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May 19, 1989|MARIA L. La GANGA | Times Staff Writer

Hoan Le's first break came when he went to work at VN Printing, his cousin's shop, soon after arriving in Orange County from Vietnam in 1981. There he learned the rudiments of the printing trade and enrolled in vocational school.

His second break came 3 years later, after a succession of jobs in other print shops scattered throughout Little Saigon. In 1984, a friend at AA Printing loaned Le equipment so he could open his own establishment.

Today, a listing for Le's Printing is nestled among 10 pages of ads and entries in the 1989 Vietnamese Business Directory; his is one of 31 such enterprises clustered in and around the heart of the Vietnamese business enclave.

Sound like a lot of print shops for one small area? Well, it is. And there's a reason.

Ethnic communities are built when an influx of immigrants follows a pioneer who has found a good place to live. There are similar beachheads in ethnic business communities, instances where an early immigrant's accomplishments in a particular line of work have been emulated by those who came after.

It's a case of serendipity breeding success. For there are few reasons why, as in Le's case, large numbers of Vietnamese immigrants should open print and copy shops on arrival in the United States. But that's what happened here.

The problem, however, is competition. For while such enterprises offer a relatively easy entry--start-up costs are low, and family labor can be tapped--the pattern of repetition can lead to a real glut. And that's what Hoan Le has found.

"There are so many print shops that the prices go down, and you can't make much money," Le said. "I talk with my wife. I don't want to do the printing shop any more. I'm not making money. But I don't know what I want to do."

The going rate among Vietnamese print shops to print 1,000 advertising flyers is $17, Le says. Of that, the paper costs $6, and another $6 is chewed up by general business and printing costs. The remaining profit is $5, and that's not much.

The dilemma is that if Le raises his prices, his competitors will get the business. So with $150,000 in annual sales, Le, his wife and three young children end up with about $48,000 to live on.

That may seem like a fair amount, but Le works at least 12 hours a day, doing everything from designing and typesetting to running the cameras, the presses, the binders. And his wife works the front of the shop, taking orders and doing layout work.

They are the two full-time workers at the Harbor Boulevard enterprise, which is located in Santa Ana, a few miles south of Little Saigon. Le's Printing also employs three part-time workers.

If Le has any regrets, it's that he didn't take the time to learn English when he arrived in the United States from Saigon in 1981 with Nguyen and their 1-year-old son.

"I needed to make money," Le says. "I learn business, I go to work. That's it. I have 40% American customers here. I want more. But I have trouble. I try to bid for county jobs. If I know English better, I can talk to them and get the jobs."

What he does not regret is the profits he has funneled back into his business: thousands of dollars for computers and presses and cameras and fax machines.

When Le's Printing opened its doors in Westminster 5 years ago, Le had one press.

His initial capital? A loan of $5,000, an amount so low as to make most business owners pale and consultants cringe. He managed by doing all his typesetting and platemaking at a friend's shop for 3 months, until he started making enough money to buy more equipment.

Despite a tough market, Le is making the best of it. He advertises widely throughout the Southland and says that 50% of his business comes from outside Orange County.

And in the tradition of those who preceded him, he is passing on his trade. In 2 years, he has taught the business to about 15 other Vietnamese immigrants, people referred to him by a variety of social service agencies in the area.

"They send me people, and I train them," Le says. "I help my people learn printing."

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