Driving west on Bolsa Avenue from Santa Ana, things change slowly. The commercial signs in Spanish begin to fade out, and others in Vietnamese begin to appear. At first, it is a shop here or there, then a restaurant, then a cluster of businesses in a small shopping center. Nothing too unusual. The scenery isn't much different from that on any other commercially zoned strip in Orange County. It is easy to simply zero in on the traffic and not notice anything beyond the curbs.
But midway between Brookhurst and Magnolia streets, even the most glazed drivers can be shaken awake with the sudden realization that they are not in Kansas anymore. Or in Cancun, or Club Med, or the Yorkshire moors, or the 18th tee at Pebble Beach, or wherever they were before the Today Plaza arch jolted them back to Orange County.
The arch, a tall, broad, orange-tiled Chinese-style portal looming up on the north side of the street, is the surest indication, particularly to westbound travelers, that they have entered Little Saigon, Orange County's answer to Los Angeles' Chinatown and the business and social center for the county's estimated 100,000 Southeast Asian residents. For those driving in from the west, the tall three-roofed, jade-green arch at the Asian Gardens mall--a pagoda-like structure--is the giveaway.
And now, with the support of the Westminster City Council and the approval by the city's Redevelopment Agency, Little Saigon is on its way to becoming more than simply an enclave for former refugees. Early this month, Little Saigon was designated a special tourist zone and a redevelopment project.
Leaders in the local Southeast Asian community praised the move as a much-needed boost to merchants who have been trying to find a way to appeal to non-Asian shoppers.
"We've lobbied a lot for this and we're very pleased," said Tony Lam, a local restaurateur and community advocate. "I think this is a very positive step forward for the community."
The diversity of shops along the Bolsa Avenue strip can be almost overwhelming. There are, for instance, an acupuncturist's office, a lacquer artist's studio, two astrologist/fortune tellers, seven bakeries, three bookstores, eight Chinese herb shops, 16 delicatessens, 21 jewelry stores, a seafood market, six supermarkets and 29 restaurants.
There are accountants, travel agents, architects, attorneys, banks, dry cleaners, clothing stores, music shops, computer stores, dentists, electrical supply shops, pharmacies, doctors, tax services, video rentals--a microcosm of businesses, many of them run on a traditionally small scale, since many Vietnamese began their businesses and continue today with family members as employees.
And, particularly on weekends, Little Saigon is packed, mostly with local Vietnamese residents doing their weekly shopping, stopping to chat over a cup of coffee or tea, picking up armloads of French baguettes for dinner, or watching an herbal medicine practitioner concoct a mixture to help, say, a nagging cough.
For the novice non-Asian shopper, Little Saigon can be a wonder. Easily accessible by car, with plentiful parking in most areas, its first--and perhaps greatest--lure may be food.
Its common name notwithstanding, Little Saigon is not exclusively Vietnamese, and its food stores, delicatessens, restaurants and bakeries underscore that. Shops are owned by Thais, Cambodians, Chinese, Laotians and Caucasians and some, such as the Vivez Bleu women's clothing store in the Asian Gardens mall, reflect Vietnam's former French colonial influence. And French breads and pastries are plentiful in both food stores and bakeries.
The large grocery stores in the area are perhaps the most striking in their diversity of items. While it is no problem to buy a bag of Fritos, it is equally easy to come by dried seaweed or lotus nuts or fresh chickens' feet. In the supermarket in Asian Village, live lobster and catfish, as well as dozens of other kinds of fresh seafood, are available. And, for those in a hurry, the express lane in that market allows a maximum of not eight or 10, but 18, items in the shopping cart.
Elsewhere, visitors can snack on crispy roast duck or pick up a week's supply of fresh ginseng at a number of tea and herb shops.
The showplace of Little Saigon is the new Asian Gardens mall. Completed last year, it encloses 150,000 square feet and houses ethnic boutiques, shops and cafes.