Vietnamese building their name in San Jose

Times Staff Writer

On Sunday afternoons, Grand Century Mall swarms with people longing for a taste of Vietnam.

A gray-haired woman sells fresh jackfruit and bananas out of a minivan in the parking lot. On tables outside, men play Chinese chess, egging one another on while drinking Vietnamese iced coffee.

Inside the shopping center, shoppers sipping sugar cane juice browse through dozens of jewelry displays and CD racks filled with music from Vietnamese pop idols. The aroma of Vietnamese crepes beckons customers to the strip of fast-food stands.

San Jose, California’s other Vietnamese enclave, is home to more than 78,000 Vietnamese.

But although the community pulses with Vietnamese people flocking to restaurants, bakeries and beauty salons, it remains the awkward sibling to Orange County’s Little Saigon, a cultural mecca for Vietnamese refugees who found powerful memories of their homeland in its streets and marketplaces. Even its name -- Saigon -- evoked recollections of a fallen country that many had fled.


Now, San Jose officials are working toward carving out a sharper identity and studying Orange County’s blueprint, right down to a spirited, yet failed, attempt to adopt its name, Little Saigon.

Designating the area composed of nearly 200 Vietnamese-owned businesses is long overdue, said San Jose City Councilwoman Madison Nguyen, the council’s first Vietnamese American official, who first pushed to name the area in May.

“For the first time, we are asking the city to recognize that Vietnamese Americans have contributed a lot to the city,” she said.

The challenges that San Jose faces in crafting its Vietnamese community are hard to miss.

In Little Saigon, those who step out onto Westminster’s Bolsa Avenue, the main drag, can find hundreds of Vietnamese restaurants, bookstores and bakeries in dozens of strip malls in either direction. The district spills into three adjoining cities -- Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Fountain Valley.

“I always tell my friends that if you just came from Vietnam and you happen to locate in Orange County, you don’t even have to learn English because everything is in Vietnamese,” Nguyen said.

In contrast, Vietnamese businesses are scattered throughout San Jose, and the one-mile strip that is marked as the Vietnamese district looks similar to other thoroughfares in town. A fraction of the size of Little Saigon, it offers an ethnic hodgepodge of products and services.

In Story Supermarket, a cramped Vietnamese market across from Grand Century Mall, conversations can be heard in Spanish and Tagalog -- the most common language of the Philippines. Bags of corn tortillas and jars of jalapenos are lined up across from a rack of pungent Vietnamese fish sauce -- a far cry from Little Saigon’s markets, which cater nearly exclusively to Vietnamese palates.

The opening of the Grand Century Mall in 2000 provided a cultural hub and local hangout for many San Jose Vietnamese Americans, as well as a centerpiece for the city’s Vietnamese district.

Jenny Do of San Jose said that when she first came from Vietnam to the Bay Area in 1984, there were few places to meet Vietnamese people, other than at friends’ homes. Now, she drives to Grand Century Mall on weekends to shop, dine and be surrounded by all things Vietnamese.

Last Sunday, Do bought two bushels of dragon fruit, a bright pink fruit she used to eat in Vietnam that’s a rare find in the United States.

“I speak English at work all day and to my kids,” she said, “so at the end of the week, I want to be surrounded by my people, speaking Vietnamese.”

Some of the thousands of refugees who fled Vietnam after the 1975 fall of Saigon saw opportunities in California to rebuild their lives.

The Vietnamese who settled in Little Saigon found cheap rent, plentiful though low-paying jobs, and an enclave not far from the tent cities at the Camp Pendleton Marine base, where many had lived.

Little Saigon’s community boomed, and the enclave came together rapidly as Vietnamese refugees who were spread out across the United States moved to Southern California to be closer to family.

In San Jose, Vietnamese immigrants were drawn in by the high-tech jobs during the birth of Silicon Valley. Many nascent companies were looking for well-educated people willing to work for cheap, and the Vietnamese fit the bill, said Hien Duc Do, a social sciences professor at San Jose State University.

But San Jose never had big-time real estate investors to pump money into the Vietnamese district. In Little Saigon, Frank Jao, a Vietnamese refugee, became known as the “Godfather of Little Saigon” after he built two large shopping centers that drew in thousands of surrounding businesses and set the tone for the area.

San Jose also lagged far behind Little Saigon in political representation. Little Saigon is home to the nation’s first Vietnamese American elected official. Tony Lam won a seat on the Westminster City Council in 1992, and now, 10 politicians call Little Saigon home, including Assemblyman Van Tran, the nation’s highest-ranking Vietnamese American official.

San Jose only recently gained a Vietnamese council member when Nguyen was elected in 2005.

Not having a political representative made it hard to do even the simplest things for an ethnic enclave, such as designating a Vietnamese area. Earlier lobbying couldn’t even produce a council vote, Nguyen said.

And now, as San Jose begins to promote its Vietnamese identity, a fierce debate over the district’s name has riled the Vietnamese community.

One group strongly pushed for “Saigon” to be in the name (as in “Little Saigon” or “New Saigon”) as a tribute to the fallen capital of South Vietnam. Others wanted “Vietnam” included (such as “Vietnamtown” or “Vietnamese Business District”), which rankled the pro-Saigon groups that say such a name would glorify the communist country. Various groups spent the last few months holding rallies, gathering signatures and lobbying Nguyen.

Some in the community called Nguyen a communist sympathizer when she refused to choose sides before the vote. Others threatened a recall.

Nguyen compromised Thursday by lobbying for the name “Saigon Business District.” It’s not as snappy, she said, but at least the Vietnamese community now is closer to having a name.

The compromise didn’t placate everyone in San Jose -- the group pushing for “Little Saigon” interrupted Nguyen’s news conference with chants and threats of recalling her. The City Council is scheduled to decide Tuesday whether to adopt a name.

There are some things about Little Saigon that San Jose officials say they don’t want to replicate. The Orange County community has been built up largely through a series of strip malls that now are showing their age.

San Jose’s Vietnam Town, a sprawling high-end development under construction next to Grand Century Mall, will more than double the number of Vietnamese businesses in the area when it opens next year. It’s modeled after Santana Row, San Jose’s glitzy, upscale shopping center, said developer Lap Tang.

“My intention, always, is to create something new and modern, something that will last for generations,” he said.

And now that San Jose’s enclave is beginning to come together, people down south wonder if its sister community eventually could overtake Little Saigon as the capital of Vietnamese America.

Said Westminster City Manager Ray Silver: “Can us simply being the first Little Saigon assure us of being the Little Saigon to see?”