VOLUME 28 NO. 12 | MARCH 14 - MARCH 20, 2009

Little Saigon fight divides San Jose’s Vietnamese

Last updated 3-12-09 at 2:13 p.m.
San Jose, Calif., has the largest Vietnamese population in the United States. Vietnamese Americans call their community “Little Saigon.” Last year, there was a controversy when the city council wanted to change the name to “Saigon Business District.”
Photo provided by panoramio.com.

By Juliana Barbassa
The Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — To outsiders, the banners flanking a six-lane thoroughfare in the heart of Silicon Valley — “Welcome to Little Saigon” — blend innocuously with the suburban landscape of ethnic restaurants, nail salons, and check-cashing outlets.

But the battle to put them up tore deep into San Jose’s Vietnamese community, which is the largest of any U.S. city, and threatened to derail the burgeoning career of its first elected representative, 34-year-old Madison Nguyen.

The rift started more than a year ago, when Nguyen proposed to honor the city’s 85,000 residents of Vietnamese descent — nearly 10 percent of the population — by designating a one-mile strip as a Vietnamese commercial district, complete with banners and publicity.
Many in the community wanted to call it “Little Saigon,” a name heavy with meaning for the generation that lived through that city’s fall. Nguyen considered proposals from businesses and residents and then struck what she considered a reasonable balance: “Saigon Business District.”

Residents felt betrayed. Thousands protested, one man staged a 29-day hunger strike, and some who once looked on Nguyen with pride started gathering signatures to take her down.

James Lai, a professor of Political Science and Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University, said Nguyen underestimated the symbolism of “Little Saigon.”

“It’s not semantics,” he said. “It’s a term that is used in a lot of Vietnamese American communities and stands for a historical connection to the homeland.”

Nguyen ended up surviving a recall effort Tuesday, but some analysts see the episode as a story of immigrants finding their political voice.

“Once you give people the tools to participate, it's hard to predict which direction that democratic action will take,” said David Lee, a political science professor at San Francisco State University and observer of Asian politics.

Kim Nguyen, a San Jose housewife, was moved to tears when she explained why she worked on the recall campaign, knocking on doors and getting out the vote.

She’s not related to Madison Nguyen and doesn’t live in her district, but like the councilwoman and her family, she fled in the wake of Saigon’s takeover in 1975 by victorious North Vietnamese communist forces, who renamed it Ho Chi Minh City.

“She’s one of us; she should understand how we feel,” the 57-year-old said.

To Madison Nguyen, the process was equally painful. Born in Vietnam, she grew up in California’s Central Valley, working alongside parents who harvested crops to raise nine children.

“I represent them in the most fundamental way,” she said. “Their story is my own story. That country they left — I left it, too.”

She worked for the Vietnamese, who make up a third of her district, and the other ethnic groups she represents when she created affordable housing, revitalized parks, and brought jobs to town, she said.

But the burden of her ethnic community’s hopes was heavy.

“I felt like the bride of a hundred families, with so many expectations,” she said.

The city has since scrapped its plans for a Vietnamese district. The Little Saigon banners that flutter on San Jose’s Story Road are privately funded.

What remains to be seen is how the Vietnamese community will survive the infighting that destroyed years’ worth of coalition-building and threatened to reverse their political gains, experts said.

“This election symbolized the awakening of the Vietnamese American community, showed what they can achieve,” said Lai. “This will be a teachable moment for future leaders.” (end)


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