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As Little Saigon turns 25, family and heritage mark the path ahead

In a conservative Orange County town, where the strawberry fields were still plentiful and the population solidly white, Danh's Pharmacy stood out when it opened its doors after the Vietnam War came to an end.

Yet the business was just the beginning in a small Orange County city that would quickly balloon into a bustling immigrant community.

When Danh N. Quach chose to set up shop in 1978 in Westminster, he knew just one Vietnamese doctor — the same man who agreed to co-sign a loan for him.

PHOTOS: Little Saigon turns 25

Now, as Little Saigon celebrates its 25th anniversary — a date marked not by the arrival of refugees, but by the state erecting a freeway offramp sign — Quach's shop stands as a landmark in the largest Vietnamese cultural district outside the country itself.

The streets bustle with noodle houses, produce markets, jewelry shops and bakeries. The enclave sprawls into neighboring cities. Local government is dominated by Vietnamese American politicians, and senators and presidential candidates swoop by during election seasons, looking for votes. More than 300,000 people of Vietnamese descent live in the county, according to area officials.

The second generation has dutifully stepped in to run many of the pioneering businesses in the area, growing them with the principles and practices they learned in American schools. But there's uncertainty whether the trend will hold and whether — as the decades pass — Little Saigon will remain Little Saigon.

As with many other first-wave immigrants, Quach set a path that his children followed. His eldest son's medical offices are next door to his business, his daughter owns a pharmacy nearby, and his youngest just graduated from medical school and probably will be expected to practice in Little Saigon. Even his wife manages her own pharmacy across the street from her husband.

"Papa saved a piece for me," said obstetrician Thomas Tri Quach, 47. "The question is, how will we attract the next generation to Little Saigon? Will they want to work as close to their family as I do?"

Danh Quach had been a pharmacist in Saigon until war brought him to America as a refugee. When he opened shop on Bolsa Avenue in Westminster, he dispensed medicine, tobacco, shampoo, boomboxes, fabric — items that new immigrants in the community sought out to mail to loved ones left in Vietnam.

He sold care packages for $100 to $300, and Air France stopped by twice a week to pick up the shipments through a government program that allowed refugees to send "humanitarian aid" to family members.

In the early years, Quach worked seven-day weeks. He typed prescription labels in Vietnamese, delivered orders until 10 p.m. because not many of his customers owned cars and then stayed to hear about their lives.

He learned to keep careful records, in contrast to Vietnam's system where patient information was not often saved, and laws were so lax that cashiers were permitted to sell drugs. When Orange County health workers began testing for tuberculosis, his business spiked as customers poured in for medication.

At the time, real estate in central Orange County was going for 50 cents a square foot, a fraction of today's cost. Quach and partner Frank Jao, the man frequently credited with developing much of Little Saigon, began buying space in strip malls, including the center where thousands staged nightly demonstrations in 1999 after a video shop owner put up a photo display of Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Quach now owns about 300,000 square feet of retail space through real estate partnerships in Little Saigon, a mecca luring Vietnamese expatriates from around the world.

"At first, we thought Little Saigon might last 20, 25 years. We were wrong," Quach said. "I think Little Saigon is here to stay. Mom and Dad might be the tenants, and when they retire, they will pass it on to their children."

Tam Nguyen, who heads the 1,500-member Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce of Orange County, said it's become a trend for children to take over and expand the businesses of Little Saigon. He and his sister inherited their parents' successful Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove, which started in the '80s.

"We in the younger generation are mainstreaming it — looking for customers outside the normal pool and using practices picked up in MBA school and adapting it with older traditions," Nguyen said. "The goal is to improve so we can continue what our elders gave us."

For Quach, his entire family is in the pharmacy or medical business, and all but his younger son, who is completing his residency in Los Angeles, live in the same housing tract not far from where his original store stands.

"No pressure for my brother," Thomas Tri Quach said, laughing. "Papa is still open-minded."

The family patriarch, now 74, said he's driven by a basic belief: "If you focus on one thing — that's service to your community — then that community can sustain. It will always be there."

His daughter, pharmacist Thuy-Linh Nguyen, agreed.

"I think of Little Saigon like a child," she said. "She needs our unity, love, dedication. What we've tried to do is put less of the 'I' and more of the 'we' in the picture. The young people can make it better with teamwork."

Danh Quach remembers bringing ramen to eat at work in the early days — "I didn't have restaurants to choose from." No longer.

"I walk out my door and the whole of our Vietnamese world is waiting. Little Saigon does not lack for anything."

anh.do@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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