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Vietnamese Immigrants Give $1 Million to College

Times Staff Writer

A pair of immigrant businessmen announced Monday that they would give $1 million to a community college campus near Orange County’s Little Saigon, a gift experts say underscores the growing level of philanthropy in the Vietnamese community.

The campus, near Westminster City Hall and a statue that honors American and South Vietnamese soldiers, will be named for benefactors restaurateur Chieu Le and developer Frank Jao.

Some observers see the donation to Coastline Community College as a sign of a maturing in Orange County’s Vietnamese community, which was formed by refuges in the 1970s at the end of the Vietnam War.

The Vietnamese have a record of helping in emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina and last year’s devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. But individual acts of philanthropy on such a large scale are still considered relatively rare, said Thu-huong Nguyen-vo, an assistant professor at UCLA’s Department of Asian American Studies.

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“We haven’t had a long time to accumulate enough wealth in the United States in order to do a lot of philanthropic work,” said Nguyen-vo. “We’re not a rich community, but cumulatively, it has been huge.”

Others believe the college donation is the beginning of a greater philanthropic effort in Little Saigon, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam.

“As the community establishes itself in the United States, the leadership becomes more philanthropic,” said Jeffrey H. Brody, a Cal State Fullerton professor who teaches about the Vietnamese American experience. Le and Jao “are spearheading that effort.”

The Le-Jao Center will open next month. The donation will help fund a variety of programs, from biotechnology to English-as-a-second-language courses. The $11-million facility, financed and operated by Coastline, will include 21 classrooms, three computer labs and a science lab.

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“They are role models, not only for our students, many of whom are immigrants themselves starting new lives here, but also for those who understand what it means to pay forward after they have made it,” said Ding-Jo H. Currie, president of Coastline.

Coastline offers classes throughout Orange County in rented offices, industrial parks and several small satellite campuses. Many classes are aimed at fundamental vocational training, an educational staple that intrigued Le and Jao.

Jao, who has prospered as a developer, took real estate classes through Coastline. Le, who owns a restaurant chain, started as a catering truck employee in San Jose.

Le and his wife, Yen, immigrated to San Jose in 1980. As a college student studying English, he bought lunch from a catering truck and eventually took a job as a helper on the truck. In 1981, he bought his own catering truck, gradually expanding his business until he and his brother operated a fleet of nearly 500 catering trucks that served Vietnamese sandwiches known as banh mi.

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Le and his wife later opened a sandwich shop in San Jose, Lee’s Sandwiches -- a name they believed would be an easier sell in America. They now own 25 shops in California and Arizona.

“This is an opportunity to benefit the community for years to come. We are so proud to do a little something,” said Yen Le. “We worked hard to achieve the American dream, and we just wanted to give back.”

For Frank Jao and his wife, Catherine, the donation was more personal. The Jaos immigrated to the United States in 1975 and stayed at Camp Pendleton.

Jao was a door-to-door vacuum salesman but eventually took real estate classes at Coastline in the mid-1970s. He now owns Bridgecreek Group Inc., a real estate company responsible for building the Asian Garden Mall, a cultural and commercial landmark in Little Saigon. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees at Coastline.

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At a news conference Monday, the two families shook hands and had pictures taken next to a rendering of the 33,000-square-foot college facility to be named for them.

“Thirty years ago, this country gave us an opportunity of new hope. The county gave us a new home. Westminster has given us a new chance to build a new life,” Jao said. “We went into a joint venture to give back to the very community that has given us what we have today.”

But he acknowledged that it was not enough.

“We hope this gift would encourage and inspire others in the community,” Jao said.

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