Teresa Nguyen works on the volunteer staff of the Little Saigon Foundation, a two-year-old nonprofit pushing to get a section of El Cajon Boulevard formally designated as "Little Saigon."
See the old men, pens in their shirt pockets, discussing in Vietnamese over thick coffee outside the Pho King restaurant. Hear the rattle of a wire pushcart‘s wheels as it makes its way across El Cajon Boulevard, guided with surprising speed by a stout woman with rapid steps, her face shaded from the summer sun by a conical straw hat.
See also the faded lettering above the entrance to the Hing Long Supermarket, and smell the fish counter at the back, past some dusty cans. Try the tofu, made fresh each morning at the small restaurant tucked away in the corner of a worn strip mall unseen by those without wandering eyes. See the line of people, cash in hand, at the counter at Hoa Phat, waiting to send remittances to family in Vietnam.
And sit, finally, with Teresa Nguyen, 22, at a small table at Minh Ky Restaurant amid it all. She uses a long spoon to maneuver through the ice cubes in her glass and scoop out the mung beans resting in milk beneath them.
She just moved back to City Heights from La Jolla, a degree in international studies and economics from the University of California, San Diego in hand, her family waiting for her when she returned home to wait out the economic slump.
In the months since, she’s rediscovered the community where she grew up, and now, to even her surprise, plans to stick around.
“I guess I’ve started building my life around this now. I want to see it succeed,” she says. “So I guess I’m stuck.”
For a few months, she and several volunteer staff members of the Little Saigon Foundation have been on a push to showcase the neighborhood. They want the City Council to designate this six-block commercial stretch of El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and Highland Avenues as “Little Saigon.”
They say the label will promote a pride of place in the oldest of San Diego’s Vietnamese communities and offer a branding tool to help Vietnamese businesses there.
It would be the first officially designated ethnic neighborhood in City Heights, and Nguyen and her colleagues think it could serve as a model for ethnic enclave designations across the diverse community.
The gritty stretch of central San Diego’s major thoroughfare is home to dozens of Vietnamese-owned businesses, but their tired storefronts are showing their age alongside their owners, who are members of San Diego’s first and oldest refugee community.
Nguyen and her colleagues are among a handful of young Vietnamese trying to inject new life into this aging community whose business owners have never been deeply engaged with surrounding areas, serving mostly within the Vietnamese community when there is potential to do much more. Nguyen straddles two worlds — the Vietnamese immigrant and mainstream San Diego communities — and wants the two to interact.
The new advocates are members of the first generation of Vietnamese to come of age in San Diego since their parents arrived here after fleeing the communist government of Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975. And they are defying a trend in City Heights — the landing community for many of those refugees — of second-generation Vietnamese who community members say are staying away in larger numbers after college.
“The younger people?” asked David Nguyen (no relation), the office manager at Thuong Mai, one of five Vietnamese community newspapers in City Heights. “They’re going to UCSD, and stay over there.” He gestured to the north, meaning elsewhere, not City Heights.
That exodus has taken its toll on some of the membership-based institutions, like temples and mutual aid societies, that were established in City Heights decades ago when the Vietnamese first arrived, disoriented and in need of a leg up.
But it also reinforces the importance, Teresa Nguyen said, of young Vietnamese interested in maintaining the neighborhood’s vibrancy in the form of economic activity, arts and culture.
“We’re kind of the exception,” she said. “If I didn’t find this organization, perhaps I would’ve left too.”
Nguyen works with a group of volunteer staff, including Frank Vuong and Su Nguyen (no relation), who founded the Little Saigon Foundation two years ago.
They have chosen this chunk of City Heights as a place to promote the legacy of people like David Nguyen, who arrived in San Diego after spending five years, one month, and 22 days in a re-education camp after the war, and whose story is a common one in this enclave.
What better way, they thought, than to create the conditions for the businesses their parents’ generations still own to continue succeeding, and in the process make the neighborhood more attractive to younger Vietnamese and outside San Diegans alike?
They are launching marketing initiatives to promote Vietnamese businesses more widely. Business owners, because of language barriers, are generally hesitant to market themselves to communities outside their own, limiting their potential, Teresa Nguyen said.
“I thought it would be easy,” she said.
Far from it.
The staff has encountered attitudes and habits that among some immigrant Vietnamese business owners have stifled their success or contributed to neighborhood blight.
The wholesale supermarket on one corner is known for leaving stacks of boxes outside the store at night.
“They don’t see it as a problem,” she said. “Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be real care or a sense of ownership in the community.”
Not long ago, she was surprised when the Little Saigon Foundation had funding for a mural in the community, but couldn’t find a business owner willing to make a wall available for it.
“I told them they could have a beautiful mural on the side of their business, and no one wanted it,” she said.
In another instance, a local organization that promotes El Cajon Boulevard partnered with the county fair to provide banner advertising for local businesses. Vietnamese business owners weren’t interested.
“I said, ‘But it’s free!’” she said. “But they felt they had their customer base. American businesses would jump at that, but the businesses here are so modest in their efforts, and in their business.”
Branding the neighborhood as Little Saigon would put it on the map, she said, and prime the community to become a destination across San Diego for the dense cluster of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Chinese restaurants there.
“The point is it’s already here,” Nguyen said, “and it’s better to have it look nice and do well than it is to have it look crappy and have people not want to come.”
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