Decked out in khaki trousers and a power tie, Thang Nguyen is the American TV newsman.
Muzak wafts down to the check stands stretching before him at the Little Saigon Supermarket as Nguyen clutches a microphone and flicks his hair back. The camera rolls.
"Although it took more than 40 years for Chinatown to suburbanize to Monterey Park . . . it was almost overnight that Little Saigon achieved notoriety," he says in Vietnamese, slowly pushing a shopping cart.
"Cut," says Tony Qui Hua, a self-described "visual man" who, with Nguyen and a group of friends in their 20s and 30s, are starting a weekly television newsmagazine which will explore life in the Vietnamese community.
It's a risky venture, they admit. Money is scarce, and they shoot film clips in their spare time. But with a philosopher, investment banker, adman and former CBS news intern on their team, they intend to bring the varied stories of Orange County Vietnamese residents to light--with English subtitles.
Their first five-part series, carried on Burbank-based KRCA-TV Channel 62, will focus on the history and newsmakers of Little Saigon. But future episodes address gangs, health care and business. Channel 62 is available to residents of Orange County and in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino, San Diego and Riverside counties.
"I'm the Vietnamese Mike Wallace," Nguyen, 37, said laughing. "I'll pry into your private life."
It's Nguyen's partnership with longtime friend Quang Van that spawned the television odyssey, he explains.
Van, 35, who came to the United States in 1975 and lives in Santa Ana, is a philosophy student working toward his Ph.D. His "dissertation is on the concept of God," he said. But his sideline, he says, is television.
"It's not only TV, it's an experiment."
The show's creators "want to help the Vietnamese community to articulate itself," Nguyen said. "The media look at us as a political entity or economic market. . . . That's just two aspects of us."
Van and Nguyen met in Westminster in the early 1980s, when Nguyen filmed a piece on Little Saigon as part of his master's degree work in broadcasting. The pair talked about making a stab at television, but plans fell apart.
The pair met up again last June, when Van returned to Westminster from his college studies at the University of Oregon. They decided to begin filming with the help of a half dozen friends including Viet Tran, a stubbly-bearded 28-year-old with John Lennon glasses.
Viet Tran sells insurance by day, and heads a video production company--"my second wife," he calls it--by night.
Van's sister, a pharmacist, is helping to finance the production, which costs $200 a week for editing and studio use.
The camera crew says stories from Orange County scream to be told.
"We'll talk about police, relations with Spanish-speaking, Korean and other communities, and interracial marriage," said Van's wife, Truc. "Also, how you can go through a day in Little Saigon without speaking English."
Sixteen years ago, the site of Little Saigon--east Westminster's border with Garden Grove--was an unlikely spot for a Vietnamese boom town. Cozy bedroom communities laced with commercial strips made the area a typical Southern California suburb.
But by 1990, more than 150,000 Vietnamese had settled in Orange County--the largest such concentration in the world outside of Vietnam. And the social and business center for many Southeast Asians is Little Saigon, a stretch of Bolsa Avenue extending roughly from Magnolia Street to beyond Brookhurst Street.
The camera crew has spent a month chronicling the transformation of the area, focusing on prominent Southeast Asians such as Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam and lawyer Tuyet (Tina) Pham.
During filming, Nguyen interviews market owner David Tran, one of the community's biggest success stories. Customers stream in and out of Tran's supermarket and surrounding restaurants and shops as he reminisces.
"I started with a produce truck and van here, selling vegetables from the fields," Tran, 49, explains through an interpreter. "Then I got a warehouse, and it built from there."
The team says their television program, which begins Sept. 25 at 10:30 a.m., will capture the lives of Southern California Vietnamese such as Tran. Although two Vietnamese newscasts are already shown on KSCI-TV Channel 18, the young news crew intends to carve a niche by delving deeply into community issues--and possibly showing their programs as specials on English-language public broadcasting stations.
"None of us thought we'd be meeting up and getting a license to do TV," Nguyen says. "In Vietnam, there was only one TV station.
"I remember sitting there, watching that American Indian head, listening to music" and waiting for a show to come on, Nguyen says. "That was our MTV."