“I come here because the community welcomes me, teaches me and supports me. I want to give back. I want to do the same for others.” – Thu Nguyen, Little Saigon community center volunteer
Seventeen-year-old Thu Nguyen grew up in a culture where emotions and passions were hidden rather than embraced and working in the family business was more important than becoming independent or chasing dreams. Sadly, it is this same culture where few people trust the government, let alone strive to make a difference in it.
Thu Nguyen’s lifestyle and view of the world changed when she moved from Da Lat, Vietnam to San Diego, California one year ago. After finding the Little Saigon Community Center in City Heights, she is learning what it means to speak up and pursue her goals.
Many Vietnamese individuals and multi-generation families going through the same experience as Thu Nguyen are given the opportunity to honor their past, build a future and find a piece of home in Little Saigon, a neighborhood City Heights. They can also gain support along the way at the Little Saigon Community Center.
Little Saigon: a piece of home for some, a place of exploration for others
Vietnamese immigrants have populated neighborhoods in City Heights since 1975, after the Fall of Saigon. Today, almost 50,000 Vietnamese-Americans live in San Diego County according to the Pew Research Center.
Within a two-mile radius between Highland Avenue and Euclid Avenue off El Cajon Boulevard, there are hundreds of Vietnamese residents and dozens of Vietnamese stores and restaurants. Many residents today say this area was the origin of the Vietnamese community in San Diego, said Frank Vuong, co-founder and Executive Director of Little Saigon Foundation.
In 2013, Vuong and Su Nguyen co-founded LSF and worked with the city to officially designate the streets from Highland Avenue to Euclid Avenue as Little Saigon.
“Little Saigon was founded on the principle of love and the value of service,” Vuong said.
Little Saigon’s purpose is to create opportunities for Vietnamese people struggling to assimilate into American culture. Its goal is to become an ethnic enclave that Vietnamese are proud to be a part of and where others are welcomed.
“The community and surrounding businesses were all-in,” Vuong said. “The people in this neighborhood aren’t focused on money and how it plays into development of Little Saigon. They just want to be proud that there is a Little Saigon.”
Little Saigon is a cultural and commercial district. In the center is Asia Business Center, which includes businesses that offer food, newspapers, and tax and health services. Within the center, a brightly and intricately decorated family-run shop called Fortune City offers household items, decorations and Asian gifts.
VIDEO: Fortune City owner Scott Luong creates and displays lucky bamboo in his store, a family business, located in Asia Business Center. He describes how his store helps fulfill dreams he has for his children.
Also nearby is Pho King, a business that has boomed since Little Saigon’s inception. Pho King’s specialty is a widely popular Vietnamese dish, pho: a noodle soup that consists of broth, rice noodles, meat and herbs. Song Huong Food To Go is another visitor favorite and sells a variety of Vietnamese food, including sandwiches, appetizers, steamed rolls, noodle soups, rice soups, rice dishes and vegetarian dishes.
Community Center strives to give back to the community
When Little Saigon was officially designated, LSF created a community center in the heart of the area to provide free services and assistance to anyone in the community.
“We respond directly to people’s needs,” Vuong said.
LSF surveyed over 700 people in 2014 who lived in surrounding neighborhoods. The survey asked people what they thought a local Vietnamese community center needed.
The Little Saigon Community Center was the first Vietnamese community center in City Heights, as well as the first in all of San Diego County that provides services and is open every day.
The center also provides volunteer opportunities for high school and college students like Thu Nguyen. Students are given responsibilities in the office and chances to work at community events. They are taught valuable lessons and skills as they pursue their passions and careers.
Thu Nguyen’s dream is to be a businesswoman. As a volunteer at Little Saigon, not only does she get the chance to network and build relationships with community leaders, but she is also given mentorship and guidance in the area of business. When she is at the community center, Vuong coaches her and has her help him complete the tasks of running LSF.
Through her work at the community center, she is developing skills that help prepare her for the future.
SLIDESHOW: Lisa Yen Huynh hosts a flower arrangement workshop at the Little Saigon Community Center to bring Vietnamese women together for fun and bonding.
Little Saigon, big dreams
Although LSF has many events, improvements and developments planned, Vuong said that there is currently no space to support much activity and scarce funds to start implementing ideas.
LSF Vice President Tran Lam is in charge of community event planning and has already made significant progress for the Vietnamese community.
In 2004, she successfully advocated for a Vietnamese language option in the San Diego’s Voter’s Ballot and on the County’s Registrar of Voters website while organizing registration for more 6,000 Vietnamese voters. In 2006, Lam co-hosted the first large-scale San Diego Lunar New Year Tet Festival at Qualcomm Stadium, attracting more than 25,000 visitors. In 2015, visitor attendance grew to more than 30,000.
Lam still has visions for LSF to be financially stable through investments or businesses that will generate sustainable incomes and to have full-time employees to manage programs and day-to-day operations. LSF will host fundraising events and sell tickets to them – each ticket will help LSF get one step closer to reaching its visions.
“I want to live up to our name as a Foundation,” Lam said.
Art, something essential to any culture but something Little Saigon currently lacks, is one of the first things Vuong hopes to implement next.
Vuong said once Little Saigon’s streets look more aesthetically appealing, LSF will work to place cultural banners on freeway exits and on light poles.
“We want to show off Vietnamese art, sculptures and creative design,” Vuong said. “We want people to see something when they drive around and be inspired to take a closer look.”