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Center of Attention

TIMES STAFF WRITER

High-pitched voices ring out together as teacher Henry Nguyen leads a class through a traditional Vietnamese song. Later, arms and legs fly every which way as another roomful of youngsters explodes into action at the command of martial arts master Huy Xuan Nguyen.

Walking through the Nguyen Ba Hoc Cultural Center in Westminster, founder Peter Nguyen surveys the buzzing activity with a smile. It’s not often that a dream comes true, says the soft-spoken activist.

Two months after the opening of the first cultural center in Little Saigon, its founders point out with satisfaction that the center is becoming a place where young and old cross paths.

“Since we started in May, this has become the meeting spot for the Vietnamese community,” said Peter Nguyen. “We finally have a place the community can call its own.”

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It was that common goal that brought together the center’s five founders. Collectively, they had years of volunteer experience in community-based groups.

Peter Nguyen was instrumental in putting together the annual Tet parade in Little Saigon. Linh Nguyen had worked with youth groups to organize walkathons that raised money for victims of natural disasters in Vietnam. Christiane Huynh worked with the Hong Bang Vietnamese language school. Chuck Mai was involved with the Boy Scouts. And Henry Nguyen had been a volunteer teacher at a language school run by a Buddhist temple.

From their own vantage points, each saw the void.

“The five of us had done a lot of work in the community. We all felt there was a need to have a place . . . where people could come, meet and exchange ideas and culture,” said Peter Nguyen.

The moment in April when they heard that the 4,200-square-foot building, a former day-care center on Chestnut Street, was for rent, they jumped into action.

“This was our dream for so long. When the building became available, it hit us right away,” said Peter Nguyen.

All five pooled their resources and time, raising $50,000 in seed money and putting in 20-hour days for a solid month to get the building ready for its opening May 2.

“We were thinking of putting in beds because we were here so often,” joked Henry Nguyen. “But on the day it opened, I felt so much pride. We had done this for the kids.”

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And the focus here is clearly on carefully preserving and promoting Vietnamese culture for the next generation.

It remains a labor of love for the founders, who are also the center’s teachers, janitors and cooks. In turn, the students seem to mirror the organizers’ enthusiasm.

“I begged my mother to let me come,” said student Shaun Pham, 14, of Orange. “Before, I didn’t want to speak Vietnamese, but now I feel like I need it. I want to know about my own culture and language. Now I speak Vietnamese at home and my mom is so surprised. I learn so much here.”

Along with Vietnamese language classes, the center offers traditional martial arts, art and folk music classes for a nominal fee. In the fall, after-school tutoring will be added, along with computer training and English courses for adults.

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Center officials also hope to start building a small library, which would be linked through the Internet to UC Irvine’s Southeast Asian Archives in the next month.

The center is seeking nonprofit status and grants, but in the meantime, the bulk of the $3,000 in monthly rent and office expenses comes from the founders’ own pockets.

A community center in Little Saigon is not a new idea, but what made this one different is that the organizers were able to get it off the ground, said Peter Nguyen.

“There have been plans in the past, but so many people wanted a share of running it. They fought among themselves and it was disastrous. Nothing ever got done,” he said.

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“This time we did it our way. To us, this is about education and culture, not politics.”


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