6601 Westminster Blvd.
Westminster, CA 92683 USA
714-898-5598
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Little Saigon History

History

The oldest, largest, and most prominent Little Saigon is in Westminster and Garden Grove in Orange County, California, where Vietnamese Americans constitute 30.7% and 21.4% of the population, respectively, as of the 2000 Census. Whereas ethnic Vietnamese are predominant in this population, in many cases, the population also consists of some people of Chinese Vietnamese origin, many of whom arrived during the second refugee wave in 1980 and own a large share of businesses in Little Saigon today. Despite the title "Little Saigon," there are also many Hispanic and remaining white residents as well as some Cambodian and Laotian immigrants residing in the area.

Phước Lộc Thọ, known in English as Asian Garden Mall, the first Vietnamese-American business center in Little Saigon, Orange County
Phước Lộc Thọ, known in English as Asian Garden Mall, the first Vietnamese-American business center in Little Saigon, Orange County

About 50 miles north of Camp Pendleton, Westminster was once a predominantly white middle-class suburban city of Orange County with ample farmland, but the city later experienced a decline by the 1970s. Since 1978, the nucleus of Little Saigon has long been Bolsa Avenue, where early pioneers Danh Quach and Frank Jao established businesses. During that year, the well-known Nguoi Viet Daily News also began publishing from a home in Garden Grove. Other new Vietnamese-American arrivals soon revitalized the area by opening their own businesses in old, formerly white-owned storefronts, and investors constructed large shopping centers containing a mix of businesses. The Vietnamese community and businesses later spread into adjacent Garden Grove, Stanton, Fountain Valley, Anaheim, and Santa Ana.

In 1988, a freeway offramp sign was placed on the Garden Grove Freeway (California State Highway 22) designating the exits leading to Little Saigon.

Bolsa Avenue in Westminster's eastern neighbor, Santa Ana, has also been designated a Little Saigon, but there are fewer businesses in the area than in either Westminster or Garden Grove. In 2003, some controversies emerged in Santa Ana over a proposed Little Saigon sign to promote its burgeoning Vietnamese commercial area with a design incorporating Vietnamese translation and a South Vietnamese flag. The sign was approved, but redesigned and placed on Euclid Avenue and First Street.

The year 1987 saw an increase in Vietnamese-American street gang activity, as Westminster police reported an increase of extortion targeting small Vietnamese immigrant businesses. However, according to the Morgan Quitno annual study on the safety of individual US cities, both Garden Grove and Westminster are both safer than most US cities.

 Layout and services

In Orange County, Little Saigon is now a wide, spread-out community dotted with a myriad of suburban-style strip malls containing a mixture of Vietnamese and Chinese Vietnamese businesses. It is located southwest of Disneyland between the California State Highway 22 and Interstate 405. However, the main focus of Little Saigon is the Bolsa Avenue center (where Asian Garden Mall and Little Saigon Plaza are considered the heart), which runs through Westminster and the street has been officially designated Little Saigon by the city council of Westminster in the late 1980s. The borders of Little Saigon can be considered to be Trask and McFadden on the north and south and Euclid and Magnolia on the east and west, respectively. About three-quarters of the population in this area are Vietnamese [1].

It is lined with numerous huge shopping centers and strip malls. As with many other Vietnamese American communities, competing mom-and-pop restaurants that serve Vietnamese cuisine (especially Phở [beef noodles]) are abundant. There are approximately 200 hundred restaurants in the area of Little Saigon and spilling over to Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Santa Ana and Huntington Beach. In addition, there are quite a number of Vietnamese supermarkets, small Vietnamese delis and bakeries in Little Saigon specializing in French-style coffee and baguette sandwiches - indeed, a legacy of Vietnam's turbulent colonial past. Restaurants serving Chinese cuisine such as Teochew and Cantonese are also available but in smaller numbers. Adding to growth of Vietnamese markets in the area, the rapidly expanding Vietnamese supermarket superstore chain Shun Fat Supermarket (called in Vietnamese, Siêu thị Thuận Phát) opened its doors in Westminster in 2005. Catering to the large Vietnamese population in the area are also professional offices of doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, etc. who speak Vietnamese. Food and authentic Vietnamese cuisine remains the forefront of attractions amongst non-Vietnamese visiting Little Saigon. The community's history of food and cuisine is captured in a recent cookbook by Ann Le,[1] "The Little Saigon Cookbook: Vietnamese Cuisine and Culture in Southern California's Little Saigon."[2]

Various professional offices in another area of Little Saigon in Westminster
Various professional offices in another area of Little Saigon in Westminster

In 1984, the major Chinese American supermarket chain 99 Ranch Market (initially called 99 Price Market) had its first start in Little Saigon of California. However, unable to compete with many of the Vietnamese markets in the area, the flagship store has since closed and been replaced by another supermarket.

The two-story enclosed Asian Garden Mall was developed by the well-known and influential Little Saigon founder and developer Frank Jao (an ethnic Chinese born in Haiphong, Vietnam) and bankrolled by Chinese Indonesian and Taiwanese investors. Asian Garden Mall was opened in 1987. Owing to its fame, it tends to have the highest costs of rent in Little Saigon. Jao also developed another heavily-frequented Vietnamese shopping center across the street, and this center once contained a long court of Confucius statues as motifs, but frequently vacant storefronts in the rear of the plaza were cleared to make way for housing developments. Today, a few of the original statues remain.

Banks

Despite stereotypes of the distrust of banks and tendency to keep money at home by Vietnamese immigrants, financial institutions operate within Little Saigon. The First Vietnamese American Bank in Westminster is the first to serve co-ethnic clientele (as well as reaching out to Korean and Hispanic clientele) in the United States. Saigon National Bank, located on Brookhurst Street is the first nationally chartered bank organized and owned by Vietnamese Americans in the United States. In addition, in attempting to attract Vietnamese clientele, several Chinese American banks also operate sole Vietnamese-speaking branches in Little Saigon, including Cathay Bank, East West Bank, United Commercial Bank, and Chinatrust Bank. Major banks such as Bank of America also have branches with mostly Vietnamese-speaking staff and with Vietnamese signs to attract customers.

Plans of a tourist economy

There have been plans to turn Westminster's Little Saigon (Bolsa Avenue) into an ethnic tourist attraction, to draw tourists, particularly from Disneyland. Plans were proposed by Jao for a pedestrian-friendly area and a 500-foot bridge - with a projected cost of nearly $3 million - connecting several Vietnamese shopping centers as well as envisioning it to resemble historic Saigon. However, in 1996, a small committee made up of local ethnic Vietnamese residents decried the design of the bridge as being too heavily Chinese-influenced. The concept has since been scrapped.

Media and entertainment center
Tet Festival in Little Saigon, Orange County, California
Tet Festival in Little Saigon, Orange County, California

Westminster is generally considered the main cultural center of the Vietnamese American community with several Vietnamese-language television stations, radio stations, and newspapers originating from Little Saigon and adjacent areas (for example, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana). For example, there are the newspapers of Nguoi Viet and Vien Dong. Many Little Saigon newspaper offices are based on Moran Street in Westminster and Vien Dong also has its own auditorium. There are also the broadcasts of Little Saigon TV, Little Saigon Radio (Southern California: KVNR AM 1480), and Radio Bolsa (Southern California: KALI-FM 106.3 FM). At least one radio station broadcast 24 hours a day in Vietnamese. In addition, many advertisements in Los Angeles area Vietnamese-language programming and publications invariably refer to businesses in Westminster. Many stories about the Vietnamese American community in Orange County are regularly featured in The Orange County Register.

Little Saigon has also emerged as the prominent center of the Vietnamese pop music industry with several recording studios, even more so than in Vietnam itself. Vietnamese music recorded in Westminster are distributed and sold in Vietnamese communities throughout the United States and in Australia, France, and Germany as well as illegally in Vietnam [2]. As many as 30 studios once operated in Little Saigon, but the effects of piracy have reduced the number of companies remaining. The US headquarters of the popular Vietnamese music company, Thuy Nga, is located in the heart of Westminster.

Bolsa Grande High School is the location of an annual Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival held in late January - early February known as Tết. Small amusement park rides, dances, and contests are held on the school grounds and hosted by the student association.

Generational divide

Orange County is the heartland of Republican politics in Southern California. Most Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon are registered Republicans and it was once anathema to be a Democrat. Hoping to gain the support of Vietnamese American Republicans, Republican presidential candidate (and Vietnam War POW) John McCain once made a campaign stop at the Asian Garden Mall. McCain also drew the ire of some younger Vietnamese Americans when he allegedly called his North Vietnamese captors "gooks" (a derogatory term for Asians in general). But other Vietnamese Americans in Orange County, especially U.S.-born, are also Democratic as the younger generations become more concerned with the rights of the blue-collar population in the United States, rather than the old-world politics of Vietnam. However, the registration rates for Republicans still outnumber Democrats with 55% registered Republicans and only 22% registered Democrats[4].

Future of the community

The Vietnamese American population has now begun to diffuse from Little Saigon to traditionally working-class Hispanic cities, such as Santa Ana and southward to professional middle-class predominantly white cities such as Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley. Upper-middle-class Vietnamese Americans also reside in Irvine, California. A fairly large number of U.S.-born Vietnamese Americans attend the University of California, Irvine.

Over the years, the vibrant community of Little Saigon has experienced frequent openings and closures of small mom-and-pop Vietnamese businesses, resulting in sights of some abandoned strip plazas. The changing landscape of the Vietnamese American population would bring a more multicultural flavor to Orange County, but as with Chinatowns, could potentially eliminate its identity as a "Little Saigon" as the population of foreign-born Vietnamese old-timers declines and more younger generations of Vietnamese American families attune to mainstream American culture (especially with a preference for fashionable malls over the Vietnamese ethnic malls in Little Saigon) and move on to affluent communities further away from the Little Saigon area.

Little Saigon has seen a surge in coffee shops "Quan Ca-Fe" which are the equivalent to American bars where Vietnamese men go to spend time with male friends and drink coffee. In order to attract customers, shops employ scantily clad women who in true LA-style surgically enhance their appearance to appeal to the male customers. With such a proliferation in coffee shops, the City of Westminster has limited the number of new coffee shop business licenses.