The Vietnamese American community is one of the fastest-growing Asian ethnic groups in the U.S. Many scholars would also say that based upon their refugee experiences and their relative recent arrival into the U.S., Vietnamese Americans also have one of the highest levels of ethnic solidarity of all Asian groups as well.
Much of their social cohesion centers around their ethnic enclaves in the two largest metropolitan areas with the largest Vietnamese American populations: Orange County and San Jose. As articles from the Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News describe, both these Vietnamese American enclaves are poised for some upcoming changes: the Orange County one is debating plans to add New York City-style high rises while the San Jose one adopts a controversial official name:
About the Orange County Little Saigon:
Imagine what would happen if New York City-style development came to the heart of Orange County’s Little Saigon, now a jumble of mom-and-pop shops in mostly old strip malls. Lofts would sit atop high-end stores. People would lounge at outdoor restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The area would have hotels and a sculpture garden.
And the street of old newspaper and TV offices would become the “Vietnamese American Times Square,” complete with plasma screens and electronic headline news signs. That’s the ambitious vision put forth by a group of land-use experts to transform the area, home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the country. Little Saigon has not lived up to its potential as a tourist spot, the group says, and it’s going to take a lot of money, cooperation and faith to get it to the next level. . . .
Community leaders have long worried that the three square miles that make up the district would slowly decline as the second and third generations of Vietnamese families moved away.
And regarding San Jose’s Vietnamese American enclave:
In a dynamic and dramatic scene before one of the largest crowds to ever gather at City Hall, the San Jose City Council on Tuesday designated a busy hub of Vietnamese-owned businesses “Saigon Business District,” enraging several hundred people who stormed City Hall demanding the name “Little Saigon.”
Throughout the night the boisterous crowd of mostly “Little Saigon” supporters shouted and booed, forcing Mayor Chuck Reed to repeatedly tell the crowd to “calm down, calm, down,” and council members to defend colleague Madison Nguyen, who proposed the name “Saigon Business District.” . . .
Nguyen, the first Vietnamese woman elected to office in California, proposed the name “Saigon Business District” as a compromise, she said, for dueling factions in the Vietnamese community who wanted either Little Saigon or New Saigon. . . . Nguyen’s proposal infuriated many of her constituents. “We will not forget those who break our hearts and we will remember those who honor the Vietnamese-American community,” said Van Le, a “Little Saigon” supporter. . . .
Nguyen said the area should have its own identity – separate from other Little Saigons. And business owners prefer that the name have “business district” in it. “Little Saigon” is opposed by the Story Road Business Association and the San Jose Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which has members in the area.
As you can see, there are certainly elements of controversy regarding both of these proposed changes, particularly debate between Vietnamese Americans as different sides tout their own vision of what their community should look like, or even be named.
As a Vietnamese American myself, I know better than to choose sides in either debate at this point. For now, as a sociologist, I will point out that issues surrounding land use actually play a very vital part in terms of maintaining social solidarity among a particular cultural group. In other words, for any group to maintain cohesion, it helps to have a physical space that can serve as a central focal point.
Within this physical space, more concrete mechanisms serve to maintain ethnic identity — social organizations, churches, political offices, businesses, residences, an official name, etc. These elements form the basis for any strong ethnic enclave and the “Little Saigons” in Orange County and San Jose are no different.
In addition and in the case of a refugee group such as Vietnamese Americans, their original homeland was “taken away” from them by the communists at the end of the Viet Nam War, so the physical spaces of these ethnic enclaves also serve as a “temporary” (in the eyes of some Vietnamese refugees) or even a more permanent replacement for their original homeland.
With this in mind, when there are proposals to change any of these elements, not only is the physical characteristic of such enclaves subject to change, but so too is the nature and strength of the existing ethnic solidarity placed at risk as well.
That is why you already see a lot of contention surrounding the different questions in each of these Vietnamese American ethnic enclaves — not only is the nature of their physical space subjected to change, but so too is the fundamental nature of their ethnic identity.