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Vietnamese building their name in San Jose

The ethnic district aims to emulate its more established counterpart, Little Saigon, starting with an official designation.

November 19, 2007|My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — On Sunday afternoons, Grand Century Mall swarms with people longing for a taste of Vietnam.

A gray-haired woman sells fresh jackfruit and bananas out of a minivan in the parking lot. On tables outside, men play Chinese chess, egging one another on while drinking Vietnamese iced coffee.

Inside the shopping center, shoppers sipping sugar cane juice browse through dozens of jewelry displays and CD racks filled with music from Vietnamese pop idols. The aroma of Vietnamese crepes beckons customers to the strip of fast-food stands.

San Jose, California's other Vietnamese enclave, is home to more than 78,000 Vietnamese.

But although the community pulses with Vietnamese people flocking to restaurants, bakeries and beauty salons, it remains the awkward sibling to Orange County's Little Saigon, a cultural mecca for Vietnamese refugees who found powerful memories of their homeland in its streets and marketplaces. Even its name -- Saigon -- evoked recollections of a fallen country that many had fled.

Now, San Jose officials are working toward carving out a sharper identity and studying Orange County's blueprint, right down to a spirited, yet failed, attempt to adopt its name, Little Saigon.

Designating the area composed of nearly 200 Vietnamese-owned businesses is long overdue, said San Jose City Councilwoman Madison Nguyen, the council's first Vietnamese American official, who first pushed to name the area in May.

"For the first time, we are asking the city to recognize that Vietnamese Americans have contributed a lot to the city," she said.

The challenges that San Jose faces in crafting its Vietnamese community are hard to miss.

In Little Saigon, those who step out onto Westminster's Bolsa Avenue, the main drag, can find hundreds of Vietnamese restaurants, bookstores and bakeries in dozens of strip malls in either direction. The district spills into three adjoining cities -- Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Fountain Valley.

"I always tell my friends that if you just came from Vietnam and you happen to locate in Orange County, you don't even have to learn English because everything is in Vietnamese," Nguyen said.

In contrast, Vietnamese businesses are scattered throughout San Jose, and the one-mile strip that is marked as the Vietnamese district looks similar to other thoroughfares in town. A fraction of the size of Little Saigon, it offers an ethnic hodgepodge of products and services.

In Story Supermarket, a cramped Vietnamese market across from Grand Century Mall, conversations can be heard in Spanish and Tagalog -- the most common language of the Philippines. Bags of corn tortillas and jars of jalapenos are lined up across from a rack of pungent Vietnamese fish sauce -- a far cry from Little Saigon's markets, which cater nearly exclusively to Vietnamese palates.

The opening of the Grand Century Mall in 2000 provided a cultural hub and local hangout for many San Jose Vietnamese Americans, as well as a centerpiece for the city's Vietnamese district.

Jenny Do of San Jose said that when she first came from Vietnam to the Bay Area in 1984, there were few places to meet Vietnamese people, other than at friends' homes. Now, she drives to Grand Century Mall on weekends to shop, dine and be surrounded by all things Vietnamese.

Last Sunday, Do bought two bushels of dragon fruit, a bright pink fruit she used to eat in Vietnam that's a rare find in the United States.

"I speak English at work all day and to my kids," she said, "so at the end of the week, I want to be surrounded by my people, speaking Vietnamese."

Some of the thousands of refugees who fled Vietnam after the 1975 fall of Saigon saw opportunities in California to rebuild their lives.

The Vietnamese who settled in Little Saigon found cheap rent, plentiful though low-paying jobs, and an enclave not far from the tent cities at the Camp Pendleton Marine base, where many had lived.

Little Saigon's community boomed, and the enclave came together rapidly as Vietnamese refugees who were spread out across the United States moved to Southern California to be closer to family.

In San Jose, Vietnamese immigrants were drawn in by the high-tech jobs during the birth of Silicon Valley. Many nascent companies were looking for well-educated people willing to work for cheap, and the Vietnamese fit the bill, said Hien Duc Do, a social sciences professor at San Jose State University.

But San Jose never had big-time real estate investors to pump money into the Vietnamese district. In Little Saigon, Frank Jao, a Vietnamese refugee, became known as the "Godfather of Little Saigon" after he built two large shopping centers that drew in thousands of surrounding businesses and set the tone for the area.

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