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Garden Grove's Flag Clash Is Seen as Flying in the Face of Unity

To some longtime residents, the push by Vietnamese Americans to use the symbol of their former regime raises a cultural issue: the willingness to assimilate.

March 17, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Gary Greer wolfs down a sandwich outside his Garden Grove barber shop as he contemplates the intricacies of national sovereignty, diplomatic relations and the loaded question of which Vietnamese flag -- that of the victorious north or the vanquished south -- should fly at official city functions.

Neither, he decides.

"I don't know why they have to fly their flag," says Greer, 66. "It's the same thing with the signs they put on Brookhurst [Street]: 'Welcome to Little Saigon.' It's not 'Little Saigon.' It's Garden Grove."

Here on Garden Grove's commercial Main Street, a block-long strip that is more memory than urban core, a debate over which Vietnamese flag to fly has stirred passions.

For Vietnamese emigres who flooded into the area in the years after the Communist victory in 1975, the flag of South Vietnam represents a better past.

But for many longtime -- and mostly white -- Garden Grove residents, the flag represents something else: the growth of an insular group of new neighbors slow to assimilate into American culture.

It is the friction between two groups clinging to separate pasts even as they lurch toward an uncertain future.

Once a mostly white farm town, Garden Grove has undergone a profound change, part of the urbanization of Orange County's older communities.

In the 1990s, Garden Grove's population shifted from white majority to ethnic plurality, with whites, Latinos and Asians each accounting for about one-third of the city's 165,000 residents.

A critical part of that shift was the number of Vietnamese residents, which more than doubled in the 1990s to about 35,000, or 21% of the city's population.

There are now more Vietnamese Americans in Garden Grove than in neighboring Westminster, home to the Little Saigon business district and the de facto cultural heart of the Vietnamese American society.

"Our community is now rated as one of the most [ethnically] diverse in California ... and we all get along," said Chamber of Commerce President Connie Margolin.

Unlike immigrants from Mexico -- another sizable ethnic group in Garden Grove -- the Vietnamese fled as political refugees, and many still hope to return and overthrow the Communist government.

They are more exiles than immigrants, and have a powerful attachment to symbols of the land they left.

"We are a political community, not an economic community," said Van Tran, a Vietnamese American member of the Garden Grove City Council.

Partly in recognition of the growing Vietnamese presence -- and the political power of the flag of the former South Vietnam -- the City Council last week voted unanimously to fly the yellow banner at official functions, snubbing the red flag of the current regime. Westminster adopted a similar resolution last month, part of a campaign the Vietnamese government denounced as "insolent."

The Garden Grove council also urged the school board and county and state legislators to take similar action. Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove) was already working on a measure that could be submitted soon, but local school officials brushed the issue aside.

"The board handles educational issues, not political issues that are out of our hands," said Garden Grove schools spokesman Alan Trudell.

Some longtime residents like Greer, the barber, question why the issue came up.

"I don't see any other flags flying here," he said, gesturing down the street where light poles hold American flags above baskets of pink geraniums.

"There are no German flags, no French flags. The Mexicans are here as much as the Vietnamese, and you don't see any Mexican flags. I just don't understand that."

Down the street in the Rainbow Room, a dark-paneled bar that's been in the same spot and under the same ownership since 1954, the talk on a recent afternoon was mostly about baseball and spring training.

At one end of the bar, Tom and Debbie McConnell nursed midday beers and talked about changes in the city in which they grew up. Strawberry fields and orange groves that no longer exist. Houses packed into what once were open spaces. And the reverse: a vast parking lot behind the bar, once a neighborhood.

"A lot of people are moving out," Debbie McConnell, 44, said as she listed relatives and friends who no longer call Garden Grove home. They helped form an exodus that dropped Garden Grove's white population by 19,000 during the 1990s, while a similar number of Vietnamese Americans moved in.

"It's been changing for a long time," said Tom McConnell, 45, as he poked a lime wedge into his Mexican beer.

Debbie McConnell doesn't like to think of the changes in ethnic terms, but it's hard not to, she says. What might seem like a strong sense of solidarity in the Vietnamese community can be seen from the outside as willful isolation.

"They are kind of taking over," she said.

Across the street, Joanne Miura, 49, and Roy Robbins, 47, talked in his used-book store about the delicate task of weighing the desires of one ethnic community against the needs of a multi-ethnic city.

"I can see why they have such feelings for [the flag], because it represents something to them that's just a horrible memory," Robbins said. "But whether local government should get involved, I don't know about that."

Miura, whose grandparents emigrated from Japan, grew up in Garden Grove when she was one of only a handful of Asian students in high school. She remembers being uneasy speaking Japanese in public. And she can remember no local debates over flying the Japanese flag. The situation never came up.

Miura saw last week's Garden Grove council meeting on local television and "was amazed at how animated" the speakers were. She fears the emotions signal a long wait before the divides between Garden Grove's ethnic communities are bridged.

"I can see them wanting to hang on to their old country, but it separates them from the rest of the community," Miura said. "It's nice to hang on to what was, but there's also a time to let go."

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