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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
FLASH POINT: When San Jose City Councilmember Madison Nguyen proposed the Vietnamese Business District, she had no idea it would divide the emerging Vietnamese-American constituency in the South Bay.

New Power Generation

Behind the fight over Little Saigon is the story of the Vietnamese-American community's newfound influence in Silicon Valley politics

By Erin Sherbert

THE NEWS had not even spread within San Jose's Vietnamese community, and already the story appeared on the official website of the Communist Party in Vietnam: San Jose would soon have a Vietnamese Business District.

It wasn't exactly international news, so the fact that the Vietnamese government picked up the story meant only one thing to the Vietnamese community here: the Communist government was keeping tabs on them.

In retrospect, that tiny online item could be considered the spark that ignited the fiery fight to scuttle the business district's designated name, Vietnam Town. The controversy was the second community split to make front-page headlines this year, serving as visible proof of the Vietnamese-American community's rising wealth and power in Silicon Valley.

The community's meteoric rise is transforming the valley's physical landscape as profits from a generation of small businesses are invested in commercial real estate. With a ten-fold increase in population—from 8,000 to nearly 80,000 between 1980 and 2000—Vietnamese-Americans now represent almost 10 percent of San Jose's population, and pose a formidable electoral force. Now, with the means and organization to quickly direct funds to political candidates, including presidential contenders, the Vietnamese are clearly moving to center stage.

City Councilmember Madison Nguyen, who won an upset victory in 2005, is frequently courted for endorsements and fundraising help. She is now mentioned as a possible successor to Mayor Chuck Reed in 2014. In the major U.S. city that elected the country's first Asian American mayor, Norm Mineta, and the first female mayor, Janet Gray Hayes, anything's possible.

So what's with all the controversy about a city more than 7,000 miles away? A legion of Vietnamese have been unwavering in their efforts to name the district in a way that will publicly distance it from the nation's Communist government: Little Saigon. But why?

"It has a very special meaning to all of us Vietnamese-Americans in San Jose and what we stand for—we stand for freedom, we stand for justice, we stand for the most basic rights the current Communist government has taken away," said Huy Minh Nguyen, who escaped Vietnam when he was 14 years old. "Little Saigon is a stamp for the Vietnamese-American identity."

There's no missing the momentum to bring Little Saigon to San Jose; it's become a political issue powered by passion among the Vietnamese, many of whom escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

They didn't waste any time. Vietnamese grouped together, forming the Committee for Little Saigon, an organization with a core of 20 community members. They hit the streets and gathered more than 2,000 signatures from people who want the new business district branded as Little Saigon. They've held community meetings, talked to elected officials, and mobilized the community for a good old-fashioned Vietnamese-style rally, drawing hundreds of people to the streets of San Jose.

This all-consuming campaign to bring Little Saigon to San Jose has become the centerpiece of Vietnamese politics, which is often laced with anti-Communist confrontations.

"It reflects that time where people have freedom, and it's a direct opposition to the current regime, which is communist and violates human rights," said Hien Duc Do, professor of social science at San Jose State University. "It validates why they are here and why they came to be here; it's symbolic and very emotional and a real perception of what's going on."

Rise to Power

But you can't understand the fight over Little Saigon without understanding the rise of the Vietnamese-American community as a political force in Silicon Valley. That story can be traced back to 1975, when the Communists took over South Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled their homeland, resettling in the United States, where the government worked to disperse the political refugees across the country.

As they learned enough English and communication became easier, many Vietnamese migrated to areas of California, including San Jose where there was a hint of a booming job industry.

The Vietnamese quickly carved out a business niche, running mom-and-pop shops, noodle houses, laundromats and salons that catered to the growing ethnic populations in San Jose. They've marked their success as savvy entrepreneurs, now owning more than 200 Vietnamese businesses along Story Road, the site of the new Vietnamese Business District.

But it's their children who have recently elevated the political clout of the Vietnamese community.

"The emergence of the Vietnamese-American community is one of the most significant developments in recent California politics," said Christian Collet, an associate professor of American politics at Doshisha University in Japan who is also an expert in ethnic politics. "It has had less time than other immigrant groups to organize, its population remains young, yet the advances made are compelling."

The political awakening of the Vietnamese-American community surfaced in the late 1990s in Orange County, when a video-store owner hung posters of the president of Ho Chi Minh City in the windows of his store. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese-Americans came out to protest.

It was this event that stimulated a debate about the values of the Vietnamese-American community, including its opposition to the communist regime. Since then, Vietnamese-Americans have deepened their political influence in places such as Orange County and San Jose, two regions with the largest Vietnamese populations outside of Vietnam.

Pride in Nonpartisanship

In 2004, voters elected the first Vietnamese-American to the state legislature, Assemblymember Van Tran, a Republican from Orange County. The following year, San Jose voters elected the first Vietnamese-American to the city council, Democrat Madison Nguyen.

And Vietnamese voters are shaping a growing number of elections as non-Vietnamese politicians work hard to court their community. The intense competition between the two major parties in recent elections has made every vote count, particularly the Vietnamese, who pride themselves on nonpartisanship. In Santa Clara County, roughly one in three Vietnamese are registered as independents, giving Republicans and Democrats an equal chance at getting the Vietnamese vote.

"The Vietnamese-American electorate is no longer a secret weapon or a niche market for politicians in the know," Collet said. "It's becoming a widely respected force up and down the state."

San Jose's Mayor Chuck Reed admits the Vietnamese electorate, which has grown from 2 percent to 10 percent in the last decade, was on his radar long before he ran for City Council seven years ago. He's worked hard to personalize relationships with the Vietnamese community.

"When I first ran for City Council, there were not many elected officials that paid attention to the Vietnamese," Reed said. "I had a plan to reach out and pay a lot of attention to the Vietnamese community and their issues."

Reed encouraged Vietnamese leaders to join city boards and commissions. When he was on the City Council, he gave a much-needed political boost to Vietnamese projects, including the Vietnamese Cultural Heritage Garden.

And he's rarely missed a Vietnamese event, where you could spot the former air force pilot dressed in traditional Vietnamese attire.

As a political strategy, the plan worked. Come Election Day, Reed overwhelmingly captured the support of the Vietnamese community.

Reed's enthusiasm for the Viet community led to what some consider his biggest political blunder to date, when he endorsed an unpopular Vietnamese-American to succeed him in District 4, a plan that backfired. The mistake was quickly forgiven.

"He's much like a good friend of the Vietnamese community," said Van Le, a San Jose resident who plans on running for the District 8 City Council seat next year.

More Than Votes

The political buzz that elevated Reed's victory has certainly carried over into the 2008 presidential elections.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has aggressively tapped into the Vietnamese vote in the Silicon Valley. She's already hosted two fundraisers in the area, with the most recent in July, where Vietnamese-Americans were rewarded with front-row seats after they saved the day with 50 grand in contributions to the Democratic candidate. Not bad for an immigrant group that has historically aligned with the Republican Party and its staunch opposition to Vietnamese Communism.

This groundswell started with a grassroots group of Silicon Valley Vietnamese who got together earlier this year and started mobilizing support for the Clinton campaign. In July, former President Bill Clinton stopped in Saratoga to fundraise for his wife, drawing about 60 Vietnamese to the event.

"There is huge excitement," said Michael Luu, a Santa Clara County planning commissioner who has been instrumental in the Clinton fundraising events. "Other campaigns have not really pushed hard to be engaged in the Vietnamese community and the Hillary campaign has some staffers who are progressive and aggressive as far as getting endorsements."

Certainly, Vietnamese are taking note of their voting power, as they watch candidates at every level forcefully circle their community for support.

This isn't just translating into votes. Their emergence as an impressive voting bloc is also showing up in campaign contributions. Luu wouldn't say how much his grassroots group has collected on Clinton's behalf, mostly because the Vietnamese are low-key about campaign contributions, quietly writing checks for their preferred candidate—campaign contributions are considered a luxury in the Vietnamese community.

Vietnamese campaign contributions started to take shape in the 2005 elections, when San Jose residents elected Madison Nguyen to the council.

"I feel once they write you that $50 check, once you get that kind of commitment from them you know for sure they will vote for you when they go to the polls," she said.

Nguyen's Plan

Nguyen thought she was doing something good for her constituents when she rolled out a plan to have the city designate a section of town as the Vietnamese Business District.

It was meant to bolster business along Story Road, where there are 200-plus Vietnamese businesses. The district will include a new development, adding another 300 Vietnamese businesses to the area.

What the San Jose City Councilmember wasn't expecting was a brutal backlash to her economic plan.

Within 24 hours after the City Council decided to designate the one-mile strip of Story Road, the Vietnamese government posted the good news on its website, hitting a nerve in San Jose's Vietnamese community. That's when the bedlam began.

Vietnamese activists demanded the city name the business district Little Saigon and they wanted Nguyen to back them up publicly.

But she wouldn't do it.

The debate turned dramatic, splintering the community, with Little Saigon supporters on one side and everyone else on the other.

Many Vietnamese were disappointed and felt betrayed. Some went as far as labeling her a Communist sympathizer because she wouldn't publicly pledge to support the Little Saigon name.

"It was crazy," Nguyen said. "There was an uproar, they wanted to recall me."

But Nguyen, who fled Vietnam as a child, is playing politics carefully, not making a move on the issue.

This has further irritated Little Saigon advocates who say Nguyen privately vowed to support the name Little Saigon, but backed off her promise when it came time to discuss it publicly. Nguyen said she's hasn't made any decisions about which name she will support.

There are other groups in the community who want to name the district something other than Little Saigon. Some want to keep it generic and call it the "Vietnamese American Business District" and others favor the name "New Saigon."

"New Saigon rang a little better with us," said Rich De LaRosa, president of the Story Road Business Association, a group of 80 businesses neighboring the new district. "It stands for a new start." Nguyen held community meetings within the district to gauge opinions from residents and businesses located within a one-mile radius of the business district.

Little Saigon advocates made their position clear: they cannot accept a name with the word Vietnam or Vietnamese in it. It's too ambiguous, they say, not drawing a dark enough line between the Communist government and the Vietnamese-Americans here.

They've also rejected the name "New Saigon," because it's too closely connected to the current Vietnam government, which is attempting to entice Vietnamese Americans back to their homeland by building American-style homes and naming districts in Ho Chi Minh City variations of Saigon.

"They have a whole suburban area managed by the government named New Saigon," said My Phuong Le, spokeswoman for the Committee for Little Saigon. "I think it's their intention to try to wipe out all the memories of all the old Saigon that's been replaced with Ho Chi Minh City."

Set aside the emotions surrounding the Little Saigon debate and just look at the economic possibilities connected to the name.

Supporters say if the district is dubbed anything other than Little Saigon it won't draw as many tourists to the area. Little Saigon is a well-known brand name, the hallmark of Vietnamese economic success across the country, from Houston and Seattle to Santa Ana and Orange County, all of which have bustling Little Saigon districts.

These communities have put Vietnamese businesses on the map, attracting tourists and non-Vietnamese shoppers to Little Saigon.

At the end of November, the San Jose City Council is expected to choose a name for the business district. Until that day comes, the Committee for Little Saigon says it will keep collecting signatures and garnering support.

And if Little Saigon isn't the chosen name?

"I think some people would boycott and some people would say 'you know what, I am going to recall Madison,'" said Bryan Do, a community activist who lost in the 2007 City Council election against Kansen Chu. "This is something that Madison will have to take seriously."

Behind the Politics

There's no doubt the desire for Little Saigon is much more than an emotional appeal. Buried beneath the surface of this campaign, there's a heavy political agenda that caters to a core Vietnamese-American value: anti-communism.

Even 35 years after the Vietnam War, communism hangs over the Vietnamese-American community like a dark cloud. Communist notions will instantly shake the Vietnamese community, particularly among the older Vietnamese who had a deeper experience with the Communist government.

Many of San Jose's Vietnamese are self-described political refugees, having escaped the Communist government after it took over South Vietnam. Even today, they are fixated against the Vietnamese government, protesting its human rights violations and blaming the Communists for the problems the country faces today.

Anti-communism has become an important political platform among Vietnamese as they rise in local politics. Many Vietnamese fear that the Communist government will plant a candidate in San Jose's city elections, making the Vietnamese vulnerable to communist ideals.

So at election time, the Vietnamese will scrutinize candidates, looking for even the faintest connection to the Communist regime. Innocent business deals or trips to Vietnam will suddenly make candidates open targets as Communist sympathizers.

"It's a growing pain within my community," said Diem Truong, a San Jose resident who left Vietnam in 1991. "They want to be vocal and adamantly anti-Communist, because quite frankly, the more anti-Communist you are, the better chance you are at getting the vote."

In the March San Jose City Council special election, the two Vietnamese-American candidates, Bryan Do and Hon Lien, got sidetracked by red baiting.

An advertisement in a Vietnamese newspaper credited to "Friends of Hon Lien" compared Do, who is also a member of the Committee for Little Saigon, to a communist prison guard. That ad ran in the paper a few days after Do's campaign insinuated Lien, a Republican, was a communist-sympathizer because she runs a successful business in Vietnam.

"It's effective," Do said, admitting that it affected his campaigning. "There are enough older folks who don't know the difference; it causes enough confusion that they just don't vote."

But while they should be debating local issues, education and crime, often times Vietnamese candidates have to channel much of their energy making sure voters know they have no connection to the Communist government.

"The notion of communism is so important to the Vietnamese community," Madison Nguyen said. "Anyone who wants to get into politics, if you are Vietnamese, has to be prepared for these issues."

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