In 1977, the Westminster-Garden Grove border seemed as unlikely a spot as one could find for an Oriental boom town. It was--and is--what might be called Orange County's heartland, a series of residential neighborhoods shot through with commercial strips along the major streets. What an Easterner would call suburbia.
But in the last decade, that ribbon of land, and many of the nearby neighborhoods, have become the scene of one of the largest population migrations since the Gold Rush. And, like their Forty-Niner predecessors, the nearly 100,000 Southeast Asian refugees--Cambodians, Laotians, Chinese but mostly Vietnamese--who began anew in Orange County with little or nothing have become part of the fabric of the region, adding a different and highly specific cultural identity to what formerly was a largely blue-collar Anglo community.
The Vietnamese community in Orange County is the largest such concentration in the world outside of Vietnam. And the focal point of this society within a society is the roughly milelong stretch of Bolsa Avenue between Brookhurst and Magnolia streets, known today as Little Saigon.
Little Saigon presents a stark contrast to the more traditional physical and ethnic landscape of Orange County. On any day on the Bolsa strip, visitors can see Vietnamese shoppers picking out the evening's main dish from a tank of live catfish, or chat with a group of Vietnamese students over espresso in a French/Vietnamese bakery, or watch an entire barbecued pig being hung up in a deli window next to whole roast ducks and chickens. And, because Little Saigon is made up mostly of small family businesses, the dozens of signs in Vietnamese lining the wide street can be a startlingly unfamiliar sight to the first-time visitor.
The heavy concentration of Vietnamese businesses is only a five-minute drive from the largely Latino neighborhoods of Santa Ana and the middle-class Anglo districts of Garden Grove and Fountain Valley. Taco stands are only blocks away from Vietnamese barbecued duck kitchens. The transformation began shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the first waves of refugees and boat people fled their Vietnamese homeland, leaving most of their possessions behind. After many of the refugees were processed through temporary "tent cities," such as the one set up at Camp Pendleton, Orange County churches, social service organizations and individuals sponsored them, helping them find homes and jobs.
Later, other refugees, some moving from U.S. cities where they had initially wound up after fleeing Vietnam, were drawn to Orange County by the climate--similar to Vietnam's, though less humid--by the prospect of reunions with friends, and by word that jobs, particularly assembly work in the county's booming electronics industry, were abundant.
A period of cultural adjustment followed, with many of the immigrants learning English and raising capital needed to start businesses. Slowly, however, along the Bolsa strip, the beginnings of a commercial district appeared--small markets, clothing stores, restaurants and the occasional professional office, such as a doctor or dentist.
In 1979, there were roughly 30 Vietnamese businesses in Orange County. Today, there are between 700 and 800.
The majority of these businesses are concentrated in Little Saigon, the hub around which life for many of the one-time refugees turns. It is their social as well as commercial center--a place to shop, to socialize, to maintain ties with friends, neighbors and literally thousands of others who are in the unique position to empathize with their past and present lives.
Little Saigon also represents, for many Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians, a tie to their past and a possible gateway to their future, a reminder that while they may be chronologically close to their roots in Vietnam, they now live and work in America. To grow and prosper, they are finding it necessary to adopt Americanized business and marketing strategies in order to expand their businesses.
"Little Saigon is the symbol of the Vietnamese people in exile, and we do want to keep our identity," said Dr. Co Pham, an obstetrician/gynecologist and the chairman of an ad hoc committee of Little Saigon business people who are trying to attract more tourism to the area. "But we have to learn to adopt American ways of doing things. In this country, if you're not growing, you're going downhill."
In the past, there has been no danger of that happening in Little Saigon. In its first decade, the area boomed.