After more than a decade of contentious debate, community leaders are moving forward with plans to erect ornate archways at the entrances to Little Saigon, the bustling heart of Orange County's Vietnamese American community.
Earlier plans for a bridge, complete with a green-tiled pagoda and dragons, split the immigrant community and were dismissed by some as being "too Chinese." The revived effort would have a decidedly Vietnamese motif and would be dedicated to the fallen homeland of South Vietnam.
"It'll basically represent a bolder entrance into the Little Saigon area, and its main purpose is to set it apart and attract international attention," said Westminster Councilman Andy Quach, who is spearheading the project. "It's long overdue."
The ethnic shopping and business district, clustered along Bolsa Avenue in Westminster, attracts an estimated 33,000 cars a day and brings in about $911,000 in taxes a year, city officials said. The Vietnamese American community in Orange County is the largest in the nation and Little Saigon has grown as both a commercial hub and a destination.
The City Council last week approved the idea of erecting the two archways. They would span Bolsa Avenue at Magnolia Street and Ward Street and serve, city leaders hope, as distinctive and flavorful gateways to the Vietnamese shopping district, which over the years has pushed into neighboring Garden Grove and Santa Ana.
A final design has not been selected.
"We have a beautiful chance to build our city up and use this like Chinatown in San Francisco that has a great draw," said Mayor Margie Rice. "We're losing the chance to show off our Little Saigon. This will certainly help."
Quach said it would cost about $200,000 for each wrought iron archway. The money would be raised through donations and fundraisers, he said. Even though Bolsa Avenue is clogged with traffic and the area is not necessarily pedestrian-friendly, Quach said he would love to turn the business district into an ethnic version of Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade.
"I want to bring out the culture," Quach said. "It'll be more inviting."
Similar projects were envisioned for Little Saigon in 1996 when developer Frank Jao, known as the godfather of Little Saigon, proposed a 500-foot-long, 30-foot-wide pedestrian bridge called "Harmony." The proposed $3-million project was designed to connect the Asian Garden Mall and the Asian Village Mall, but critics said the Chinese design could obliterate the Vietnamese community's identity. Jao eventually scratched the idea.
In 1988, Jao wanted to name the area "Asiatown" to draw a more diverse group of visitors, but it was shelved amid protests.
Quach said the design of the gateways will have a Vietnamese cultural theme.
They would include flags of the United States and the former South Vietnam. They would also depict a dragon, phoenix, lion and tortoise, representing supernatural powers of wood, fire, metal and water.
The support columns would resemble bamboo, which to Vietnamese symbolizes resilience. There would also be panels that depict the history of South Vietnam, its evolution and its quest for freedom, Quach said.