WESTMINSTER — Anaheim eighth-grader Phuc Tang hauled a trash bag containing everything from empty aluminum cans to a bicycle hub across Little Saigon like a bag of prizes. It was a symbol of his hard work.
"It's great to help out our community," the 13-year-old said, grinning widely.
He joined 300 other students and community activists Saturday for the fifth annual Little Saigon Clean-Up Day, organized by the Vietnamese-American Coalition, a UC Irvine student group.
Student volunteers from a dozen junior high schools, high schools and colleges scoured Bolsa Avenue, the main drag of shops, and collected nearly 100 bags of garbage. Foam cups, plastic bottles, piles of paper and even syringes were picked up in the mile-long sweep.
Even U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), clad in a bright violet suit and rubber-soled shoes, crouched over shrubs and pulled trash from the sidewalks in support of the annual event.
"This is an opportunity for us to show to the rest of Orange County that this is a vibrant and diverse community," said Sanchez, surrounded by teenagers. "And it lets young people know they have a stake in their community."
As they watched the volunteers, business owners said Saturday's efforts helped tidy up this commercial district, a popular attraction for tourists.
"We get a lot of visitors from across the U.S., France, Germany and other parts of Europe," said Thuan Duong, owner of a music store on Bolsa Avenue. "Watching these kids help out gives me a warm feeling inside. It makes me proud that they care."
Added another businessman, Lan Giang: "Young people are very important to our community. They are our future."
The annual cleanup day was born in part because of a 1993 Times Orange County poll on ethnic relations and safety that found that many residents considered Little Saigon unsafe and an area to avoid.
The 1992 Los Angeles riots also caused many to seek "racial healing," said Michael Matsuda, an Anaheim teacher and community activist who helped found the Vietnamese American Coalition.
"A lot of young people want to do something positive," Matsuda added. That was why the coalition, which focuses on various issues related to Vietnam and Vietnamese people in the U.S., chose to mentor junior high and high schools as one of its community projects.
Even students who are not Vietnamese or live near Little Saigon said they turned up to spur community spirit and revel in the culture.
"I love Vietnamese food," said Carol Smoody, a high school sophomore.
And for teens like Phuc Tang, volunteering in Little Saigon builds local pride and is personally enriching.
"I left Vietnam when I was 5, so I don't know what Vietnam looks like," said Phuc, who's student body president at Orangeview Junior High in Anaheim. "By spending time in my community, I can learn more about my culture and my people."