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‘A tsunami of kindness:’ Vietnamese Americans launch nationwide giving campaign 45 years after Fall of Saigon

Recess Room Nailing it for America
Recess Room family members and volunteers, including Kim Phuong Huynh, Huong Pham and co-owners Kim Huynh and Viet Pham, woke up in the early hours of April 30 to prep spring rolls and cous cous as part of Nailing It For America’s effort to feed the hungry on the 45th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

In early March, a week before President Trump announced a travel ban from much of Europe, Ted Nguyen had just come back from a two-week vacation in Spain, Morocco and France.

What began as a whimsical holiday of sightseeing and tapas bars took a dark turn, as Nguyen saw the coronavirus pandemic swiftly take hold in those countries.

Back in Orange County and self-quarantining, he felt he had seen a glimpse of America’s future. The numbers of infections and deaths were rising exponentially abroad, and by the end of the month, news spread that medical centers in Spain and Italy were overwhelmed, their doctors and nurses begging the government to provide more masks and gloves.

At the same time, he saw his longtime friends in the Little Saigon nail industry — including Johnny Ngo of Whale Spa salon furniture store in Huntington Beach, Tam Nguyen of Advance Beauty College of Garden Grove and Laguna Hills, and Christie Nguyen of Tustin’s Studio 18 Nail Bar — struggling with their businesses, yet thinking about how they could rally the community to donate their masks to healthcare workers.

Ted Nguyen knew how to help elevate their efforts. He’s the manager of public communications and media relations for the Orange County Transportation Authority.

So he organized a media campaign and helped those friends with large networks in the local Vietnamese American business community execute it.

Nailing It
On March 31, Tam Nguyen, president of Advance Beauty College, right, and Johnny Ngo, president of Whale Spa Salon Furniture and Skyline Beauty Supply president, practice social distancing as they address the media about donating masks to healthcare workers.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

In 10 days in early April, they collected 120,000 medical-grade masks and 300,000 gloves locally — a market value of approximately $3 million.

Giving back is embedded in Vietnamese American culture, Ted Nguyen said.

“Before COVID-19, there were always multiple social events every weekend,” he said. “But these social events were always fundraisers to different causes … It’s an amazing culture of giving that’s often untold because people are so humble when they give back.

When the “Nailing It” volunteers saw the swelling of support, they wanted to do more.

On April 23, 20 local Vietnamese restaurants joined their efforts and delivered 20,000 meals to medical centers, grocery store workers, senior facilities, shelters and others in need.

Nailing It
On April 23, volunteers prepare food donations at Asian Garden Mall in Westminster as part of the “Nailing It for America” campaign. Twenty local Vietnamese restaurants were challenged to prepare 1,975 food items in honor of the 45th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

One organization they partnered with was the OC Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA), which serves low-income communities of color in Orange County.

According to co-founder and Executive Director Mary Anne Foo, the organization has seen its volume of calls triple during the pandemic, whether folks are struggling with their mental health, asking for help applying for unemployment insurance or worried taking assistance would be considered public charge and jeopardize their immigration and citizenship statuses.

OCAPICA distributed the meals among clients, including homeless youth, that had appointments in their office, but also used it as an opportunity for their case workers to check on their clients in person as they delivered the food.

“We reach out to community members who already feel isolated,” explained Foo. “Maybe they don’t have access to the internet or English is their second language and they might feel linguistically isolated.”

She points to some elderly clients who are afraid to leave the house because they’ve heard about the elderly Asian man attacked in San Francisco and the Burmese parents and children stabbed in Texas.

Closer to home, a video of two Garden Grove students taunting Vietnamese American classmates by shouting “coronavirus” at them during a school cultural assembly went viral in March.

“It’s made people feel helpless,” she said. “And this meal given to them, especially knowing that these restaurants are under so much pressure, facing challenges and maybe even going out of business, that they still thought of them … People were very touched.”

Nailing It
Medical workers at Pacific Haven Subacute and Healthcare Center happily show off their free food delivered by business owner Chau Pham, co-owner of Recess Room in Fountain Valley, on April 23 as part of the “Nailing It” campaign.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The restaurants were challenged to make 1,975 food items, in honor of the 45th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

“The 30th of April is a milestone date for us that will be forever etched into my heart,” Ted Nguyen said. “That was the date that Saigon fell, but also the date that we became born as Americans, because of the generosity of sponsoring families.”

Both Ted Nguyen and Tam Nguyen had fathers in the South Vietnamese navy who had to leave immediately on April 30 when Saigon fell, because they would have been targeted by the Viet Cong.

Then 5, Ted Nguyen, grasping the teddy bear that would inspire his American nickname “Ted,” and his family ended up in Camp Pendleton, coincidentally where Tam Nguyen’s father also landed, after he was separated from his pregnant wife and 1-year-old son, Tam.

Tam Nguyen’s family would be reunited a few months later in Santa Cruz. Ted Nguyen’s family ended up in deserts of Sierra Vista, Ariz., about 15 miles from the Mexican border. His father went door to door asking neighbors if he could paint their homes, his mother sewed clothing and that was how they built their new lives in America.

“Whenever I see someone with a T-shirt or hat that identifies them as a Vietnam War veteran, I always tell them I want to thank them for their service,” he said, choking up. “ ‘You’re the reason I’m here. I don’t even know half of what you’ve been through, but your sacrifices allowed me and my family to be here and to be successful.’ ”

“We told ourselves as a family that we’ll never ever forget that, and we’ll always try to give back to the community and to the country that embraced the refugees when we had nowhere to go.”

Nailing It
Volunteer Oscar Nguyen, left, helps Chau Pham, right, co-owner of Recess Room, load up his SUV at the iconic Asian Garden Mall in Westminster.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

What started as “Nailing it for Health Care Workers,” their logo shaped like a nail file, has evolved into “Nailing it for America.”

Last week’s event was not only a chance for the local community to donate, but a call-out to other Vietnamese American communities across the nation to join them on April 30, for a third and exponentially larger wave of giving.

And all the communities with significant Vietnamese populations, from San Jose to New York to Houston to San Diego, responded.

Charlie Quy Ton, CEO of Regal Nail, the largest nail chain in the country, pledged to donate 1,975 face masks that have a protective eye shield. Kimberly Huynh of Holly and Hudson Nail Lounge, with locations across Orange County and Los Angeles, are pledging to give out $1,975 worth of manicures to frontline workers. Huy Nguyen of Images Luxury Nail Lounge, in Irvine and Newport Beach, will be donating 1,975 waxing and gel polish services to frontline workers, amounting to almost $40,000.

“One of our partners said it was like a tsunami of kindness,” he said, quoting Teresa Quyen Nguyen of Quentin Meats, who donated 400 pounds of chicken to Recess Room last week to make Mediterranean-style couscous plated like the South Vietnamese heritage and freedom flag, a yellow background with three horizontal red stripes.

Sibling restaurateurs — Viet Pham of Fountain Valley’s Recess Room and Huong Pham of Huntington Beach’s Bodhi Tree Vegan Cafe, which is being rebranded to Good Vibes Cafe — along with a volunteer team of family, friends and executive chef Grant Harris, pulled three all-nighters to create 1,975 boxes of chicken and roasted vegetable couscous — tumeric and saffron-infused to make the yellow, with three stripes of red pepper couli (sauce) — and 1,975 spring rolls, which they called freedom rolls — tumeric-braised tofu and three bell pepper strips packed with the other ingredients in the rice wraps.

Recess Room
The Recess Room couscous and spring rolls donated to locals in need as part of the “Nailing for America” effort were plated to resemble the South Vietnamese heritage and freedom flag: a yellow background with three horizontal red stripes representing the North, Central and South regions of Vietnam.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Recess Room has been doing Free Food Fridays every week since the county-wide health order and shutdown of nonessential businesses on March 17. Technically, these meals are for kids and seniors, but they haven’t turned a person in need away. They’ve donated 5,000 meals so far.

At 4 a.m. on April 30, they were back at it again, this time making 500 boxes of couscous and 500 freedom rolls to donate.

The Phams grew up in the restaurant industry — their mother Kim Huynh started the Westminster-based vegan restaurant Vien Huong in 1990.

“I don’t really think about all the things restaurants are going through now,” Viet Pham said of the difficulties, including their own mass furloughs. “For me, we’re really blessed to be in the position to help people.”

He thinks about his parents and grandparents, who, when they were ready to board a ship with the capacity to take 130 people out of Vietnam, found themselves at the harbor with about 1,000 refugees. The captain didn’t turn away a single person.

“My mom taught me that the world doesn’t care if you think about doing good, or intend to, or even commit to,” he says. “It only cares if you act upon doing good, and right now we need more action. So it’s give now, figure out how later.”

Recess Room
From left, Recess Room co-owner Viet Pham, his mother and co-owner Kim Huynh, his sister and founder of Good Vibes Cafe, Huong Pham and chef Grant Harris stand in front the cous cous and spring rolls that were to be donated to locals in need on April 30, 2020, the 45th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The market value of all donations the Nailed It team has collected in the last month add up to about $30 million, and these gifts are linked to Vietnamese American communities from almost every state in the country.

“I call Little Saigon, Not-So-Little Saigon,” Ted Nguyen said.

It not only stretches across Westminster, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Santa Ana, and now Huntington Beach, he said, but also as the largest Vietnamese diaspora, it serves as the epicenter of influence for Vietnamese American communities across America.

“And it’s important for us to do well, but it’s also important to share it, to tell our story,” he said. “We want to communicate that we are doing this because we are Americans. We have to get through this together, as a nation, protecting ourselves and looking out for the most vulnerable.”

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