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Projects to Revitalize Little Saigon Examined

California and the West

Community: Although successful, the Westminster enclave shows signs of decline. City wrestles with reshaping area without losing its ethnic flavor.

August 24, 1998|TINI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — As signs go, it wasn't fancy: standard state-issue green.

But for the hundreds of Vietnamese refugees who witnessed its unveiling a decade ago, the "Little Saigon" freeway sign stood for a dream: the recreation of a place that now exists only in their memories.

"I knew I had lost my country, but to see another Saigon created by my own people. . . . I can't describe the emotions I felt that day," said pharmacist Danh Nhut Quach, who opened the first Vietnamese-owned business along Bolsa Avenue.

"In every community, people try to regain what they left behind. That's why we have a Chinatown and a Little Tokyo. That's what Little Saigon is about."

Ten years after its formal naming, Little Saigon is a bustling business area and the de facto capital of the largest Vietnamese emigre community in the world.

But the mile-long ribbon of Bolsa between Magnolia and Brookhurst streets has fallen short of early dreams of a tourist attraction akin to some Chinatowns, bogged down by a lack of planning and consensus. Short on trees and other physical embellishments, pedestrian-unfriendly Little Saigon has never extended its appeal beyond the refugees who gave birth to it.

Beyond that, its core consumers are aging; the influx of Southeast Asian refugees, which fueled its rapid economic growth, has slowed dramatically, and many of the latest arrivals are on government assistance, which has faced major cuts under U.S. welfare reform.

Mindful of the need for continued economic growth, community leaders are wrestling with how to make the area more attractive to mainstream consumers and their own younger generation--those more inclined to patronize McDonald's and Macy's than Little Saigon's mom-and-pop operations--without losing the ethnic flavor.

"If it looks too Americanized, it doesn't attract the community," said longtime community observer Yen Do, publisher of Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese-language daily newspaper in the United States. "But if it doesn't look modern enough, it turns away the young people."

Most recently, the city of Westminster, which generally has stayed aloof from Little Saigon development, has started getting involved in helping reshape the area's future. Several design concepts for the area are under discussion.

The City Council could make a decision about who will develop the project as soon as the first week of September.

"At a minimum [the redevelopment] would improve the appearance of the area--reduce traffic and circulation and make it a more pedestrian-friendly environment," said Brian Fiske, planning director for Westminster. "At the most, it will stimulate greater tourist interest and allow for further planning projects."

One designer's plans call for borrowing heavily from the colors and decorative touches of the original Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. At the least, city planners said, such plans should include a landscaped median, trees, bilingual signs and decorative lampposts.

Shifting Demographics Affecting Economy

About 2,000 businesses are densely packed into the area. City officials say a third to a half of those are retail enterprises generating about $50 million in annual sales, netting the city half a million dollars a year in sales taxes. The rest offer services ranging from medical care to manicures.

Little Saigon existed unofficially for years before its formal designation, after the first wave of Vietnamese refugees following the 1975 fall of Saigon set up shop in deteriorating strip malls amid bean fields and salvage yards along Bolsa. The area was attractive chiefly for its low prices.

To this day, pharmacist Quach is still unsure what caught his eye about the property--a vacant storefront that boasted nothing more appealing than a lot of parking space. But this was 1978, the rent was low, and he had just moved from Nebraska with his family, hoping to set up his own pharmacy.

Other businesses followed: a couple of grocery stores, a jewelry store, a restaurant. By 1988, Little Saigon comprised 1,000 Asian-owned businesses.

In the boom years of the early 1980s, construction seemed nonstop. Many enterprises folded within a few months for lack of customers or capital. But new ones sprang up to take their place.

Ten years after Quach opened his store, Gov. George Deukmejian dedicated the first freeway marker. The sense in the community was that Little Saigon was on the brink of greatness.

"We resurrected Saigon in spirit here. That's the beauty of it," said attorney and activist Van Thai Tran. "We were a community on the move. This area represented the hopes and ambitions of the community as a whole."

At the heart of Little Saigon's success is Orange County's Vietnamese American community, now 300,000 strong.

It's more than a business district. Little Saigon is the center of exile politics, home to a flourishing entertainment industry that produces music, videos and films, and headquarters for 13 Vietnamese radio stations, dozens of magazines and several daily newspapers.

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