New Center Spans Gap in Little Saigon
High-pitched voices ring out together as teacher Henry Nguyen leads a class of students 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 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 Nguyen. “We finally have a place the community can call its own.”
It is the first such center for Little Saigon, a community fractured by political rivalries that have doomed previous efforts, the organizers say.
It was that common goal that brought together the center’s five founders. Among them, they had years of volunteer experience in community-based groups.
Nguyen played an instrumental role 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 school run by a Buddhist temple.
“The five of us had done a lot of work in the community. We all felt there was a need to have a place in the community where people could come, meet and exchange ideas and culture,” said Nguyen.
The moment in April when they heard 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.
They 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 on May 2.
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.
Center officials also hope to start building a small library at the center that would be linked through the Internet to UC Irvine’s Southeast Asian Archives in the next month.
The center is seeking nonprofit status and funding grants, but in the meantime, the bulk of the $3,000 monthly rent and office expenses comes from the founders’ pockets.
A community center in Little Saigon is not a new idea, but what made this one different was 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.
“This time we did it our way. To us, this is about education and culture, not politics.”