Little Irvine?

Little Saigon sees a mainstream future

Photo by Daniel C. TsangOrange County may not need another planned community, but everyone seems to want to clone us. The Los Angeles Times wrote in March of a master-planned bedroom community in a Beijing suburb called Orange County, where condos with the latest appliances are being snapped up by China's growing bourgeoisie. And horror of horrors, a Vietnamese consulate official and Americans representing Vietnamese developers showed up in Anaheim last week to line up investors for Saigon South, an 8,000-acre planned community south of Ho Chi Minh City.

So it shouldn't be surprising that the 60 Vietnamese-Americans (plus a few non-Vietnamese) gathered in Westminster on May 8 to discuss the future of Little Saigon turned to the Irvine Co. playbook. They decided what their community needs is a little vanilla.

The collective vision was murky at best. Everyone seemed to want to assimilate the Vietnamese into mainstream, new-millennium America. This would be reflected in the people, the architecture and the kinds of businesses that would operate in Little Saigon ("mom and pop" merchants out, corporate franchises in). But many participants want Little Saigon to remain an ethnic enclave. And don't even think about building anything that looks too "Chinese."

Attendees at the event were invited by the "non-partisan," Anaheim chapter of the Vietnamese-American Public Affairs Committee/Southern California, a group known for cornering local political candidates on their ideologies and lobbying Congress over human rights in Vietnam. Yet this affair was refreshingly absent the anti-Communist hysteria that has plagued the community since it formed in the mid-1970s. Die-hard, uniformed South Vietnamese war veterans, so visible at anti-commie demonstrations in the past, stayed home on this night. No one suggested a cordon sanitaire around Little Saigon to keep out the hated Communists, as someone demanded last summer at protests in Anaheim over a visiting Vietnamese pop star.

But that does not mean politics—or politicians—were absent. Lurking in the audience and glad-handing members of the community was Al Snook, perennial candidate for everything. Tony Lam, America's first Vietnamese-American elected official, showed up late. The Westminster city councilman, pilloried by some constituents for not attending anti-Communist protests a few years back, seemed in top form, loudly reiterating his hope that Little Saigon will become a tourist site where Vietnamese merchants would not be sitting like "dead ducks" ignoring non-Vietnamese customers. One participant, urging folks to run for office, said to the youth present, "We need more of your group to replace him"—"him" being Lam.

But while the group seemed to endorse Lam's idea of a no-car pedestrian mall along Bolsa Avenue—Little Saigon's main drag—the drift of the night's two-hour discussion soon headed elsewhere. Cal Poly Pomona engineering sophomore Derek Trung Nguyen and other young artists enthusiastically sketched, with color markers, their vision: a Little Saigon University, lawyers' offices, a library, a museum, a Vietnam research institute, Viet Records store, a cultural center, fairgrounds and a stadium. In a burst of nostalgia for the homeland, all streets and some buildings would have Vietnamese names, including Nha Trang (after the beach resort). No one, of course, suggested Ho Chi Minh as a street name, but suggestions of filling the streets with rickshaws like Vietnam's capital city were bandied about.

Besides envisioning what the place should look like, participants discussed who should live there. There were calls for more Vietnamese Ph.D.s and Vietnamese judges. I wanted to yell: How about more public defenders? I had helped with the ACLU's class-action lawsuit against the Garden Grove Police Department in 1994 over the racial profiling of Vietnamese residents in and around Little Saigon. But the only concession to the reality of racism was a suggestion that there be "better law enforcement" that is "culturally sensitive."

Notably absent was Little Saigon's top developer, Frank Jao. A few years back, Jao proposed bridging Bolsa Avenue to link his Asian Garden Mall on one side of the street with the Asian Village Center on the other. That was trounced by Little Saigon residents who deemed the initial architectural design "too Chinese." (Although Jao hails from Vietnam, he is ethnic Chinese.) He should be glad he missed this meeting, since at least two speakers yelled out they did not want the architecture in any future development of their community to be "Chinese." Various speakers also warned that they did not want Little Saigon to turn into the next Chinatown. Only old people live in Chinatowns, one audience member said.

Lam's vision of turning Little Saigon into a tourist destination might be a hard sell to those who want the community to remain an ethnic enclave. But ever the pro-development optimist, Lam promised to bring to his City Council some of the ideas these nascent master planners generated.

 
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