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THE TIMES POLL : Little Saigon Is Big in Hearts of Vietnamese : The Westminster enclave has become a cultural center for thousands who fled their war-torn nation to settle in Southern California. It now has more than 1,600 Asian-run businesses.

Southland Vietnamese Support Renewed Ties. LAST OF THREE PARTS

June 14, 1994|LILY DIZON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — Every Saturday is market day for Thanh Tran.

The term loses some of its meaning when translated from Vietnamese, because the 65-year-old Anaheim woman does more than merely shop for groceries on this designated day.

Her routine starts at a food stand for an early morning breakfast of sweet, sticky rice and jasmine tea. It ends in the evening with dinner at a storefront restaurant that specializes in pho , the rice noodle soup that is as popular among Vietnamese as hamburgers are among Americans.

Between breakfast and dinner, Tran idles away the hours browsing through shops specializing in Chinese teas and herbs, bakeries, fabric marts and, yes, supermarkets on the stretch of Bolsa Avenue that is Little Saigon.

"I don't come to buy things," Tran said one Saturday afternoon, standing in front of a pastry shop, sipping iced sugar cane juice. "I come to see people, strangers mostly, who come . . . to do ordinary, everyday things, but in an environment where, because of the familiarity of faces and language, we never feel out of place."

For Tran, as for the vast majority of Vietnamese living in Southern California, the Little Saigon area of Westminster has become a cultural magnet--a place for all things Vietnamese, from the food they eat to the sundries they need, to simply mingling with people who speak their language.

A Los Angeles Times poll found that almost half the Vietnamese in Southern California--47%--consider Little Saigon their community's "most important" business, cultural and social center, while another 23% rated it "important."

The Times poll of 861 Vietnamese residents, conducted from March 28 through April 19 in Southern California, has a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The Times Poll is directed by John Brennan.

Of the people surveyed, 5% said it was not important at all, and only 2% said they had never heard of Little Saigon.

"And I'm surprised that those 2% even exist," said a 39-year-old Fullerton poll respondent who asked that his name not be used. "If Vietnamese from as far away as Vietnam, France and Australia know about this section (of Westminster), how could the ones here not know? Little Saigon is a big chunk of the history of Vietnamese in America."

*

It is a history that is still recounted with pride, and more than a little incredulity, by city officials and ad-hoc planners responsible for Little Saigon's unambitious beginning.

It originated in the late 1970s in a blue-collar section of Westminster, where scattered bottling plants and flower warehouses, half-empty shopping centers and expansive bean and strawberry fields covered most of the landscape. Only four Vietnamese-run businesses--a grocery store carrying mostly Asian food, an insurance office, a pharmacy and a restaurant--dotted the area.

An astute businessman, Harry Wu, sold an idea to developer Frank Jao, who rounded up investors to buy up some relatively inexpensive Westminster property that would house businesses catering to the newly arriving Southeast Asian refugees, who were journeying 40 miles north to Los Angeles' Chinatown for ethnic groceries and food.

Khu Bon Sa, or Bolsa district as local Vietnamese called it, became almost immediately a hub for the refugees who would eventually number 70,500 in Orange County, making it the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside Vietnam. (Local Vietnamese leaders maintain that the actual population, with new and undeclared immigrants, is double the 70,572 counted by the 1990 U.S. Census.)

Here, the smoke-filled coffeehouses, bakeries, boutiques and restaurants--all reminiscent of the fallen capital of the former South Vietnam--beckoned to the expatriates who, in their hearts, still yearned for the tastes and textures of their homeland.

Khu Bon Sa eventually came to be known as "Little Saigon" as more than 700 predominantly Vietnamese businesses sprouted in the area. In 1988, the quotation marks disappeared and the designation became official when the Westminster City Council proclaimed the district a social and cultural center for Vietnamese Americans.

"I definitely knew Little Saigon would one day be an ethnic center for Southeast Asians," said developer Jao, who was and still is one of the main architects of the area. Jao's Asian Village and Asian Garden Mall have anchored the business district of mostly strip malls and family-owned operations for years.

"I just didn't have the imagination to believe that it would be as big as it has become," he said.

Little Saigon may look 99% business. But for the older Vietnamese immigrants, it is 100% cultural and social. While members of other ethnic communities in the United States can freely make return visits to their homelands without fear of persecution, the Vietnamese here, most of whom had ties to the Saigon regime, believe they cannot do the same.

For them, Little Saigon is their only reminder of, if not their only link to, the hometowns of their past, however Americanized it may be.

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