Pham now believes that in the early years, Vietnamese refugees were too preoccupied with finding jobs, homes and lost relatives to have time to read, let alone to tackle the weighty works he was printing. And his customers were isolated in tiny communities throughout the United States, Europe and Australia.
While Pham was having trouble finding readers, writers could not find him.
Ngoc Ngan Nguyen, a Toronto-based novelist who wrote his first book in a Malaysian refugee camp, now writes for Xuan Thu and at least six other publishers.
But when he first arrived in 1979, Nguyen said, "I wanted to get in touch with a Vietnamese publishing company, and there weren't any. So I couldn't get my book published. And I was so depressed."
Nguyen decided to learn to write in English instead. His memoirs, "The Will of Heaven," were published by E.P. Dutton in 1982. He has since published 13 more books in Vietnamese, published by Xuan Thu, Van Khoa and a half-dozen other companies. And he has achieved star status by selling 5,000 copies apiece.
For Xuan Thu, the big break came in 1981. By this time, a national Vietnamese magazine had started, and Pham placed an ad. Then a friend suggested that after long, hard days working two jobs, his immigrant clientele might appreciate some lighter reading. Pham printed a kung fu novel. It sold 500 copies--a relative smash.
In 1983, Pham learned that Houston was sprouting a large Vietnamese community, and moved his business there. When the economy soured, he decided that Orange County had become the real center of overseas Vietnamese culture. Besides, he liked the weather.
Xuan Thu opened its doors in a vastly overcrowded warehouse in the middle of a strawberry field in 1985. It now has seven employees, including Pham, and annual sales of more than $150,000 to mail-order customers, about 100 bookstores worldwide and libraries, Pham said.
The majority of its titles are reprints of works published in old Saigon, many of them borrowed from the Asian Library at Cornell University. Pham painstakingly reproduces the original art and type from these tattered volumes.
"Mostly, we use the same covers, because our people, they live with their memories," he explained.
Last week, Xuan Thu's two presses were clacking out copies of what may be a Vietnamese "Papillion." It is the story of former South Vietnamese air force pilot Ly Tong, who claimed to have escaped from three communist prisons, then walked, swam, hitchhiked, bicycled and rode trains and buses a total of 1,560 miles. He finally arrived at the door of the U.S. Embassy in Singapore in 1983.
His exploits were chronicled in the Reader's Digest, but Xuan Thu has secured Tong's Vietnamese manuscript--all 600 pages.
"This one, we print 1,000 copies," said Pham. "I know it will sell. . . ." He plans an oversized paperback edition that will sell for $15 or $16.
Such successes, however, finance editions of children's books. These invariably lose money, Pham said, but he hopes they will keep Vietnamese youngsters from forgetting their ancestral tongue.
Later this spring, Xuan Thu plans to release the autobiography of former Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai, now 76 and living in Paris.
"Vietnamese never knew about his life," Pham explained. "They thought he was just a puppet. But in this book, we see that he fought a lot for the rights of the people.
"That's why the French kicked him out."