Sacramento’s Little Saigon bustles with energy of second-generation Vietnamese Americans
March 9, 2012
Stephen Magagniniand Phillip Reese
Like her mother before her, Helen Trinh helps make people’s dreams come true.
Trinh orchestrates weddings from her Phuong Trinh Bridal shop in Little Vietnam Plaza, one of eight lively strip malls straddling Stockton Boulevard in the heart of Sacramento’s Little Saigon.
“We do more weddings now,” said Trinh, 40, who took over her mom’s business in 2007 and expanded the menu of gowns, tuxedos and services to attract more than just Vietnamese customers. “My mom was old-fashioned, but I wanted to buy more stuff, create more designs and I’m good in English and can talk to more people.”
The shop now does 50 weddings a year, 40 percent of them traditional Vietnamese affairs featuring colorful round “khan dong” hats worn by the bride. The other 60 percent are for Chinese Americans and a smattering of other ethnic groups tying the knot.
Trinh represents the future of Little Saigon, which got its official street and highway signs last month. She’s part of a growing army of American-educated Vietnamese who are breathing new life into the boulevard, resuscitating family businesses with fresh ideas and interpersonal skills.
They’re attracting non-Vietnamese clients who in the past might have been intimidated by the south area neighborhood where it seemed only Vietnamese was spoken and gang violence could erupt at any time.
Restaurants, nail parlors, vocational schools and other businesses are being taken over by college graduates who see Little Saigon as an antidote to high unemployment rates and a weak economy, said Mai Nguyen, president of the 150-member Greater Sacramento Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s our belief and culture that you can always rely on your family,” Nguyen said. “It’s a great resource during tough times.”
Nguyen’s DCP printing business, which she runs with her husband, attracts a range of nationalities and ethnicities. “We started the chamber to break the language and cultural barriers,” Nguyen said.
Leading the charge is Thuc Bui, 24, the chamber’s economic development chair, who epitomizes Vietnamese American success.
A dozen years after he and his family fled communist Vietnam, Bui graduated from UC Berkeleywith degrees in international business and political economics.
“The older generation focused on the cultural and social aspects of the community, but business development’s the key to a vibrant future,” said Bui, now a budget analyst with the state Department of Water Resources. “We have more than 100 restaurants and six big supermarkets in a two-mile stretch of Stockton Boulevard.”
Bui’s chamber team includes two UC Davis graduates, event coordinator Phung Vo, 23, and webmaster Hop Hoang, 25. “My goal is to pull the mainstream in and bring the community out,” Bui said.
Many of the new-wave entrepreneurs, including Trinh and her family, came from Bay Area cities in search of cheaper homes and better business opportunities.
Little Saigon looks like a good bet because some 2,000 Vietnamese live within walking distance. Vietnamese are now Sacramento County’s fourth largest Asian ethnic group behind Filipinos, Chinese and Indian Asians. Their numbers have grown by 60 percent since 2000, to more than 28,000.
About 75 percent of the county’s foreign-born Vietnamese are now citizens, much higher than the rate for most other ethnic groups, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.
Little Saigon sustains two Vietnamese weekly magazines, each more than 250 pages and full of ads. The oldest, Lang, was started 11 years ago by Tam Nguyen, who distributes 5,000 copies in Sacramento and 2,000 more in Stockton and Modesto. During the peak of the recession, the roughly 750 businesses in and around Little Saigon had a 10 percent vacancy rate, lower than many parts of south Sacramento.
Security remains a priority – the chamber plans to install cameras in Little Saigon’s shopping plazas, Bui said.
Crime has fallen as Little Saigon has risen. On Stockton Boulevard between Fruitridge and Florin, 39 robberies were reported last year, down from 61 in 2007; 70 burglaries, down from 75.
Lang magazine lost advertising for real estate, restaurants and furniture during the recession, “but we survived with the community’s support,” Nguyen said. “There definitely are opportunities here for educated young people in finance, law, insurance, health and helping mom and dad take over businesses.”
One who came back was Mike Nguyen, 42, a UC Davis grad with a master’s degree in business administration who quit his job with a Bay Area pharmaceutical firm to take over his dad’s business, HB Autoparts Express. Nguyen tripled the store’s space and inventory in four years and now attracts customers of all races.
At the bridal shop, Trinh and her mom, Nhon Le, work side by side. Le sells cosmetics and vitamins and does a little tailoring.
“I don’t have enough energy to think about new designs or styles,” Le said. “Now there’s more business, more people from other countries.”
Next door, Scott Truong, who left San Jose six years ago to help his family run Huong Sen Tofu, said “It’s much better now; business people look after each other and people no longer grab your necklaces.”
Another San Jose transplant, Phung Co, has taken over her family’s 25-year-old business, My Le Beauty College. “We’ve gotten new technology, more electric razors, better nail machines, and we’ve gotten rid of the smelly chemicals,” said Co.
The trade school has Asian American and African American instructors, and the 100 students include Chinese and Russian immigrants.
To sustain Little Saigon’s success, Thuc Bui said, it’s important to honor both the next generation for their academic achievements and his parents’ generation for their sacrifices.
A year ago, he bought a two-bedroom, two-bath home near Little Saigon where he now lives with his parents. It features fish tanks, plush suede couches, a treadmill, a Bowflex machine and two plasma TVs – a 46-inch screen where Bui watches sports, and a 55-inch model where his parents are glued to Vietnamese newscasts.
Bui’s dad, Nghia Bui, proudly wears a blue Cal windbreaker, the payoff he says for the 11 years he spent in the South Vietnamese army battling the communists.
“I’ve got a piece of B40 rocket shrapnel in my head,” he said. “I was imprisoned for seven years as a slave clearing the jungle.”
Nghia Bui said he is proud that his son graduated from UC Berkeley and has come home to help Little Saigon.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Nghia Bui said. “Everyone has a job, the schools are OK, and security’s actually better now.”