The sign outside Danh Quach's small shop in Little Saigon identifies the store as Danh's Pharmacy. Quach is a pharmacist, and customers can buy medicine there.
But bolts of fabric, electric fans, stereo cassette players and sewing machines take up most of the store space, in proportion with customer demand. Sales of those items keep one worker busy packing boxes for shipment home--home to Vietnam.
"Everybody who comes here from Vietnam, we (start) from scratch," said Quach, who fled his homeland in 1975 and studied pharmacology in Nebraska. "And everybody here sends help to family who stay in Vietnam. I do that too. I have relatives there."
Quach estimates that he forwards 10,000 pounds of goods to Vietnam each month--a legal service, even though all trade with the Communist country except small shipments of humanitarian items is banned by U.S. law. General stores just like Quach's line Bolsa Avenue, the Vietnamese business corridor in Westminster and Garden Grove. They cater to the estimated 250,000 Vietnamese who have settled in Southern California, and to hundreds of thousands more on the other side of the globe.
Distance does not diminish family responsibility, Vietnamese here say. But it has created a thriving industry: freight forwarders, professional shoppers who find the best buys on the most demanded items, and a Vietnamese black market fueled by Western goods.
Gold, stereos, videocassette recorders and a computer game were seized earlier this month by the U.S. Customs Service at Los Angeles International Airport in a crackdown on illegal trade. The goods, sent through the economic pipeline of Little Saigon, were bound for Vietnam and, Customs authorities believe, the underground market there.
"The packages may look like they are sent by individuals here to relatives in Vietnam," said John Heinrich, Customs Service district director. "However, it is very easy to disguise the destination because we don't have anybody to check on the other end. It could go to family in Vietnam, or a forwarder or a front operation."
It was the flourishing shipping business that attracted U.S. Customs attention and resulted in two airport sweeps on Oct. 14 and Oct. 22, Heinrich said. Trade with Vietnam is restricted by the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act. Violation of the law could result in fines of $50,000 and jail terms of up to 10 years for the sender, but criminal prosecution is generally reserved for exporters of weapons and technology to hostile nations.
Most Vietnamese interviewed insist that they never ship more than the law allows: $100 in cash or $400 in food, medicine and clothing a month. But community leaders say nearly all Vietnamese here send electronics and other prohibited items to relatives because those goods bring the most money on the black market. And, they say, Vietnamese immigrants here often work second and third jobs to support an extended family in Vietnam while paying their own bills in costly Orange County.
"Vietnamese in the U.S. feel their first duty is to send help home," said Do Ngoc Yen, publisher and editor of Nguoi Viet, a Vietnamese language newspaper printed in Westminster. "They try to send as much as possible, and they try to send the kinds of things their relatives can change to Vietnamese currency."
Yen, who helps to support his family and his wife's, as well as friends in Vietnam, said their requests have grown more sophisticated over the years, shifting with the black market from toys, clothing and bicycle parts to televisions and computers. A column featured in Yen's newspaper until about 2 years ago offered black market reports in the form of a shopping list of most-wanted items in Vietnam.
"My family in Vietnam and many other Vietnamese expect help from friends and relatives in the U.S," he said. "We send them whatever we can, and even with our help they just survive. If we stop, it would be finish for them."
When a new immigrant arrives in Little Saigon, "Vietnamese here ask first about the (political) resistance, then the currency rate and then prices on the black market," Yen said.
Dozens of Bolsa Avenue shops advertise shipping services with signs that proclaim: "Nhan Goi Hang Ve Viet Nam"-- This Store Accepts Merchandise to Vietnam. The stores will pack boxes with their own merchandise or forward cartons brought in by customers. Only a handful of carriers, including Air France and Philippine Airlines, transport goods from Los Angeles to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly the South Vietnamese capital Saigon.
Tex Bui, a refugee who opened Vietnamese Freight International Inc. in Garden Grove 2 years ago, now forwards up to 20,000 pounds of goods each month to Vietnam from senders throughout the country. Boxes with return addresses of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Minneapolis and San Jose awaited shipment this week from Bui's warehouse to Vietnam via Paris and Bangkok.