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Tet Festival in Little Saigon canceled over money dispute

Contract talks break down between organizers of the Tet Festival and the city of Garden Grove. Organizers vow the Vietnamese Lunar New Year event will be held somewhere.

October 24, 2013|By Anh Do
  • The crowd watches traditional Vietnamese lion dancers at last year's Tet festival in Garden Grove.
The crowd watches traditional Vietnamese lion dancers at last year's… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

The long-running Tet Festival, a celebrated tradition in America's largest Vietnamese American community, has been abruptly canceled in a dispute between organizers of the Lunar New Year event and city officials in Garden Grove.

The three-day festival, which organizers claim is the largest event of its kind outside Vietnam, is an annual favorite in the Little Saigon community, a bustling ethnic enclave that sprawls over four cities in the center of Orange County.

The event has traditionally been held at Garden Grove Park, which can accommodate the tens of thousands who attend the colorful celebration.

This year, though, contract talks between city officials and the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns. of Southern California, which organizes the festival, broke down over money issues. City officials said festival organizers would have to do a better job of helping cover the costs that the city has absorbed over the years.

Councilwoman Dina Nguyen said the festival has cost the city nearly $1.2 million over the last 11 years, a figure that organizers said seemed inflated.

The city's final contract offer called for organizers to pay $145,000 to cover police services and other costs. The student group had been paying the city $30,000 a year.

"All along, we felt the city has not been negotiating in good faith," said Nina Tran, president of the student group. "I think it's just completely absurd they're asking for $145,000."

Tran said that her group was left in the dark on what that money would cover, but that she'd been told part of it would be directed to help fund a planned Vietnam War museum in the city. As with the Vietnam War Memorial in neighboring Westminster, it would honor those whose lives were affected by the war.

City officials, though, said the turning point in negotiations was the group's failure to disclose its financial records for the last four years. Mayor Bruce Broadwater said that the city would have settled just to get copies of the organizer's bank statements, but that it couldn't even get its hands on those documents.

"They just showed us bits and pieces," the mayor said. "They withheld information because they don't want us to know where all the money is going."

It's unclear how much the festival takes in, though admission is $5 and organizers say as many as 100,000 visitors typically attend each year.

The two sides had squared off in a September public meeting that drew hundreds.

"Please don't mess with success," pleaded Arlene Ho, a student association member.

Nghia X. Nguyen, who heads the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, urged officials to back "the biggest Tet festival in the free world."

"It would be a shame to see this whole thing blow up over a clash of egos," Councilman Steve Jones said.

But he agreed with colleagues that there had to be better financial accountability for the festival.

Organizers said they are reaching out to neighboring cities and vowed that this year's Tet Festival — scheduled to start Jan. 21 — will be held somewhere.

Broadwater said the city is not interested in running the festival out of town.

"If someone else wants to organize it," he said, "our doors are open."

anh.do@latimes.com

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