When Thu Duc Nguyen opened his restaurant in Little Saigon two years ago, one of the first investments he had to make was a small red-and-gold-lacquered shrine. It is dedicated to "Than Tai," the god of money.
The shrine can be seen at virtually every store and restaurant in the Asian shopping district straddling parts of Westminster and Garden Grove. It is supposed to ensure success in business.
But business is not going well in Little Saigon these days, with or without the god of money, local residents and shop owners say.
"We can hardly make ends meet," said Cathy Van, who runs the Hai Cua, or Two Crabs, restaurant on Brookhurst Street. "My husband works to support the restaurant."
The mall in the center of Little Saigon comes alive with throngs of shoppers and sightseers on weekends. But on other days of the week it is mostly deserted.
"This is indeed slow time for Little Saigon," said Co Pham, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.
Although several factors may account for the current downturn, including fierce competition among merchants, their consensus is that a main cause of the slump--a temporary one, they say--is Vietnam.
It is estimated that nearly half of the purchases in Little Saigon are sent by the 130,000-member Vietnamese American community in Orange County to families and friends overseas. Then Vietnam imposes a heavy tax on consumer goods, a bid to encourage instead the sending of production goods and hard currency.
"It's now a whole new ballgame," said Quach Nhut Danh, a well-known financier in Little Saigon.
The business of shipping goods to Saigon dwindled to nothing after repeated crackdowns by U.S. Customs earlier this year on embargoed items or things valued at more than the $400, the limit set by the Commerce Department.
"We now carry very little shipment to Vietnam," confirmed Kirstin Amm, from Air France Cargo in Los Angeles Airport.
According to reports from visitors to Vietnam, people in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, can now buy almost anything, and often at prices lower than in the United States.
"The result," noted Van Nguyen, president of the Assn. of Merchants of Little Saigon, "has been that the gifts shops, the fashions shops, the freight business, the fabrics shops, etc., have been particularly hit hard."
Van, who has a master's degree in economics from Cambridge University, said he prays before his little shrine to the god of money every morning before beginning work. The shrine is in a discreet corner of his paralegal office in the Asua Village Mall on Bolsa Avenue.
"I am doing OK," he said. "But many other people are not doing so well, because of the ripple effect."
Minh Tran, who manages a hair styling shop in the mall, sat despondently one recent morning in his empty store. "We do business mainly on weekends," he said, staring at his porcelain figure of the god of money.
The little shrine, which Tran said he inherited from the previous shop owner, will be left behind if he clears out.
But many business leaders remain optimistic.
"If anything, this is only a transitory period," Pham said. "We need to diversify, we need to do a lot more to promote this place. But this is still a growing community of hard-working people, and eventually we'll come out of this slump."
Meanwhile, Phuong Tran, owner of the Phuc Sinh herb shop, is still doing a brisk business selling the little red-and-gold-lacquered shrines from his cluttered shop on Bolsa Avenue.
At $50 apiece, said Van Nguyen, who runs a frozen food business on the fringe of Little Saigon, the shrines are "a small price to pay for a little piece of mind, especially in these difficult times."