Little Saigon's Café Queen
Photo: Riley Kern | Model: Charlene Barnum | Photo Assistant: Genevieve Davis | H/MUA: Christine Barnum | Design: Dustin Ames
Michelle and her girls should be shivering. It just rained, and the temperature is still snugly below 60 degrees even though it's 3 in the afternoon. She, Yari, Diamy and their half-dozen or so co-workers are half-naked, wearing dark lace teddies, brightly colored lingerie with bottoms two sizes too small or flesh-colored swimsuits as they wait on customers at Café Lu in Santa Ana. Even the heater can't keep out blasts of cold every time someone enters. But there's no time to be freezing—the Vietnamese coffeehouse is buzzing.
The Café Lu girls seem to be doing what you'd expect half-naked, beautiful women to be doing on the clock: little to nothing. They play cards with customers, gossip about fashion (as well as themselves and their patrons) and check their phones, all while occasionally taking drags off e-cigarettes. But these ladies are also working their asses off, stirring cups of cà phê sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) and topping off tall glasses of frosty jasmine tea in between hands of 13, a popular Vietnamese card game in which four players take turns trying to get rid of their cards as fast as they can.
"It can be a little cold sometimes," Diamy says, sitting down momentarily to banter and top off a glass of tea. "But it's good work. I get paid twice what I normally would, and to do what? Make coffee? Pour tea?"
And with that, she's up again, checking on the other tables.
Cà phê mát me, lingerie cafés, Vietnamese coffee shops, cà phê bikini—whatever you call them, they remain the most mysterious, misunderstood feature of Little Saigon, subject of urban legends, constant police surveillance and embarrassment for assimilated Vietnamese Americans. Until recently the storefronts catered almost exclusively to older, male, mostly Vietnamese clientele. Drive down Euclid Street, the Champs-Élysées of this scene, and commuters can see at least half a dozen nestled in plazas and strip malls, bordering bakeries, Catholic churches and Buddhist temples in Santa Ana and Garden Grove.
It's a phenomenon almost exclusive to Orange County in the Vietnamese diaspora. Other major enclaves in the United States—San Jose, Seattle, Houston, San Diego, New Orleans—have only a couple, nowhere near the offerings of Little Saigon's arsenal: open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. (officially), with an army of girls fresh from high school and local colleges offering perky service and strong drinks while wearing a thong, bra and 7-inch stilettos.
Due to the nature of the uniforms and patrons, the coffee shops have been an easy target for controversy, both in the United States and abroad. But they continue to persist. In the past decade, the uniforms have gone skimpier, the waitresses have diversified, and the entrepreneurs have used the powers of social media to showcase their girls and draw in new crowds, just as traditional American bars have long done with their bartenders.
And if Café Lu owner Natalie Nguyen has it her way, the Vietnamese coffee shop is about to go national.
* * *
From the outside, Vietnamese coffee shops look as universally rote as Starbucks. Nearly every one features similarly large, sort-of-but-not-really tinted windows that take up the width of the property. The tint is not completely opaque, revealing a small hint of the staff inside to comply with new laws. Large, backlit marquees (usually in red, lucky and better to pierce through the night) hang over doorways. "No loitering" signs guard both the front and back of the stores, as required by law. Inside, most shops are wallpapered in flat-screen TVs showing sports and lottery numbers.
From there, though, Little Saigon offers a strata of experiences, all reflecting aspects of the Vietnamese community based on how fresh off the boat its patrons are.
On one level are places such as Café Di Vang 2 in Garden Grove, which cater to a mostly middle-aged clientele. During the early evening, customers smoke indoors, ashing their cigarettes on the ground and discarding the butts on the floor. The ceiling-mounted speakers playing tinny, underproduced Vietnamese pop music, punctuated by the occasional cover of an American classic-rock or '70s-pop song, pierce the smoke screen. As the night passes, the crowds get slightly younger, but no more American. Thumpy EDM replaces the outdated pop music. The clientele keep mainly to themselves, for the most part only interacting with waitresses when ordering. Running contrary to stereotype, the regulars here often seem more interested in homework, business deals, sports and newspapers than the girls.
During a recent night at Café Di Vang 2, patrons consoled one another over not winning the lottery. "I'm so poor right now," one man in his mid-40s said. "What I would do if I won the lottery. I'd never have to worry about anything again. I'd be set for life."
"Someone has to win," an older man replied.
Across the room, a guy in his early 30s speaks loudly into his phone: "My girlfriend hasn't gotten back to me all day."
A block down Euclid is Café M. Cutie, which caters to a slightly more American crowd. The people who go there are much younger, barely breaking their 30s, and non-Vietnamese patrons are a more common site. The place is less smoky, thanks in part to the doors that open to an outside patio and partly thanks to the fact that many patrons are using e-cigarettes. Vietnamese pop music is nearly nonexistent, replaced by R&B, EDM, and Top 40.
Down another block, Café Dien Anh, which exclusively attracts old Vietnamese men, doesn't even attempt to be hip or assimilatory. There's no moody, club-like lighting; the fluorescents are on full, illuminating every speck of ash. Cai luong, Vietnamese folk opera, plays quietly in the background. The café is like a pho restaurant without a kitchen, complete with spartan flooring and rows of small, two-person tables arranged in a rough grid.
Café Lu sits on the outskirts of both Little Saigon and the Vietnamese café galaxy. It attracts a much younger, less Vietnamese crowd. The windows are mirrored, not tinted, and there's no smoking allowed, by order of the owner. Unlike other such cafés, it also sells actual food—snacks that you'd expect to find at Cha for Tea or Tastea. Though the clientele is still heavily male, the occasional woman or two can be found inside. Even the music is different, a little moodier, sultrier—Lana Del Rey takes the place of Paris By Night.
If there's one thing all of these shops have in common, it's that the girls working there are attractive and know exactly what they're doing: acting as eye candy for men who could be their uncles, fathers or even grandfathers.
Diamy, a slim, buxom Vietnamese-American in her early 20s, has been working in coffee shops for five years, her time split between half a dozen different operations across Little Saigon. At Café Lu, she's wearing a matching pair of bra and panties, their dark blue contrasting against her light skin. She's a consummate professional, playing cards and batting eyelashes. She moves between tables effortlessly, joining and leaving conversations with a smile and a pitcher of tea in hand.
But it hasn't always been this way. Growing up in the United States after leaving Saigon in fourth grade, she couldn't even imagine working in a coffee shop until the pay—and a tiny bit of curiosity—drew her in.
"A normal girl wouldn't want to work here," Diamy admits. "A lot of people think really bad things about us, and I used to be one of those people, too. But I was looking for something to do, and my brother mentioned that it wasn't that bad. I found out how much I could make, and from then on, I looked at it a little differently.
"I like working here," she continues. "It's easy, and I get along with my boss well. She's more like a friend than a boss."
Working only 15 hours per week spread over five shifts, Diamy spends the rest of her time the way any other American girl would: going out with friends, having fun . . . and doing the rare photo shoot. Despite her five years in the business, she plans to one day leave the coffee shops. "I'm going to sponsor my mom to come here soon," says Diamy, whose mom still lives near Saigon. "She's going to sell a few of her houses over there and open a nail salon here. I'm going to help her out with that."
Yari, a two-year veteran of the business, has been at Café Lu for a month. One of several non-Vietnamese girls (she's Latina), she occasionally greets Mexican guests in Spanish. She says she enjoys the relationships that come out of her work. "A lot of the girls are really close," she says, gesturing to a white coffee girl in the kitchen. "I've stayed at her house.
"Talking with the customers is nice," she continues. "You get to know people. You develop a following. The regulars follow you on Instagram; they're almost more like friends than customers."
Michelle, a slim Vietnamese American server with tattoos inked in Gothic font over her shoulder and ribs, has been working at coffee shops for five months—shorter than the longest-serving girls, but longer than many others. She started at Café Lu only two weeks ago, upset at the nonexistent shifts she received at other shops.
"At my old place, they'd only give me one shift a week, and sometimes they'd dock my pay if I was too late," Michelle says. "I came here, and they gave me a bunch of shifts right away. I'm thinking about leaving [the others] and working here exclusively."
Today, she's wearing a two-tone outfit consisting of a black bottom with a flesh-colored top. "Soon, I'm going to start my own clothing line," she says, getting up to fill someone else's tea.
"Street wear?" someone asks.
She smiles. "How'd you know?"
Michelle checks on her tables before sitting back down between a reporter and a group of four young, well-dressed Asian men playing 13. They all perk up as she joins them.
"Where are you from?" one of them asks cloyingly. "Are you from down here? You look familiar. Have I seen you in LA before?"
The guy sitting directly between the two shows Michelle his hand and asks, "What should I play next?"
Michelle takes a look at the cards.
"I look familiar?" Michelle asks.
The friends joke, each trying to one-up the masculinity of the others in front of her.
"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.
"With sad eyes," the columnist continued. "Tuyen told me of her tragedy of moving to the United States. . . . Tuyen said, whether hot or cold, winter or summer, she and the other waitresses were only allowed two pieces of clothing to cover the intimate areas of their body. They had to wear 10-[centimeter] heels and gaudy makeup to attract customers."
But the attack on the coffeehouses also sparked an outpouring of support from café owners and their fans. PhoBolsaTV, a popular YouTube channel covering the Vietnamese American community, released several interviews discussing the shops. The most-viewed clip features a man defending them as a mostly innocent place to relax. When questioned about possible gang involvement, he responded by saying, "If a place has a good reputation, everyone will want to go there. Gang member, non-gang member, it doesn't matter. It's like a restaurant. If the food is good, anyone would go."
Nevertheless, new laws were passed in Garden Grove and Westminster that brought heavy regulation to the cafés. No more late hours, no minors during school hours, no more smoking. Shops in Westminster were basically chased out of the city by an ordinance that banned TVs and music in "cafés, coffeehouses and tea houses." Waitresses in both cities were ordered to cover their breasts, pubic areas and the "natal cleft" (the legal term for one's butt crack).
Windows in Garden Grove coffeehouses were ordered to not be tinted to the point at which police officers couldn't see inside. Cafés were to not dim their lighting enough to restrict vision, have any "amusement devices" (video games that could be converted into illegal gambling machines) or karaoke, or allow patrons to—according to Garden Grove municipal code—"indulge in boisterous conduct or use of profanity." While Santa Ana doesn't have these kinds of laws on the books, its shops immediately began to self-regulate in fear of retaliation.
The strategy to legally crack down on the coffeehouses was largely successful. Law enforcement insists that Asian gangsters rarely, if ever, frequent coffee shops anymore; because of the complete ban on amusement devices in Garden Grove, illegal gambling has gone down. Several of the cafés that were raided—including Skyy Cafe, Missi Cafe and Café Passion—have closed. Some reported decreased revenues, and many owners sold their shops, but Café Lu was, according to Nguyen, mostly unaffected because of its diversified clientele.
And that's where she saw an opportunity.
* * *
In a far corner of her coffee shop, Nguyen sits with a group of regulars, large square sunglasses covering most of her face despite the dimmed interior. A petite Vietnamese woman nearing 40 but looking no older than 26, she tends to her guests with aplomb, effortlessly greeting VIPs with a smile and a light touch on the arm.
"Back in the day, when I first started working, Café Lu was on Newhope and First [in Santa Ana]. It was very small, a tiny shop," Nguyen says. "The Vietnamese community back then was so small; now, we get a lot of visitors from everywhere.
"The first two weeks in America, I stayed home, and I was so bored," she continues. "I told my brother that I wanted to go to work, so I asked him what easy job I could do with my limited English. My uncle was kidding around and said I could work at a coffee shop."
She ended up working in coffeehouses on and off for 10 years.
But about four years after leaving Café Lu, she got a call from a former co-worker. Their old boss had decided to retire, and she was wondering if Nguyen wanted to help her buy the shop 50-50.
"She told me she thought I could do it," Nguyen says. "So we borrowed some money from family, took out some loans and did it."
Her partner would eventually leave the business for personal reasons. Today, Nguyen has one silent partner, and she's on a mission to do more than just sell coffee to Vietnamese men; she wants to build a brand.
"[Soon], I'm going to sell 49 percent equity," she says. "I want to sell merchandise and open some more cafés in LA and San Diego."
The work is already paying off. Lu used to sell calendars to help promote their girls, but the coming of social media convinced Nguyen to take a different angle. Café Lu has more than 80,000 fans on Facebook, and the coffee shop's Instagram boasts more than 40,000 followers—far more than any of her competitors. It's also one of the few shops with a website, where fans can go to see pictures of the girls and find links to their Instagrams, favorite websites and Facebook fan pages. Photos posted to the Facebook page routinely garner hundreds of likes. Travelers from Australia, the U.K. and glamorous Fresno have stopped by the shop during visits to Orange County. A picture of Nguyen and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson features prominently on the website.
"We get a lot of tourists," Michelle says. "I always ask them the same thing: This place isn't what you were expecting, was it?"
While other coffee shops still cater largely toward Vietnamese immigrant men, Nguyen—who served those traditional patrons for so long—now eschews them. She doesn't let guests smoke indoors, and there's very rarely any hint of Vietnamese music. Only 40 percent of her customers are Vietnamese. Many are white, Middle Eastern or Latino. A plurality of her coffee girls, whom Nguyen picks herself, are Vietnamese, but there are also other Asian girls, white girls, Latinas and hapa girls.
"If you want to grow your business, you can't just deal with one clientele," Nguyen says. "The older Vietnamese crowd, they like to smoke. I worked so long in that environment that I couldn't deal with it anymore."
She revels in her self-appointed role as a madame of cà phê mát me, ensuring that her workers are treated well. While girls at other shops are shorted shifts or have their pay docked, at Café Lu, they have flexible schedules.
"If you want to build a nice clientele, you have to have nice girls," Nguyen says. "A lot of people, they come in here with the wrong idea.
"I don't want that kind of people."
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