December 27, 2007

Big Plans for Little Saigons

author_cn By C.N. Le

The Vietnamese-American community is one of the fastest-growing Asian ethnic groups in the U.S. Many scholars would also say that because of their refugee experiences and their relatively recent arrival, Vietnamese Americans also have one of the highest levels of ethnic solidarity of all Asian groups.

Much of their social cohesion centers on the ethnic enclaves in the metropolitan areas with the largest Vietnamese American populations: Orange County and San Jose. Both of these communities are examples of the “new generation” of Asian ethnic enclaves that I wrote about earlier -- spread out, suburban, and affluent, as opposed to the more traditional Asian enclaves that most Americans are used to seeing -- urban, crowded, and working-class.

Nonetheless, as articles from the Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News suggest, even as they continue to grow, both these Vietnamese American enclaves are poised for some upcoming changes: the one in Orange County is debating plans to add New York City-style high rises,and the San Jose enclave has adopted a controversial official name.

As for the Orange County Little Saigon:

Imagine what would happen if New York City-style development came to the little-saigon-2a heart of Orange County's Little Saigon, now a jumble of mom-and-pop shops in mostly old strip malls. Lofts would sit atop high-end stores. People would lounge at outdoor restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The area would have hotels and a sculpture garden.

The street where newspaper and television stations are headquartered would become the "Vietnamese American Times Square," complete with plasma screens and electronic headline news signs. That's the ambitious vision put forth by a group of land-use experts to transform the area, home to the largest  concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the country. Little Saigon has not lived up to its potential as a tourist spot, the group says, and it's going to take a lot of money, cooperation and faith to make it one.

Community leaders have long worried that the three square miles that make up the district would slowly decline as the second and third generations of Vietnamese families moved away.

San Jose's Vietnamese American enclave is also undergoing changes:

In a dynamic and dramatic scene before one of the largest crowds to ever gather at City Hall, the San Jose City Council on Tuesday designated a busy hub of Vietnamese-owned businesses "Saigon Business District," enraging several hundred people who stormed City Hall demanding the name "Little Saigon."

Throughout the night, the boisterous crowd of mostly "Little Saigon" supporters shouted and booed, forcing Mayor Chuck Reed to repeatedly tell the crowd to "calm down, calm, down," and council members to defend colleague Madison Nguyen, who initially proposed the name change. madison-nguyen-ucsc-2

Nguyen, the first Vietnamese woman elected to office in California, proposed the name "Saigon Business District" as a compromise, she said, for dueling factions in the Vietnamese community who wanted either Little Saigon or New Saigon, but Nguyen's proposal infuriated many of her constituents. "We will not forget those who break our hearts and we will remember those who honor the Vietnamese-American community," said Van Le, a "Little Saigon" supporter.

Nguyen said the area should have its own identity, separate from other Little Saigons. And business owners prefer that the name have "business district" in it. Both the Story Road Business Association and the San Jose Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, oppose the name “Little Saigon”, as both groups have members in the area.

As you can see, there are certainly elements of controversy regarding both of these proposed changes, as different sides tout their own vision of what their community should look like and what it should be called.

As a Vietnamese American myself, I know better than to choose sides in either debate at this point. For now, as a sociologist, I will point out that issues surrounding land use actually play a very vital part in terms of maintaining social solidarity among a particular cultural group. In other words, for any group to maintain cohesion, it helps to have a physical space that can serve as a central focal point.

Within this physical space, concrete mechanisms help maintain ethnic identity -- social organizations, churches, political offices, businesses, residences, an official name, and so forth. These elements form the basis for any strong ethnic enclave, including and the "Little Saigons" in Orange County and San Jose.

Ethnic enclaves are even more important to in a refugee group such as Vietnamese Americans. Their original homeland was taken away from them by the communists at the end of the Viet Nam War, so the physical spaces of these ethnic enclaves serve as a "temporary" (in the eyes of some Vietnamese refugees) or even a more permanent replacement for their original homeland.

It’s easy to see, then, that when there are proposals to change any material aspect of these enclaves, the nature and strength of the existing ethnic solidarity there is at risk of changing too.

That is why you already see a lot of contention surrounding the different questions in each of these Vietnamese American ethnic enclaves -- not only is the nature of their physical space subjected to change, but so too is the fundamental nature of their ethnic identity.

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Comments

People like to fit in social groups so when an entire crowd does something the person cracks under peer pressure and does it. During riots people will join in flipping a car because of diffusion of responsibility, i barley even touched dthat car they fliped it. When in fact the entire crowd fliped it. Concerts are another one where crowds get out of control.

Crowds can be very persuasive. It's so easy to compromise when 'everybody else is doing it.' This ethnic discrepancy only magnifies the already touchy issue.

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