Downtown Little Saigon?

by J. Huynh on 09-01-2017 in General

Downtown Little Saigon?

Over forty years have passed since the first South Vietnamese journeyed halfway across the world to build a new home in the land of the free. The step to rebuilding the Vietnamese community in America was slow, but the hard efforts of the first generation created a solid foundation for the next generations. Fast forward to the present and Little Saigon in Orange County, California, has become a thriving community spanning one million square feet in different cities. It is now the largest Vietnamese community in America and has spawned many other similar communities throughout the U.S. The question now is what direction will Little Saigon take as the first generation passes and the new generation, a more Americanized Vietnamese, takes its place. Little Saigon has grown to be a prominent attraction in Orange County, but it is still missing some flare that could make it even grandeur and a great tourist destination.

Community leaders have long sought to revitalize and make Little Saigon more exciting and attractive to outsiders and foreigners.  Many ideas have been proposed throughout the years but little has come to fruition. Over twenty years ago, a bridge with a green tiled pagoda and giant dragon was proposed that would stretch across from Asian Garden Mall and the Asian Village.  The plans were scrapped due to some feeling it would look too Chinese as well as its 3 million price tag.  Years later, the idea for 2 grand decorative archways to create a ‘spectacular’ entrance into the heart of Little Saigon along Bolsa Ave. and Magnolia and Ward St. was proposed and approved. The archways would cost 200k each but they failed to materialize, with cost and the economic slump in 2008 given as reasons.

Another idea that pitched over decade ago was to create more vibrant Little Saigon area similar 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica or New Orleans.  Currently Little Saigon’s main attraction apparently is the food.  Vietnamese restaurants are everywhere making it a great place to eat Vietnamese food, but there seems to be little else except the Asian Garden Mall and the Little Saigon Night Market that the mall started hosting during summers a few years ago. The night market, although small, is a great throwback to the culture and spirit of Vietnam but there are no other modern attractions or nightlife. With the failure of some clubs and bars throughout the years, the night life has been reduced to a hand full of dive bars and ‘quan nhaus’ (restaurant bars) where obnoxiously loud and bad karaoke leaves you with temporarily hearing loss. There are few night spots that would be pleasing to the average person or a tourist. It is a far cry from the motherland where drinking is a way of life and crowded bars, modern glitzy clubs and rooftop bars are the rage. The difference clearly has to do with Little Saigon’s suburban landscape while Saigon (HCMC) is a fast paced city and that’s become a world class tourist destination. 

Plans are still on the drawing board, with city leaders envisioning a more vibrant ‘downtown’ Little Saigon with a French colonial look that would be situated along Moran St. or Weststate St. next to the Asian Garden mall. Some efforts have been made to carry out the plan such as changing zoning laws along that street where light industrial businesses, mainly auto shops currently reside. The city hopes that some of the businesses would embrace the new vision and take steps to fulfill its vision. However, it would require the business change their business, put up its own money to make the improvements, or sell the land to developers which seems unlikely to happen.

Recently, other plans have been pitched to make Little Saigon more attractive.  A ‘walk of fame’ was proposed earlier this year.  Similar to the Hollywood stars, this walk would have plaques/emblems dedicated to people who have helped build Little Saigon. The walk would be positioned on Bolsa Ave. across from the Asian Garden Mall. It’s an interesting idea although it is uncertain whether that would actually attract outsiders as these honorees are not celebrities. It does however give something to look at, but each plaque would cost 6-10k and need to be sponsored by people who want to honor the recipients who are chosen by an appointed board..

Another recent idea that is actually in development is the creation of large food hall next to Asian Garden Mall by the Jao family, one of the main developers in the old days. There are also plans to build a large hotel/apartment complex on Bolsa Ave. and Brookhurst St. with an area designated as Festival Row for hosting special events. It is uncertain when these developments would be carried through or completed.

So could these visions and recent developments usher in a golden era for Little Saigon? This remains to be seen. The prospect of a vibrant Little Saigon downtown sounds exciting, but issues of congestion have yet to be addressed and funding seems to be a limiting factor.  While Saigon (HCMC) is currently flooded with foreign investments eager to capture a piece of Vietnam’s booming economy and tourism industry, Little Saigon is mainly reliant on local developers or contributions from residents and business owners. There are also locals who would rather not see a more hectic Little Saigon or one that may be stripped of its cultural roots to cater to a more western audience. The core of Little Saigon is its Vietnamese residents and as long that is not compromised for sake of greed, Little Saigon looks to be heading towards a more exciting future.