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Little Saigon's Café Queen

With hot drinks and even hotter girls, Natalie Nguyen is trying to uncloak the area's most enduring mystery: Vietnamese coffee shops

"I'm the best at cards; too bad you have to play against me," says a third man sitting across the small table.

His turn over, the first man speaks up again: "I like your tats, what do they say?"

"'Bad Manner' and 'Money Over Everything,'" Michelle replies.

Natalie and a few of her girls
Austen Risolvato
Natalie and a few of her girls
A Café Lu girl makes a smoothie
Austen Risolvato
A Café Lu girl makes a smoothie

They all laugh and continue joking and playing as she shuffles for the next game.

*    *    *

Shops that serve Vietnamese coffee have existed as long as the countrymen have lived in the United States, according to Jeff Brody, communications professor at Cal State Fullerton and a former Orange County Register scribe; he was among the first American reporters to cover the Vietnamese American community. These lounges mimicked the coffee culture of pre-war Vietnam, where women in resplendent ao dais would serve coffee and tea to men in smoky settings out of The Quiet American. In the States, they became the latest in a long line of establishments for immigrant men in America who needed a place to go after work to relax and ogle women. All the groups had them: miners had whorehouses, Koreans had tea houses, Mexicans flocked to seafood restaurants, and Chinese of yore kept to opium dens. And, just as with its predecessors, the Little Saigon coffeehouse became a magnet for legal scrutiny and mainstream disapproval.

Orange County almost immediately took a disliking to the coffeehouses, as non-Vietnamese were almost always stared out of the room before entering. It also didn't help that, as with most businesses catering to immigrant men, violence plagued the industry. A rash of murders in cafés in Garden Grove and Westminster during the early 1990s put city officials on attack—and reporters in full-on yellow peril mode.

An Oct. 21, 1993, Los Angeles Times headline blared, "3 Shot Down in Attack Near Little Saigon." A 1996 Times article following a murder at a local coffeehouse quoted Westminster Police Department Sergeant Jack Davidson as saying, "This is an ongoing problem in Little Saigon coffeehouses. This breed of coffeehouses, which look like small nightclubs, is a haven for . . . gang members to meet. . . . Even in the daytime, officers cannot go inside without a flashlight."

Council members in Westminster and Garden Grove proposed ordinances for the coffee shops; nothing ever happened, and more popped up. But it wasn't until the Vietnamese community grew larger and more assimilated, according to Nguyen—herself a cô hang cà phê ("coffee girl" in Vietnamese) during the 1990s before buying Café Lu in 2002—that the uniforms grew smaller.

"Back in the day, we were very conservative," she says. "In 1994, we'd wear shorts or jeans and go to work for $4.25 an hour. Everything was very simple. But slowly, the Vietnamese community got bigger, less conservative. We switched to wearing long traditional dresses, then mini dresses and heels.

"Then," Nguyen continues. "We slowly changed to lingerie, bikinis."

Shops began to try to outdo one another in an arms race of skimpiness, shedding more and more clothing. Some waitresses began working in pasties and thongs. As the clothing shrank, cafés exploded across Little Saigon—at one point, Garden Grove alone had more than 50. And with an increase in shops came a demand for more girls.

When Vietnamese coffee shops began to open stateside, owners hired mainly women to serve their patrons, just as they did in the fatherland. The work was simple and required little English, and it was the perfect place for recently immigrated women to start working. As the industry expanded, more Vietnamese American and mixed-race girls began working.

"I was the first one to do body paint," Nguyen says proudly. "I think body paint is like art, but then every shop went crazy and the raids happened. No more ghetto stuff now."

And with more business came crime anew. This time, gangs sought to shake down café owners for protection money and would conduct their business at the cafés, even opening some as fronts for other operations. And allegations of human trafficking and "happy endings" swirled in Orange County's non-Vietnamese imagination, even if there was little hard evidence.

In 2011, driven by claims of increased crime, decreased clothing and illegal gambling, area law enforcement raided multiple coffee shops, seizing more than 180 gambling machines and $145,000 in suspected gambling profits. Working with Westminster and Garden Grove council members, they helped to craft regulations seeking to strangle coffeehouses out of existence. When the new rules aimed at the shops were debated at City Hall, Vietnamese American community members took arms on both sides.

"Waitresses leave the coffee shop not wearing anything but a sheer dress," a resident told Garden Grove City Council members during the 2011 hearings. "You can see 99 percent of their private parts. You can see shapes! This is indecent exposure. They say [the coffeehouses] are turning into gentlemen's clubs. I think it's a lot worse than that."

The controversy even reached Vietnam, where it became an opportunity for Communist-run newspapers to trash the ever-corrupting ways of the United States. "One day last March, I met Tuyen in California," wrote a columnist for Hanoi-based Bao Dat Viet. "Unable to stay in an abusive marriage, she divorced her husband and left him with only a few hundred dollars to her name.

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