MORE DIRT, PLEASE

Re-creating Vietnam

Those are dusty Santa Ana winds, not drenching typhoons, blowing past the rotund Happy Buddha and the gods of Happiness, Longevity and Prosperity. But the faces of the marble statues exude a certain serenity nonetheless. That's more than can be said for me after 20 minutes of sweaty, incremental cruising in my car, trying to score a sweet parking spot amid the double-parked minivans, old ladies pushing shopping carts and dumbfounded tourists that crowd the Asian Garden Mall.

This area of Westminster is called Little Saigon, but at last count, Orange County's Vietnamese-American population had swelled to more than 200,000—and it looks as if they're all shopping here today. I circle the lot a few more times and then end up parking at a bakery across Bolsa Avenue.

For some reason, as I arrive on the grounds and encounter the Buddha, I'm beset by a sudden compulsion to burn some incense, leave a plate of fruit and bow repeatedly. But I decide to trudge on instead. The Asian Garden Mall is a 150,000-square-foot shopping center, not a Buddhist pagoda, but the Chinese- and French-influenced architecture—clear glass walls, white pillars and bright-green tiled roof—give off an almost spiritual aura anyway.

In the mid-1970s, when the first Vietnamese immigrants settled and began building businesses in the central part of Orange County, the area now known as Little Saigon wasn't much more than a few patches of strawberry fields, aging industrial complexes and battered mobile-home parks. But sudden, sustained and eventually enormous economic growth prompted local businessmen and politicians to try to make Westminster a cultural center. In 1987, they built the Asian Garden Mall as one of the main attractions. City officials estimate that Little Saigon attracts well over 300,000 Vietnamese-American tourists per year—and it's obvious they come from both sides of the hyphen.

Vietnamese families from as far away as Texas, Virginia and Canada converge on Little Saigon. They think of the Asian Garden Mall—known to locals as Phuoc Loc Tho—as going home again. And in some ways, they're right. Where else outside Vietnam can someone order tiger testicles from herbal pharmacies to increase virility, deal in pirated designer clothes and CDs, and buy a jade necklace under one roof?

But underlying this shopping experience, the American appetite for mass consumption prevails. I can barely squeeze my way through the oncoming bodies. The atmosphere inside is like a mix between an outdoor marketplace, swap meet and deli. Shoppers rush from store to store.

Waves of patrons lap against each store, buying extraordinary amounts of beef jerky, karaoke discs, miscellaneous trinkets and stockpiling for a pre-Y2K apocalypse. Some of the tourists are at least a little self-conscious about this massive filling of boxes, packing of luggage and stuffing of pockets. But they've got their explanations ready—they intend to share the contents with friends and family or let their kids taste what life is like in their homeland. They show what they've bought, and it's true: nothing says "Merry Christmas" and "I love you" from Vietnam better than a lacquered life-size head shot of Jesus and a 10-pound jade frog with a coin sticking out of its mouth for prosperity.

But others, like a couple I met from Silicon Valley, come to Little Saigon to breathe the aroma of old Saigon, which billows forth from hundreds of restaurants. Most of the top chefs who escaped from Vietnam after the war settled in Southern California. The joke is that if you want to live well, move to San Jose, but if you want to eat well, move to Orange County. The finest cuisine from the north, central and south of Vietnam is available here.

But Asian Gardens Mall perhaps best serves older Vietnamese-American tourists, who come to Little Saigon hoping to catch a glimpse, actually and spiritually, of a country that they once knew and loved—and lived in. They come to eat food that tastes the same, to speak a familiar language and dress in a way that hasn't been possible for a long time.

For better and for worse, however, Phuoc Loc Tho cannot possibly deliver an exact replica of the homeland. For one thing, there is much too much quality concrete here. Authenticity would require poorly paved roads and nearly nonexistent sidewalks. No one in Westminster is burning trash on the side of the road. Everyone wears shoes. There are no merchants and customers screaming above one another just to hear the prices. People wait in lines instead of waving money and pushing through a semicircle, hoping to get served next. The businesses are accountable to health-department standards, as well as innumerable other city, county, state and federal codes. There's running water and free toilet paper—free!—and, hell, there are toilets here! Also free!

No matter how detailed the references to Vietnam, life in Little Saigon and Phuoc Loc Tho will never be an exact duplication. Call it a McDonaldization, if you've got to be nasty about it. For my part, I'll admit it's a scrubbed and bleached version of a country that many twentysomethings will never remember as our parents can. That's not only unavoidable, but it's also probably as it should be.

Supersize me!

 
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