Saturday, June 06, 2015

How Little Saigon ended up in central Orange County

Asian Garden Mall (1987), 9200 Bolsa Ave., Westminster
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. From Orange County’s perspective, this was a critical turning point: Not only was it a major moment in world history, it was also the spark that led to the creation and growth of Little Saigon -- now a key part of our cultural landscape.

The Orange County Archives has assembled a display entitled, “Orange County’s Little Saigon: Evolution of a Community,” located in the first floor lobby of the Old Orange County Courthouse, 211 W. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana. (Open Mon-Fri.) It should be up through the end of the year.
The first part of the exhibit uses a selection of photographs to give a brief overview of the subject. A larger case of artifacts then highlights Vietnamese culture, including holidays, folklore, history, and also features one of the first Little Saigon street signs (on loan from the Westminster Historical Society).
"This area along Bolsa was the most economically deprived area in Westminster,” said former mayor Joy Neugebauer. “Within a few years of Vietnamese arriving it became our highest value area, and it remains so today."
An enormous panel centered on two aerial photographs – showing the center of Little Saigon both today and prior to 1975 – depicts in detail the transformation of an underutilized and economically depressed area into the thriving commercial and social center it is today.

The “before” map highlights small communities like Bolsa and Silver Acres, landmarks like the Zenith Aircraft Corp and Post Bros. tractor shop, and everyday roadside scenes. The current map highlights key businesses, temples and other institutions that played a significant role in the development and growth of Little Saigon since the end of the Vietnam War.
Flags of freedom fly over Little Saigon.“The Communists took over South Vietnam in 1975, and that is too long," Soc Nguyen of Garden Grove told the O.C. Register. "A couple of more years and the Communists will fall. The people have no freedom.” (Photo by DHN)
Hanging over the whole exhibit are the flags of the former Republic of Vietnam, now a symbol of ethnic unity and cultural identity; and of the United States, which is proudly displayed in Little Saigon seemingly more than anywhere else in Orange County.
A CIA agent helps evacuees into a helicopter on a Saigon rooftop, hours before the city fell to North Vietnamese troops.
After the fall of Saigon, on April 30, 1975, (a.k.a. “Black April”), several waves of refugees fled Vietnam’s hostile new Communist regime. Those who had supported a free Vietnam feared being sent to “re-education camps,” or worse.

Although a small number of Vietnamese arrived while the war was still ongoing, the vast majority arrived afterward. The first big wave of refugees arrived immediately after Black April. Many more – held up in foreign refugee camps, escaping on small boats, or waiting for other opportunities to flee Vietnam – came in later waves.

“In Saigon,” the saying went, “even the lamppost wants to go to America.”
Refugees at temporary housing facility at Camp Pendleton, May 1, 1975.
In 1975, about 50,400 refugees were brought to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, abutting the southern end of Orange County. Pendleton was the first and largest “reception center” for refugees seeking to resettle in the United States. It was nicknamed “Little Saigon.”

Orange County families and religious organizations sponsored about 75% of the Vietnamese who came through Camp Pendleton, giving them their first taste of everyday life in Southern California.
Today, our first Vietnam-town is “graced” with an unconvincing statue of President Obama outside a Mexican nightclub.
"Vietnam Town" at 2331 W. First St., in Santa Ana, predated Little Saigon as Orange County’s first Vietnamese business center. As early as 1975, this small Vietnamese-owned shopping center featured the Saigon Market, the Vietnamese Book Exhibition, and a service club for refugees.

Apartment complexes in Garden Grove near the refugee center at St. Anselm Episcopal Church became one of the first identifiable clusters of Vietnamese residents in Orange County. It was well north of what became Little Saigon.
The Vietnam War Memorial (2003) at Sid Goldstein Park in Westminster was designed by sculptor Tuan Nguyen.
A handful of immigrant business owners – most of whom arrived in the earliest waves – began buying affordable under-utilized land along Bolsa Avenue in Westminster for the specific purpose of creating an “Asiantown” or Vietnamese business district.

Among the early businessmen who developed much of Little Saigon’s commercial core was Frank Jao, who created such landmarks as Far East Plaza, Asian Village Center, Bolsa Mini Mall and the iconic Asian Garden Mall. Others included Dr. Co D. Pham, Tony Lam, and Danh Quách. There were thirty Vietnamese-owned businesses in Orange County in 1979. There were 350 by 1981 and about 750 by 1988.
1980s strip malls like this one typify much of Little Saigon’s commercial district.
Initially, the existing population of Orange County seemed uncomfortable with Little Saigon. There were the usual barriers of language and cultural differences that face any new group of immigrants. And in the wake of losing a brutal and controversial war, many Americans also had a negative knee-jerk reaction to any reminder of Vietnam. A few were even openly hostile to the newcomers.

But Little Saigon proved to be a vital part of Orange County, driven by a people who value family, education, hard work and freedom. In very little time, the Vietnamese – many of whom arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs – have joined the ranks of Orange County’s teachers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, elected officials, doctors and more.

The Communists may have erased the name Saigon from maps of Vietnam, but both the name and the spirit of a free and determined people are alive and well in sunny Orange County. 

1 comment:

Carlota said...

An amazing story of strength, determination, courage, and adaptation. Thank you, Chris.