The sign outside Danh Quach’s small shop in Little Saigon identifies the store as Danh’s Pharmacy. Quach is a pharmacist, and customers can buy medicine there.
But bolts of fabric, electric fans, stereo cassette players and sewing machines take up most of the store space, in proportion with customer demand. Sales of those items keep one worker busy packing boxes for shipment home--home to Vietnam.
“Everybody who comes here from Vietnam, we (start) from scratch,” said Quach, who fled his homeland in 1975 and studied pharmacology in Nebraska. “And everybody here sends help to family who stay in Vietnam. I do that too. I have relatives there.”
Quach estimates that he forwards 10,000 pounds of goods to Vietnam each month--a legal service, even though all trade with the Communist country except small shipments of humanitarian items is banned by U.S. law. General stores just like Quach’s line Bolsa Avenue, the Vietnamese business corridor in Westminster and Garden Grove. They cater to the estimated 250,000 Vietnamese who have settled in Southern California, and to hundreds of thousands more on the other side of the globe.
Distance does not diminish family responsibility, Vietnamese here say. But it has created a thriving industry: freight forwarders, professional shoppers who find the best buys on the most demanded items, and a Vietnamese black market fueled by Western goods.
Gold, stereos, videocassette recorders and a computer game were seized earlier this month by the U.S. Customs Service at Los Angeles International Airport in a crackdown on illegal trade. The goods, sent through the economic pipeline of Little Saigon, were bound for Vietnam and, Customs authorities believe, the underground market there.
“The packages may look like they are sent by individuals here to relatives in Vietnam,” said John Heinrich, Customs Service district director. “However, it is very easy to disguise the destination because we don’t have anybody to check on the other end. It could go to family in Vietnam, or a forwarder or a front operation.”
It was the flourishing shipping business that attracted U.S. Customs attention and resulted in two airport sweeps on Oct. 14 and Oct. 22, Heinrich said. Trade with Vietnam is restricted by the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act. Violation of the law could result in fines of $50,000 and jail terms of up to 10 years for the sender, but criminal prosecution is generally reserved for exporters of weapons and technology to hostile nations.
Most Vietnamese interviewed insist that they never ship more than the law allows: $100 in cash or $400 in food, medicine and clothing a month. But community leaders say nearly all Vietnamese here send electronics and other prohibited items to relatives because those goods bring the most money on the black market. And, they say, Vietnamese immigrants here often work second and third jobs to support an extended family in Vietnam while paying their own bills in costly Orange County.
“Vietnamese in the U.S. feel their first duty is to send help home,” said Do Ngoc Yen, publisher and editor of Nguoi Viet, a Vietnamese language newspaper printed in Westminster. “They try to send as much as possible, and they try to send the kinds of things their relatives can change to Vietnamese currency.”
Yen, who helps to support his family and his wife’s, as well as friends in Vietnam, said their requests have grown more sophisticated over the years, shifting with the black market from toys, clothing and bicycle parts to televisions and computers. A column featured in Yen’s newspaper until about 2 years ago offered black market reports in the form of a shopping list of most-wanted items in Vietnam.
“My family in Vietnam and many other Vietnamese expect help from friends and relatives in the U.S,” he said. “We send them whatever we can, and even with our help they just survive. If we stop, it would be finish for them.”
When a new immigrant arrives in Little Saigon, “Vietnamese here ask first about the (political) resistance, then the currency rate and then prices on the black market,” Yen said.
Dozens of Bolsa Avenue shops advertise shipping services with signs that proclaim: “Nhan Goi Hang Ve Viet Nam"-- This Store Accepts Merchandise to Vietnam. The stores will pack boxes with their own merchandise or forward cartons brought in by customers. Only a handful of carriers, including Air France and Philippine Airlines, transport goods from Los Angeles to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly the South Vietnamese capital Saigon.
Tex Bui, a refugee who opened Vietnamese Freight International Inc. in Garden Grove 2 years ago, now forwards up to 20,000 pounds of goods each month to Vietnam from senders throughout the country. Boxes with return addresses of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Minneapolis and San Jose awaited shipment this week from Bui’s warehouse to Vietnam via Paris and Bangkok.
“Parcels are given to us by stores, and we ship out,” said Bui, whose eldest son remains in Vietnam. “According to U.S., the limit is $400 value, but we don’t know what is inside.”
Despite his assertion of ignorance about what is sent, Bui said the Customs crackdown is “scary for the people who want to send things for their families. That is the only way to help them survive because the economy there is zero.”
Mai Pham has helped to support her sister, brother-in-law and their three children since she fled Vietnam in 1975. Their attempts to escape have failed several times, and each capture has meant imprisonment and confiscation of all their possessions.
“They have no clothes, they have no food, they have nothing,” said Pham, 36, whose own income has dropped because she is seriously ill and on leave from her job as an assembler for a hospital supply firm. Pham, who is divorced, rents a house in Tustin with two Vietnamese roommates.
“I send my sister $50 or $200 a month, whatever I can save,” she said. “I’m lucky to live here. I’m not hungry and I’m not cold. That’s enough for me. I think about my family in Vietnam first.”
Money is tight for Pham and her 10-year-old son, but “we live the Vietnamese way,” she said. “We never go out to eat, we never go to the theater or on vacation. We make our own clothes so we can save more money.”
Dau Ho is old and poor--unable to work or buy much for his relatives in Vietnam.
“We try to send money at first, and medicine and radio,” said Ho, 73, who shares a rented room in Irvine with his elderly wife. “I write to many Vietnam people. They say they need the machines, the Honda scooter and more like that. But the cost is very much expensive.”
Federal authorities say they cannot begin to estimate the volume of goods sent to Vietnam, which they acknowledge has grown steadily since the relaxation of an absolute embargo in the early 1980s. “We know a lot is sent, but nobody’s out there counting,” said Ed Kittridge, spokesman for the Customs Service in Washington, D.C.
The Communist government in Vietnam encourages its citizens to lobby relatives in the United States for cash and commodities to pump up the country’s failing economy, Vietnamese here say. That makes sending goods home a political decision for the 860,000 Vietnamese living in the United States, including 340,000 in California.
It is an issue that enrages vehement anti-Communists and has been the apparent cause of terrorist actions. When Tap Van Pham, publisher of a Vietnamese magazine, was killed in the firebombing of his Garden Grove office last year, a guerrilla group claiming responsibility charged that he had published advertisements for firms with links to the Communist government in Hanoi.
“We want to help our relatives, but we end up helping the Communists too,” said Tony Lam, owner of the Vien Dong restaurant in Garden Grove and a vice president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. “The government wants electronic goods, and they collect high tariff for each package that is sent.”
It is a wrenching conflict for Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom are refugees who have fled communism, including former South Vietnamese soldiers or government workers.
“Politically, we are against Communists very much,” said Yen, the newspaper publisher. “But as family members, we must keep up our duties to send help to our relatives to survive. We can only wait for the next political wave.”