Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Vietnamese Buddhist churches populate the far flung corners of San Jose

TINY GODS: A detail shot from the popular An Lac Temple, located at the corner of 34th and San Fernando streets.

I went looking for Vietnamese Buddhist churches in East San Jose and found some forgotten pieces of San Fernando Street in the process. It began with a long lost text resurfacing at just the right time.

In 2002, San Jose resident Huu Do Le published Sounds of the Bamboo Forest: Buddhist Churches of America in the Vietnamese Tradition. A review copy showed up at Metro, and apparently I took it home with the intention of reviewing the book and then forgot about it. I have no memory of this, but after some recent domestic reorganization, I rediscovered the book. At least according to the Tibetan tradition, sometimes a key text is buried and stored away for a later date, like a time capsule, with the intention of resurfacing at the opportune karmic moment. Now is that moment.

Sounds of the Bamboo Forest features essays and exhaustive research on how the Vietnamese diaspora gradually established a Buddhist presence in the U.S., especially in California. The sections on San Jose include photos and histories of various temples in obscure residential pockets of the East Side that no one ever visits. The reader takes away important stories of how the diaspora struggled to get a foothold in swaths of suburbia that didn't always want them, often having to relocate their temples to other parts of town. Le came to San Jose in 1990 and also served as executive editor of Viet News from 1993 to 1998.

But this is not a book review. Instead, I took to the street on a Lyft bike with Le's book in the basket and went searching for the structures he wrote about. In the process I discovered additional Vietnamese temples by sheer accident. Since the book is 17 years old, many more temples have emerged since it was published. The whole adventure brought to mind numerous columns I wrote years ago in which I explored various pockets of old San Jose that no one cares about. This time, using the growth of the Vietnamese Buddhist community as a lens, I got yet another glimpse into how the city evolved over the decades, especially how various neighborhoods were annexed, cobbled together or broken up by freeways over time. This was much more fun than any San Jose tourism website.

The popular An Lac Temple, for example, sits at the corner of 34th and San Fernando streets. I'd bet most of the giddy downtown boosters have never ventured past 10th Street and thus don't even realize the intersection exists. Decades ago, this building was a residential Christian church before it was purchased and transformed into the elaborate Buddhist temple it is today. In the book, Le includes a photo of what the building looked like in 2002. It was much different.

Continuing eastward from An Lac, one can eventually discover Foss Avenue, a tiny dead-end street that follows the edge of Highway 680, going south from Alum Rock Avenue. On this short stretch of road, the Duyen Giac Buddhist Center occupies a nondescript solid brown building behind a six-foot fence. No signage exists until one turns down an unmarked cul-de-sac to see a placard at the back. No one would possibly notice the place, but Sounds of the Bamboo Forest mentions this organization, established in 1990. It turns out the unmarked cul-de-sac is a leftover piece of San Fernando Street from 50 years ago.

Heading back toward downtown, at 766 S. Second St., one finds the Tinh Xa Ngoc Hoa temple, likewise right in the middle of a residential block. The temple moved onto this property in 1993, after its previous location in the east hills received numerous complaints from neighbors. It's a huge two-story facility with a basement, an eat-in kitchen, a parking lot, monk's quarters and a youth facility.

In the process of riding from temple to temple, I segued down 22nd Street and by sheer chance discovered Chua Quang Duc, the Congregation of A Thousand Eyes Buddhist Temple. I didn't even have to look. It was right there waiting for me, as were other temples off Story, Tully, McLaughlin and White roads.

Who needs $4,000 temple tours in faraway countries? We got it all right here.