Merchants See Violence Damaging Area’s Image

Times Staff Writer

“I been in business two years,” Garden Grove coffeehouse owner Tay Nguyen said. “No gang, no nothing in my business. Nobody bad come in here. All my customers are good people.”

Then his voice changed a little. He stopped talking about the four months that he spent decorating the tiny cafe on Brookhurst Street, and about the years that he spent in an Illinois factory hoping he could save the money to open an authentic Vietnamese coffeehouse that offered hot tea, iced coffee and a place for long afternoon chats.

Other Incidents

Nguyen began talking about the burglars who smashed through his plate-glass window shortly after he opened in 1983. And the customer whose car was stolen from the parking lot outside. And, most recently, the shooting at the Vietnamese restaurant five doors away early Sunday that left two people dead and four others injured.


“It’s hard to say, but I hate it,” Nguyen said Monday. “I want to change the business. I want to buy a business someplace else far, far away. Maybe a liquor store or a Chinese restaurant, sell to American people. There’s problems here. Too much trouble. American people are better.”

The bloodshed that erupted amid the casual banter of late-night diners at the My Nguyen Restaurant--a favorite gathering spot for Vietnamese after a night of dancing--was only the most recent in a series of violent incidents that have plagued Orange County’s Vietnamese community in recent years.

In 1981, at a Garden Grove restaurant little more than a block away from the My Nguyen, two men wearing ski masks walked in and fired a series of shotgun blasts into the crowd of diners, killing one woman and injuring six other people. No one was ever arrested, though police speculated that the target of the gunmen was a reputed Vietnamese underworld figure, Tai Huu Nguyen, known as “Mr. Tai.”

Vietnamese businesses in the area of northern Westminster and Garden Grove that is known as “Little Saigon” have, in recent years, been the target of roving gangs of young Vietnamese who burglarize shops, shoot at rival gang members and extort protection money from businessmen too fearful to go to the police.

A new generation of Vietnamese youth, many of whom left Vietnam as orphans with the last wave of refugees, is growing up. And community leaders who work with them say they have brought the dimly remembered violence of their homeland to a new culture that is fed with television images of hasty shoot-outs and wild car chases.

“The problem is, too many of the young people are carrying guns. They see all the violence on television, and that’s the way they think it should be. Just like ‘Miami Vice,’ ” said Yen Do, publisher of the Vietnamese newspaper Nguoi Viet.


“In 1977,” explained Nguyen, the coffee shop owner, “a lot of the kids who came over here were 5, 6, 7. People came here without families. Nothing to do, you know; they live with friends, they live with an uncle, nobody controls them. Ten years after, they’re 16 or 17. They make some money. And they buy a gun.”

Ha Ngan Hoang was hired last year by the Vietnamese Community of Orange County, a nonprofit assistance group, to counsel Vietnamese youths who begin having behavioral problems in school in an effort to prevent those problems from growing into crime.

“There are many, many Vietnamese students who are doing very, very well,” Hoang said. “But there is another group who are very bad, who are acting badly for many reasons. They came here without any relatives or parents, they do not have guidance, they’re not taken care of, so they get themselves involved in bad situations. They need counseling. They need us to help them realize this new life; they should know what is good, what is bad and how to distinguish.”

Dinh Le, an electronics technician, shook his head as a crowd of rowdy teen-agers in the back of a Westminster coffee shop screeched over a game of PacMan.

“You see those guys there? They ought to be in school. The kids are out on the streets, and the police don’t do anything about it,” Le complained. “If a kid is arrested, we don’t see him for a couple days, and then they’re back on the street again.”

Too often, Le said, Vietnamese youngsters run away from home, then turn to crime as the only way they know to make a living. These youngsters are keenly aware of the habits of the Vietnamese--particularly the preference of many Vietnamese merchants to keep large amounts of cash stashed away--and they turn to their own people as prey.


No Suspects Yet

Although the police have no suspects in Sunday morning’s shootings, a number of merchants in the Vietnamese community said Monday that they believe the incident stemmed from an argument among several youths that began before they arrived at the restaurant.

Nguyen said others believe that someone was paid to “cause trouble” for the restaurant because of its success in attracting customers away from other establishments.

Nearly all of the merchants were reluctant to discuss the incident. Waitresses in the Vietnamese restaurants and coffeehouses that line Bolsa Avenue smiled, shook their heads and smiled again.

A dentist on Brookhurst Street came to the front desk, peered out at a reporter and shook his head. “Nothing to say.” Pressed to respond, he began walking away. “Nothing to say.”

“It’s the same reason that people don’t help the police,” Le explained as he refused to be photographed. “Your picture is in the paper and they say, ‘See this guy? He helped the police.’ And then the gangs, you don’t know. . . .”

“They’re afraid those bad guys will take revenge on them,” Hoang said. “It’s like the Mafia. They don’t want to get involved. They don’t want to take a chance. They want to have peaceful life; they don’t want to have trouble.”


Many Vietnamese said they are alarmed about the shootings, not because of fears of more violence but because of fears that the community outside won’t understand.

“All I can say is that I deplore this tragedy happens because in a way it reflects on our community, because in a way it makes us stand out more,” said Mai Cong, chairwoman of the Vietnamese Community of Orange County, which is sponsoring a fund-raiser Saturday night to raise money for delinquent youth programs.

“Such kind of shooting shy away all the clientele for wherever it’s happened, not only the clientele of the Vietnamese community alone, but other communities. It painted a bad image for us,” said Tony Lam, owner of a Garden Grove delicatessen and president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s really burning our heart here. It destroyed our good image. Somebody tried to do good things, somebody else tried to destroy it by such kind of act. We do not tolerate that.”