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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.

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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My Voice Nation Help
24 comments
Noe.
Noe.

If you look below the neck, you can forget you're in Little Saigon.

thaithai
thaithai

I  like  the  Girls  but  I  dont  like  the  smell  of those cigarettes  ...

neaato
neaato

story was okay, wish went a little deeper. not bad job by writer. only critique was natalie story seemed to start too late and ended too quickly. also ending is kinda meh quote about tourists 'didn't expect this' which is probably exactly what tourists expect, a viet hooters that sells coffee lol. what did they really 'expect'? lol. i find these things novelties, i've gone w/ friends, even family/cousins once in blue moon manly as joke. i really am surprised how crazy it got from bikini to also naked and i just keep thinking, that doesn't seem too sanitary lol. like if people really wanted to see nudity, just go to a strip club lol. viets are classy and sometimes if too little or 'body paint' makes it double as tacky. hooters is tacky but family tacky, if viet coffee shops want to upgrade, they should add food and basically be like a hooters, there's enough money for everyone. coffee i guess is good idea because you can come and go and chill but until they have food and family, it will always be like an older viet man club which is fine because that's like a nice retirement home like how chinese play majong on thursdays at some chinese cultural center. if anything an outlet for older asian men w/ nothing to do. maybe the story could have been a bit more about that. the woman stories seemed kinda meh. would be interesting to see how much they made too.

JBinOC
JBinOC topcommenter

Very well-written feature by Mr. Charles Lam, who I'm sure felt like he got a kick in the head when he drew this assignment.  



Btw, Cafe M. Cutie is less smoky, but still smoky.....so I've heard 


JBinOC
JBinOC topcommenter

"...Euclid Street, the Champs-Élysées of this scene." 



LOL


dbo90275
dbo90275

I love these V girls, but they don't love me!  ;  )

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

Womens "Sexuality" is given all positive backing



from cougars to teachers who molest middle schoolers to 50 shades of grey


but anything for the males is seen as wrong trashy etc



f the left


and thank you to ALL THE FEMALES who like men and show it 

impacfunder
impacfunder

Totally opposite as what this "pay article" say cafe lu is dead boring & empty thanks to the waitresses with no services . Most of viet cafes in OC open at 7 am-11pm. Lu is open at 11 am & sometime closed around 10 pm because the place is empty. Kinda waste times.

TheRefriedMexican
TheRefriedMexican

These skanks have zero personality. I walked in with 3 buddies and these hoes acted like they didn't want to be bothered. At least at Hooters they pretend they're interested in what we have to say, take a compliment well and laugh along. Yeah I know, you go for the visuals, I get that. Still these Cafe Lu bitches need to learn to crack at least a fake smile. No doubt pretty chinitas but terrible demeanor. Hence the $2 tip on the $50+ tab.

RAPman
RAPman

@neaatoYou should familiarize yourself with the shift key, you know -- the one that allows you to make capital letters.

FishWithoutBicycle
FishWithoutBicycle

@sweetliberty17761776 

Interesting comment considering some folks are still incredulous about the fact that women actually enjoy sex at all. And, no, I don't think it's ever ok for a teacher (male or female) to have a sexual relationship with a student...but cougars and the "50 Shades of Grey" crowd are consenting adults so that's a different animal, no?

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

@neaato @sweetliberty17761776 


mizzzunderstood your ?


please read my response to fish orrrrr


ok what the heck:


@FishWithoutBicycle @sweetliberty17761776  



If we/ I were talking about underage then we'd have a problem


So of course we're only talking about consenting 


so my statement stands as uncontested and correct as is



AS far as "enemies" of female enjoyment


who??



boyfriends ? girlfriends? husbands?


no, they would all enjoy females enjoying themselves



IF you are talking about some religious people then why would you do that


that has little to do with it 


except in a Cosmopolitan run world meant to act like women are victims when that is not even close to the truth

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

@FishWithoutBicycle @sweetliberty17761776 



If we/ I were talking about underage then we'd have a problem


So of course we're only talking about consenting 


so my statement stands as uncontested and correct as is



AS far as "enemies" of female enjoyment


who??



boyfriends ? girlfriends? husbands?


no, they would all enjoy females enjoying themselves



IF you are talking about some religious people then why would you do that


that has little to do with it 


except in a Cosmopolitan run world meant to act like women are victims when that is not even close to the truth

neaato
neaato

@CharlesLam@impacfundermy friends and cousins say its too packed at cafe lu since so popular and lots of mixed yellow fever crowd so they stay away. also they check on instagram and see how full it is so yea, guess you can check in real time proof or not lol

impacfunder
impacfunder

@ Charles lam, see for yrself, dude, have u check out cafe 168 yet? In case for yr lack of researches or just don't want to list new popular Cafes, cafe 168 harbor /.Westminster

FishWithoutBicycle
FishWithoutBicycle

@sweetliberty17761776@FishWithoutBicycle  

This is a complex issue...hard to sum up in a few sentences. I can only glean from my own personal experience as a woman...and it seems to me the vilification of female sexuality comes from many sources. Even now in the 21st century there are people who would consider a man who likes sex as "normal" and a woman who enjoys sex as a "nympho" or a "slut". There are still other people who cling to the ridiculous belief that no woman actually likes sex and that we all do it just to please our male partners...and, therefore, are only using our sexuality as a tool of manipulation...

neaato
neaato

@CharlesLam@impacfunder also y would anyone pay for story like this? lol they mentioned a lot of cafes not just one, if anything complaint i had was story on natalie at end seemed to late and kinda short. if she did 'pay' she got ripped off lolllll. kidding

 
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