.
For younger Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans, Little Saigon is something more straightforward – a place to eat, to hear the latest pop sensation or to start a business that might go international.
“Little Saigon in Orange County is the granddaddy of Little Saigons,” said Andrea Nguyen, a food writer from Santa Cruz who grew up in San Clemente. “It’s sort of like the mecca.”
Officially named by Gov. George Deukmejian in a 1988 ceremony (the governor rubbed a Buddha statue outside the Asian Garden Mall for good luck), Orange County’s Little Saigon is home to 183,766 Vietnamese – more than 10 percent of all Vietnamese in America.
About 40 percent of the population of Westminster is of Vietnamese descent; adjacent Garden Grove is about one-third Vietnamese. Combined, the two cities are home to more than 88,000 Vietnamese Americans. The size and density of those neighborhoods give Little Saigon a uniquely influential concentration of economic and cultural energy.
Frances Nguyen, the first Vietnamese president of Westminster’s Chamber of Commerce, said she’s fielded phone calls from Vietnamese businesspeople in San Jose, Houston, Dallas, Virginia, Washington, Oregon and Boston, all of them seeking to emulate Orange County’s commercial success.
“Mostly they asked, ‘How do you go mainstream?'” said Nguyen, who owns a trophy store on Westminster Boulevard.
Little Saigon is home to roughly 2,000 Vietnamese-owned businesses, including Vietnamese-language newspapers, television studios and radio stations with national or international audiences. Thuy Nga Productions and Asia Entertainment, recording studios headquartered in Little Saigon, are among the world’s largest purveyors of Vietnamese popular entertainment. The YouTube channels for both companies have racked up nearly 10 million views.
Music and television shows produced in Orange County are avidly consumed wherever Vietnamese have settled, said Nhi Lieu, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Lieu’s 2011 book, “The American Dream in Vietnamese,” tracks the influence of Thuy Nga on Vietnamese culture around the world.
Lieu pointed to one Thuy Nga production, in particular, an annual musical revue called “Paris by Night,” as especially influential. Pirated versions of “Paris by Night” circulate freely in Vietnam, she said, and the show has become a cultural touchstone in a nation still rebuilding after decades of war and colonial rule.
“People in Vietnam are sometimes even more attuned to productions made in the U.S. than Vietnamese Americans are,” Lieu said. “They’re learning what it is to be Vietnamese” from U.S.-made CDs and DVDs.
Lieu, who grew up in Alhambra, said her own Little Saigon memories center on family trips to Orange County to stock up on ingredients for traditional holiday dishes. Lieu said her parents assembled care packages and mailed them to relatives in Vietnam, frequenting stores that specialized in overseas shipments.
Lieu was fascinated by the wrapping.
“It was intense wrapping and securing of boxes so the Communists won’t pry it open and take it away. Tucked into certain things, there was money hidden away, totally surreptitious.”
Lieu said the tense relationship between mostly South Vietnamese refugees in Orange County’s Little Saigon and the communist regime in Vietnam is part of what gives Little Saigon its special resonance to the rest of the Vietnamese diaspora.
“Little Saigon is viewed as a source of pride, as a relic of our culture in American society,” Lieu said. “It’s a site of heritage and remembrance that connects back to the war.”
Which might explain why the name Little Saigon still sparks controversy.
A few years ago, Irene Lam, an optometrist in Oklahoma City, established a multicultural event center in a historic building in the heart of her city’s Vietnamese neighborhood. Lam, who is of Chinese descent, hung the flags of 50 countries outside the center, including the current Vietnamese flag.
Soon she was face-to-face with representatives of the city’s Vietnamese community who “marched in and yelled at me.”
The flag of the former South Vietnam – a flag for which many Vietnamese died – was not included.
“I didn’t even know what was going on,” Lam said.
Similar outrage flared four years ago in San Jose, after the City Council blocked efforts to designate a three-block stretch east of downtown as Little Saigon.
When San Jose Councilwoman Madison Nguyen proposed calling the area “Saigon Business District” instead, she was confronted by angry crowds, a hunger striker and, eventually, an attempted recall.
Nguyen survived the recall effort, but community activists named the area Little Saigon anyway, raising private money for a series of banners that now line the street proclaiming, “Welcome to Little Saigon.”
The neighborhood, on Story Road, is smaller than Orange County’s Little Saigon. It is centered around a pink stucco mall mostly filled with jewelry stores and a food court.
Still, community members insisted on a name that gave their district a symbolic connection to Orange County’s Little Saigon.
“Non-Vietnamese don’t quite understand why there is a struggle to keep the name Little Saigon,” said Thuan Nguyen, a San Jose real estate agent who co-founded the area’s Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce.
“Outside Little Saigon, it’s just a name. It means nothing. But to people who have suffered and sacrificed to get their freedom, they feel strongly why that name is important to them,” Nguyen said.
“It means it’s our dreams, not only for us to seek freedom and opportunity and all of those things, but also (so that) our children will have better opportunities for themselves, better education, more freedom.”
Andrea Nguyen, the food writer, pointed to the Boiling Crab crawfish restaurant chain as an example of Orange County’s ability to transform Vietnamese aspirations into trends with worldwide influence.
Opened in 2004 in a Garden Grove strip mall by Vietnamese transplants from Arlington, Texas, the restaurant spawned a crawfish craze that has spread to Vietnamese enclaves in Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Houston and Dallas.
Although crawfish isn’t native Vietnamese cuisine, it was adopted by Vietnamese refugees who settled along America’s Gulf Coast as fishermen after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Nguyen, who in 2006 was a James Beard Award finalist for food writing, says her readers have told her about crawfish restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2010, Vietnamese authorities moved to crack down on farmers illegally raising imported American crawfish for use in restaurants.
The authorities feared the crawfish might overwhelm native species. A story in Viet Nam News, a national English-language daily, called the crustaceans “aggressive, omnivorous and adaptable.”
“If I were to want to find the latest Vietnamese ingredients being imported to the U.S., I would spend time in Little Saigon markets,” Nguyen says.
“That’s how I put my finger on the pulse of Vietnamese America. … It’s not exactly like being in Vietnam, per se. But it’s nice. You get a sense of Vietnam in America.”