Big Plans for Little Saigon

April 17, 2007

Baby Boom: A father stops to tie his shoe at the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster, Calif., while his son enjoys a drink. While immigration from Vietnam is expected to level off, the community is expected to continue to grow with the addition of American-born Vietnamese. Photo by David Kawashima

By Bert Eljera

It exudes the serene dignity of a Buddhist temple-green, pagoda-style tile roof, gleaming white pillars, and fiery red wood trims that seem to glow in the morning sun.

A landscaped courtyard with brilliant flowers, sculpted trees, and a gushing fountain is dotted with tables and benches often filled with people chatting, playing Chinese checkers, or reading newspapers.

On a concrete pedestal near the entrance of the two-story building, a statue of a Happy Buddha extends its arms in warm welcome. Behind it are stone statues of the gods of Longevity, Prosperity, and Fortune.

The Asian Garden Mall is a mall like no other. While it projects spirituality outside, it’s also a monument to commerce, housing gift shops, hair salons, and some of the largest jewelry stores in Southern California.

Built in 1987, it’s the center of Little Saigon-a slice of Vietnam that Vietnamese immigrants and refugees now consider their cultural home in affluent and conservative Orange County.

“Old Saigon is no more, the Communists have seen to that,” said Tony Lam, a member of the Westminster City Council and one of the first Vietnamese Americans to open a business in Little Saigon. “We wanted to create something here in America that will remind us of who we are.”

The Communists changed the name of Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, to Ho Chi Minh City when they took over in 1975.

But Saigon, once known as the Paris of the Orient, is, in a sense, thriving here in Westminster.

Its soul is reflected in the Chinese architecture and French Colonial designs of the new buildings and structures along Bolsa Avenue. An aroma reminiscent of old Saigon wafts through the hundreds of restaurants which offer the best cuisine from North, Central, and South Vietnam.

Vietnamese music blares from records stores and shops. In the evening, Vietnamese Americans, mostly young people, flock to karaoke bars, where they sing along to popular Vietnamese ballads.

Along a one-mile stretch of Bolsa Avenue, from Ward to Magnolia streets, thousands of businesses-shops, cafes, restaurants, supermarkets, and professional offices-cater to Orange County’s 150,000 Vietnamese residents, the largest population outside Vietnam.

Little Saigon, which started with a few stores in 1975, now covers roughly four city-blocks, reaching the edges of nearby Garden Grove and Santa Ana.

The district pumps about $500,000 a year in sales and property taxes to Westminster, city officials say.

About 300,000 visitors, mostly Vietnamese Americans from throughout the United States, visit Little Saigon each year, according to Lam and other city officials.

In business: Con Huynh, owner of the Hoa Phung jewelry store at the Asian Garden Mall, says business has been up and down the past three years but is picking up again as summer nears. Vietnamese, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, and Thais are his biggest customers. Photo by David Kawashima

Now, a $4.5-million project is under way to promote Little Saigon as a tourist destination, and position it as part of a triangle that includes Disneyland in Anaheim and Knotts Berry Farm in Buena Park, both less than five miles away.

The ambitious project includes a pedestrian bridge over Bolsa Avenue that will connect Asian Garden Mall with the Asian Village Center; a new, mini-mall; a temple; and a plaza with kiosks, fountains, benches, and walking and jogging paths.

An artist’s rendering shows the bridge, which will be 30-feet-wide and 500-feet-long, with a pagoda-style roof and decorated with calligraphy and murals reflecting Vietnamese culture. The sign says: Welcome to Little Saigon, Westminster.

Construction is scheduled to begin sometime this summer and is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

“In the eyes of people, this is basically a business district now,” said Frank Jao, who is the owner of Bridgecreek Group Inc. and also considered the builder of Little Saigon. His company owns the Asian Garden Mall and Asian Village Center.

“We want to see more of a cultural style and flavor,” Jao said. “In order to attract tourists, you need that atmosphere. They don’t come just to shop.”

That Jao, Lam, and other Westminster city officials now talk of Little Saigon as a tourist destination underscores the tremendous changes the area has seen over the past 25 years.

Back in 1975, the area now known as Little Saigon was a cluster of run-down strip malls, machine shops, auto repair shops, strawberry fields, and aging mobile home parks.

In more than two decades, Vietnamese immigrants and refugees have transformed it into an ever-growing business center with the potential of becoming the capital in the expanding trade arena with Vietnam, Hong Kong, and other Pacific Rim countries.

“It literally exploded,” said Westminster Mayor Chuck Smith. “The development there was just unbelievable. It’s been very positive for the city.”

The first wave of Vietnamese refugees-about 130,000-arrived in 1975, shortly after the fall of Saigon. Most of the new arrivals were placed at a refugee camp in Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in El Toro in south Orange County, where they were processed for resettlement.

Among the refugees were Lam and Jao, who both fled Vietnam with their families. Lam, 59, an official in South Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture, became the camp manager at Camp Pendleton, an experience that would later thrust him into politics.

In 1992, he became the first Vietnamese to be elected to public office in the United States when he won a two-year seat on the Westminster City Council. He won re-election in 1994. Lam said most of the Vietnamese refugees decided to stay in Orange County, attracted to the weather and to the abundance of jobs in the defense industry as a result of the Cold War-era military buildup.

Lam, who now owns a restaurant in Garden Grove, got his financial start with a job as an insurance agent and opened an office on Bolsa Avenue. The area’s low rent and potential for expansion made it an attractive location for other potential business owners as well. A jewelry store and a food market opened shortly thereafter. Eventually, a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, and the first big supermarket-Ho Binh market-opened as more businesses started to sprout along the Bolsa corridor.

But it was not until the arrival of Jao, who was born to Chinese parents in Hai Phong, North Vietnam, that the construction of Little Saigon began in earnest.

After his brief stay at the Camp Pendleton resettlement camp, Jao got a job selling Kirby vacuum cleaners, hawking his merchandise door-to-door in Garden Grove.

A business graduate in Vietnam, Jao was determined to establish his own business and began studying real estate. He got his license in 1976.

Two years later, he founded Bridgecreek Realty, earning $40,000 in commissions his first year. Not content just brokering deals, he began buying properties and, in 1978, formed Bridgecreek Group Inc. with the help of friends and Chinese investors.

His first big break came in 1980 when he bought a rundown shopping center on Bolsa Avenue and renovated it. By 1986, he owned three shopping centers and, in 1987, built the jewel of his growing empire-the 150,000-square-foot Asian Garden Mall.

Today, Bridgecreek Group Inc. owns eight shopping centers and an office building, valued at more than $300 million and constituting at least one-third of Little Saigon, according to the latest estimates.

All this is quite an accomplishment for someone who arrived in this country with $50 in his pocket. “I believe destiny controls what we do,” said Jao, 45. “Everyone should do whatever they can to be a success. After that, it’s in God’s hands.”

But Jao, who changed his last name from “Trieu” to “Jao,” the Chinese version, has his critics within the Vietnamese community, which has been beset by deep divisions despite the business successes of some of its members.

Where We Are

The first boatloads of South Vietnamese political refugees arrived in the U.S. during the mid-1960s at the start of the Vietnamese conflict and, by 1970, 3,788 had settled in the U.S.

Immigration rose drastically during the conflict and in its aftermath. By 1980, the Vietnamese American population was recorded at 245,025 and, by 1990, the cumulative immigrant and native-born Vietnamese American population totaled 614,547.

Vietnamese Americans currently make up 8.6 percent of all Asian Americans and tend to live in concentrated areas in California and the West. The top 12 areas based on ethnic Vietnamese population are:

Metropolitan Area Japanese Pop. % of Total.
Anaheim-Santa Ana 71,822 3.0
Los Angeles-Long Beach 62,594 0.7
San Jose 54,212 3.6
Houston 33,035 1.0
Washington 23,408 0.6
San Diego 21,118 0.9
Oakland 16,732 0.8
Seattle 12,617 0.8
San Francisco 12,451 0.8
Dallas 11,522 0.5
New Orleans 11,419 0.9
Riverside-San Bernardino 11,315 0.4

Some former business associates have called Jao “greedy” and some have even started their own businesses after relations with Jao soured.

Others have recognized Jao for his contributions to the Vietnamese community. Kathy Buchoz, who served four years on the Westminster council in the 1980s, including one year as mayor, thinks Jao is an astute businessman who has done a lot for Vietnamese Americans.

She said Jao had the vision to see the opportunities for an emerging community and had the courage to follow through. “He made all these things happen,” Buchoz said. She now works for Jao as vice president of Bridgecreek Realty, which manages the Jao properties.

But business jealousies pale in comparison to the strong political dissension within the Vietnamese community over the issue of how to deal with the Communist government in Vietnam.

For years, the community was divided into factions: those who favored some economic and political ties with the Communists and those who refused any contact with them at all.

Leaders, such as Lam, who advocated some form of dialogue with the Communist leaders in Vietnam were branded Communist sympathizers.

Sometimes, the consequences of such advocacy were serious, perhaps even deadly.

Nine years ago, publisher Tap Van Pham was killed in an arson fire after his magazine published ads which some interpreted to favor the Communist government. His killers have not been identified.

Others, including the owners of Little Saigon Television and Radio-the largest Vietnamese media company in Southern California-have received death or bomb threats.

Trang Nguyen said she and her staff received death threats after her company began broadcasting interviews of Vietnamese leaders by the British Broadcasting Corp.

A contract with the BBC that was established two years ago allows her company to transmit BBC broadcasts in Vietnamese, which are then relayed to Little Saigon’s affiliate stations in Houston and other cities.

“They said we were being used by the Communists,” said Nguyen, a graduate of San Diego State, who said some Vietnamese immigrants have a distorted view of the media. “We were just doing our job, which is to inform the public.”

The protests were not limited to the media. Dr. Co Pham, president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce and owner of a medical building in Little Saigon, drew the ire of some Vietnamese immigrants when he hosted a reception for a visiting Vietnamese official three years ago.

In 1994, when he proposed a trade delegation to Vietnam, his office was repeatedly picketed. “It’s an emotional issue, and I don’t blame them,” Co said at the time. “Many of them were victims. But it’s important to forget the past and look to the future and rebuild Vietnam.”

Lam said that some so-called community leaders were exploiting the pain of those who suffered in the hands of the Communists to promote their own agenda.

After the first wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1975, a second wave came in the 1980s, comprised mostly of “boat people” who fled Vietnam in small, dangerous boats. Many have spent time in resettlement camps in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines before eventually being resettled in the United States.

Unlike most of the first wave who were educated, well-off Vietnamese with ties to the Americans, the second wave were ordinary folks with limited English-language skills.

Welcome To Little Saigon: A 500 foot bridge connecting the Asian Garden Maill with the Asian Village Center is the centerpiece of a new effort to attract visitors. Illustration by Vincent Dinh

In the late 1980s, about 39,000 Amerasians-children of American fathers and Vietnamese mothers-were admitted into the U.S. After an agreement was forged with the Vietnamese government, former prisoners of Communist labor camps were also allowed an orderly entry into the U.S.

It was this latter group of Vietnamese-elderly, sickly and some horribly tortured by the Communists-who were most adamant about forging relations with Vietnam, Lam said.

But the polarization in the Vietnamese community has eased with the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam two years ago, according to Yen Do, publisher of the Nguoi Viet Daily News, the largest daily newspaper in Little Saigon.

“The situation is better, people are less into politics,” said Do, 56, a respected Saigon journalist before he left Vietnam in 1975. “To have relations with Vietnam is no longer against the law, and many people welcome that.”

He said that as more young people-who have no memory about the Vietnam war and its aftermath-take over Vietnamese American businesses, trade with Vietnam is inevitable.

Two weeks ago, the observance of the Southeast Asia Genocide Remembrance Week, which in the past has been used to protest abuses of the Vietnamese government, attracted few participants. Do said that this is an indication that political fervor is waning.

This less political, more business-oriented environment is just fine for Tinh Dinh and Martin Tran, both former soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army, who now are more concerned with trying to make a living in their adopted country. This week, Dinh and Tran were relaxing at the Asian Garden Mall, sipping coffee and reminiscing about Vietnam.

“I come here almost everyday,” said Dinh, 40, who works on the night shift at a plating company in Westminster. “I like it here in America. There is freedom. I’m human.”

Dinh spent four years in a Communist labor camp, and came to the U.S. five years ago.

Tran lost his right eye in battle during the Vietnam war, and was jailed by the Communists from 1975 to 1980. He arrived in the U.S. in 1982, leaving his wife and five children in Vietnam.

Tran has been out of work for several years now, unable to bring his family over. “I live alone. I’m lonely and very sick,” he said. He added that he finds comfort in his daily trips to Little Saigon, where he can meet his friends.

Little Saigon at a Glance

A Westminster City Council resolution in 1988 designated the area along Bolsa Avenue, between Ward and Magnolia streets, as Little Saigon.

Located in this area of less than one-square-mile are five banks, six major shopping centers, eight bakeries, and thousands of shops, cafes, restaurants, jewelry stores, hair salons, and professional offices in what is considered the largest Vietnamese business enclave outside of Vietnam.

About 300,000 Vietnamese Americans visit the area each year, and plans are now under way to convert Little Saigon into a tourist destination.

The plans include building a bridge connecting two of the largest shopping centers-Asian Garden Mall and Asian Village Center-plus a mini-mall, a temple, and a landscaped courtyard.

A hotel, a cultural center, a French Quarter with sidewalk cafes, and Asian-style lamps are among the future plans, as Little Saigon merchants try to lure tourists visiting nearby Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm.

Little Saigon now covers roughly four city-blocks in Westminster and is continuing to expand into nearby Garden Grove and Santa Ana, where a majority of Orange County’s estimated 150,000 Vietnamese immigrants live.

But while Little Saigon seems to offer nearly everything for people like Dinh and Tran-food, clothes, jewelry and other merchandise-there’s very little for young people.

There are no bowling alleys, skating rinks, movie houses, or McDonald’s, said Tracie Mai, 21, who lives in nearby Santa Ana.

“There’s nothing there for us,” Mai said. “It’s a place for older people. It’s not a fun place to hang out. We go there by necessity, to eat or buy groceries.”

Tracie and her sisters, Stacy, 18, and Samantha, 15, along with a friend, Trang To, 15, were enjoying a late lunch of noodle soup, shrimp, egg roll, and salad at Lam’s Garden Grove restaurant.

Stacy Mai, a senior at Santa Ana’s Valley High School, said there is a perception that young people who hang out in Little Saigon are gang members.

“A lot of Vietnamese teenagers are into gangs,” she said. “They think it’s the cool and macho thing to do.”

Lt. Andrew Hall of the Westminster Police Department said some of the coffee houses in Little Saigon have become the hangouts of gang members.

After several gang-related incidents this year, the Westminster council passed an ordinance requiring coffee shops to install more lighting, limit the number of video games, and close at midnight.

Owners are also required to have special permits for karaoke, send patrons under 18 home at 10 p.m., and ban smoking. Coffee owners have complained, but the council adopted the ordinance with little discussion.

Police have identified five Vietnamese gangs in Westminster, with a membership of about 500 people. This has raised some concern among residents, particularly with the elderly in mobile home parks near Little Saigon.

In an effort to reach out to the Vietnamese community, the Westminster Police Department has hired four Vietnamese officers, and once maintained a police substation in Little Saigon.

Budget cuts forced the substation to close, but a police service officer now works several times a week to help residents and businesses in Little Saigon.

Jenny Truong, a mother of two, was hired three years ago as police service officer. Her job includes translating for Vietnamese immigrants with limited English-language skills.

“There is a perception that the police are out to get people,” Truong said. “It’s part of my job to explain that we’re not. We’re here to help.”

In addition, Westminster has initiated some innovative programs to help the Vietnamese community, which makes up about 14 percent of the city’s 83,000 residents. One such program pairs a grandmother or grandfather with an elementary school pupil in an after-school tutoring program.

Often the grandparent is white or Latino and the child is Vietnamese. The tutoring program is conducted at the senior center.

“We have to provide a safe place for kids to go after school,” said Marge Shellington, former president of the Boys and Girls Club of Westminster. “We have to open our hearts. Each of us has come from somewhere and these [Vietnamese] kids need our help.”

Shellington said the city’s predominantly white residents have learned to accept the new immigrants.

“There will always be people who hate everybody but themselves,” Shellington said. “But, I think, overall, people have accepted the reality that the new immigrants enrich our community.”

Shellington is running for one of two city council seats at stake in the November election, and has actively sought the support of Vietnamese American leaders.

From refugees 25 years ago, Vietnamese Americans are now considered key political and economic players in Orange County, the state, and the nation.

Every major Republican candidate-from Sen. Bob Dole to Gov. Pete Wilson-has made the pilgrimage to Little Saigon to court Asian votes and contributions. They stroked the belly of the Happy Buddha at the entrance of the Asian Garden Mall for good luck, and toasted the Vietnamese immigrants for their entrepreneurial spirit.

The bridge in Little Saigon will serve a practical as well as symbolic purpose: to give shoppers better access to the stores and to provide a cultural link to Vietnam’s past. “We want to create something unique,” said architect Vincent Dinh. “We want it to be the centerpiece of Little Saigon. We want people to say, when they see it, “Yes, this is Little Saigon.”

“Capitals of Asian America” is AsianWeek’s series on cultural centers around the country. This month, we explore five major capitals representing different ethnic groups in celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month.May 3: Daly City, Calif.: Filipinos At Home in America

Last week: Los Angeles: Return to Little Tokyo

This Week: Building Little Saigon

Next week: Monterey Park, Calif.: Little Taipei

May 31: San Francisco: The Chinatown Legacy

©1998 AsianWeek. The information you receive on-line from AsianWeek is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: