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Big Trouble in Little Saigon

SMALL BUSINESS | ENTERPRISE ZONE: Lessons and Insight
on Southland Businesses

Merchants Are Squeezed by Competition, Generation Gap

August 18, 1999|LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Next to the small Buddhist shrine inside the front door of David Du Tran's Little Saigon Supermarket is a glass display case filled with cell phones and pagers, symbols of the forces that tug at this family business.

Just steps away, out along Westminster's Bolsa Avenue, a small band of protesters gathered recently, bearing placards that focused sharply on another challenge to multimillionaire Tran: still-simmering political tensions left over from the Vietnam War.

Tran's story is classically Vietnamese.

He had a family of eight and $200 when he arrived in San Diego 20 years ago. He had fled Saigon, where the Communist government had taken over his thriving bicycle factory.

He has since built a small business empire in Orange and Los Angeles counties that includes three grocery stores, a wholesale food business, two restaurants, two fast-food outlets and a company that imports cooking oil and rice.

"It's an amazing success story," said Orange County Supervisor Charles V. Smith, who was Westminster's mayor in 1990 when Tran opened his first store there, Little Saigon Supermarket.

Now, along with fellow shopkeepers in Little Saigon and other ethnic markets that have sprung up like mushrooms, Tran faces stiff competition--even though booming immigrant communities elsewhere in Southern California are providing fertile markets for independent grocers.

"The pie is getting smaller and smaller," says Tran's eldest son, Robert.

Merchants, caught between two cultures, are struggling to keep longtime customers while wooing a new generation.

"This new generation of Vietnamese don't go to Little Saigon. They go to Nordstrom and eat at McDonald's," Smith says. Merchants "open up, do business for a while and then they go belly-up and shut the doors. You're seeing more and more of that."

Reaching out to customers in two worlds, Little Saigon Supermarket sells 27 kinds of fish sauce and 24 types of egg noodles, along with Skippy peanut butter, Froot Loops and Lucky Charms.

Bobby Tran, youngest of the sons, sells pagers and cell phones next to the "entrance God" shrine in the supermarket. Robert, who used to spend 60 hours a week helping his father, has launched his own Internet company. Now he devotes only a couple of hours a day to the grocery business.

With his family and community shifting around him, David Tran keeps working--14 hours a day, seven days a week. He does not want to lose ground. It was a long and perilous journey from Saigon to Little Saigon.

Tran was born in 1941 in Van Co, a village in South Vietnam. His family lived in a thatch-roofed hut with thin bamboo walls.

Their travails are revealed in Tran's self-published autobiography, "Chapters of My Life: An Amazing Story of a Vietnamese Who Has Become a Millionaire From His Empty Hands!"

Tran helped support his family in the early years in Vietnam by selling cigarettes from a cardboard roadside stand. Plagued by poverty and political upheaval, the family struggled with loss and uncertainty.

By the time Tran was in his 20s, he had sold a variety of wares, from water buffalo to Singer sewing machines. He operated bars and stores. He even tried his hand at banking.

Repeatedly, success seemed within reach, then evaporated in that climate of political uncertainty. Through it all, Tran was the pragmatist.

"What was important to me," he wrote, "was how political events would affect my business."

At one point, Tran launched a bicycle factory that grew to employ 700 people.

"Luck also blessed me," he wrote. "The two huge gasoline storage tanks in Nha Be were burned down, causing a tremendous shortage of gas. Many people immediately turned to bicycling."

But Tran's luck ran out in 1975 when the Communists rumbled into Saigon. Pressured by the government the following year, he signed over his business. He continued to work at what had been his own factory for about $1.50 a day.

*

Then freedom became his goal.

First Tran sent sons Robert, then 10, and Hung, 8, in a fishing boat with relatives trying to flee the country. Robert, now 30, remembers being shot at and how the boat began to sink. It was towed back to shore and the young brothers were jailed.

Following their release, Tran shipped his sons off again. This time their boat made it safely to Malaysia. Then Tran and the rest of the family made their escape. They were reunited in July 1979 in San Diego.

Tran took college classes and was jubilant when he landed a job as a television repairman at $6.25 an hour. But before long the shop closed down, convincing him that "self-employment was the key to success."

Working 18-hour days, he rose at 2 a.m. to buy fruit and vegetables from farmers, peddling them from the back of his station wagon in a daily trek that stretched from Escondido to Los Angeles. To keep from nodding off, Tran would slip his hand into an ice chest he kept at his side.

Those are not bleak memories, however. "It made me happy to do business again . . . in the land of freedom and opportunity," he recalled.

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