Vinny Manguyen printed 10,000 "Welcome to Little Saigon" signs in an effort to inspire the creation of a business district.

Vietnamese refugees dream of a “Little Saigon” in East Oakland

on April 12, 2019

Boxes of fruit—brown speckled Thai bananas—spill out of boxes outside Oakland’s Sun Hop Fat market. “It’s from Vietnam,” explains Lynne Truong as she points to the fruit and walks inside the store she’s owned since 1994.

The market was one of the first Vietnamese-owned businesses in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood. Others soon followed. Today, dozens of shops dot the blocks, including restaurants, print shops, jewelry stores and even a karaoke machine vendor. (Every Vietnamese family owns a karaoke machine, regardless of singing voice quality, according to the business owners in the neighborhood.) Shop signs are printed in English and Vietnamese. In their windows, silk Vietnamese flowers called Mai—yellow and red blooms the shape of cherry blossoms—are on display year-round. “They want to recreate the homeland,” says Jennifer Tran, executive director of the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and a second-generation immigrant. 

But some in the community want to go beyond aesthetics and establish a permanent designation. They want city officials to create a Business Improvement District in a portion of the neighborhood and call that area “Little Saigon.” A Business Improvement District (BID) is a geographic area in which property owners pay additional taxes to fund projects—neighborhood events, clean-up efforts or even marketing campaigns. 

For the group that wants a Little Saigon, creating a BID is not just about making improvements, it’s about the area’s name. “No meaning, nothing,” said Truong of the Eastlake name, which simply refers to the neighborhood’s location east of Lake Merritt. Her group hopes that a business district distinction and a name change will not only attract business and tourists, but honor the city many Bay Area refugees left decades ago during the Vietnam War. (Saigon was the name of the South Vietnamese capital before the war; it was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City in 1976.) Tran, who speaks not only Vietnamese but English and Spanish, works many hours each week on planning for Little Saigon, what she calls “the dream of everyone who has come here as a refugee.”

According to the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, there are roughly 8,000 Vietnamese people living in Oakland, mainly in the Eastlake area—down East 12th Street and International Avenue from 1st Avenue to 23rd Avenue. It’s the second largest Asian American group living in Oakland behind the Chinese. Many are refugees—or their children—who left South Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 80s and settled in the United States. 

Businesses and homes share space in century-old buildings in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood. Photo by Stephanie Penn.

“Little Saigon” neighborhoods already exist across California and the country, including in San Jose, Sacramento, Orange County, and Houston. There’s even a small community in San Francisco. 

But Oakland’s proposed district is still at least a year away. Right now the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce is in the early stages of brainstorming the idea. According to staff at Oakland’s Economic & Workforce Development Department, the group is in the “preplanning phase,” and must still take numerous steps according to a process laid out by state law. 

First, the group needs to hire a consultant to come up with a district management plan. The plan will include a boundary map, the methodology they will use to decide how much to tax each business, and what they plan to do with the funds raised. From there, the group will present the report to the City Attorney’s Office for approval. If granted, the group will begin to circulate a petition. The group needs merchants to sign the petition—they must collect enough signatures to represent merchants who will collectively pay at least 30 percent of the proposed new taxes.

Tran says she faces some skepticism about this step, often getting asked whether the business owners involved know they’re pushing to tax themselves. The organizer’s answer is simple: “Yes. Yes, they do, but they want to contribute to improve the neighborhood.” Only if the group gets enough merchants to support the idea will the matter go to the city council. 

If the council approves the proposal, the BID will finally be put to a vote in Eastlake. Ballots will be mailed to every property owner in the proposed district, and the vote will be held after a public hearing. If the proposal gets 51 percent to the vote, the BID will be created, and the county will levy property owners with the new tax on their next bill. 

Maria Rocha, BID program coordinator for Oakland, says that once a consultant is hired, the process usually takes 18 to 24 months. As for its viability, Harry Hamilton, a spokesperson for Oakland’s Economic & Workforce Development Department (EWD) says it “wouldn’t be appropriate to speculate” because the BID is too early in the process. 

That said, EWD deputy director Micah Hinkle adds, “The city by policy and program support is supportive of bids, and if we can find a way to help through the process, we will.” 

Jim Nguyen is confident Little Saigon will come to be. The 51-year-old settled in the U.S. when he was just 12. Decades later, he’s at the center of this movement to create a Little Saigon in Oakland. While he does not own a business in Oakland, Nguyen works for a local non-profit supporting small businesses, the Silicon Valley Small Business Development Center, and is using his connections to push the idea forward. 

“I think for the first-time people feel like this is their chance,” says Nguyen.

Thinh Le, owner of Kim Viet Jewelry, explains its been a dream of his going back a decade to create a "Little Saigon" in Oakland.
Thinh Le, owner of Kim Viet Jewelry, says its been a dream of his going back a decade to create a “Little Saigon” in Oakland. Photo by Stephanie Penn.

Signs that there’s already a “Little Saigon” are popping up along International and East 12th Avenues. Posters plastered to nearly every storefront say “Welcome to Little Saigon.” An orange outline of Saigon’s famous City Hall building borders the bottom, and a strip along the top resembles the former flag of South Vietnam. 

“You see that poster of Little Saigon? I made 10,000 of them,” says Vinny Manguyen, an Oakland realtor and co-owner of a 30,000 square foot commercial property in the heart of Eastlake. The poster is stuck next to the California Lotto sign inside the neighborhood’s coffee shop—one of the several commercial spaces that Manguyen, his wife, and their business partner lease to Vietnamese-owned businesses. 

While stirring his glass of iced tea with a straw, Manguyen says he didn’t want to wait for approval to make the sign. “If there’s smoke, there’s got to be fire. It’s not money wasted,” he says with a smile. 

Manguyen and his wife Denise bought the building on East 12th Avenue with another Vietnamese man in 2005 and transformed it from an old furniture warehouse into commercial spaces with rental units above. When they bought the building, they renamed it Ca Mau Plaza after his wife’s hometown in Vietnam.

Today it’s a hub for residents to gather. On a Wednesday afternoon, elderly women rush up the stairs with their brown sacks of groceries while teens drink boba in the Quickly and men play video games in the back of the coffee shop.“This place is full on Saturday, front to back,” says Manguyen. The couple sees this as the future center of a Little Saigon and hope the designation will generate more business by bringing in tourists looking for Vietnamese shops. 

“We have to put something on the map. People won’t stop by here. They’ll bypass and just drive past to San Jose,” says Manguyen, waving a toothpick in the air as he talks with his hands, frustrated that people don’t know about Oakland’s Vietnamese community. 

Denise Manguyen agrees, adding that in addition to attracting business, the purpose of renaming the district would also be to establish a legacy that acknowledges the past.  “We want everyone to have a place where they can feel comfortable, where they can identify,” she says. 

Vinny Manguyen printed 10,000 "Welcome to Little Saigon" signs in an effort to inspire the creation of a business district.
Vinny Manguyen printed 10,000 “Welcome to Little Saigon” signs in an effort to inspire the creation of a business district. Photo by Stephanie Penn.

The name Saigon has a special meaning to many in Eastlake; it was the former capital of South Vietnam, the quasi-democratic government threatened by the communist insurgents of North Vietnam. Those insurgents—the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong—took over Saigon in 1975, renaming it Hồ Chí Minh City after the revolutionary leader. Saigon’s name disappeared from the map. For many, a symbol of hope and freedom also went with it. 

“We never forget the name in our country,” says Lynne Truong, the Sun Hop Fat market owner. She didn’t leave Vietnam until ten years later, when she was 30 years old. 

“Next generation, they won’t know. You know Hồ Chí Minh City, not Saigon,” agrees Diem Dam, who owned Oakland’s popular hole-in-the-wall restaurant Pho King. It closed when Dam retired in 2014. 

Dam came to the U.S. in 1984 when she was 23 years old. But she never forgot the traditions of her home country. When she started her business in 1990, she earned barely enough to cover expenses, about $200 per day. But by the time she retired and closed the business, the noodle soup shop was a neighborhood staple, earning up to $3,000 a day and serving lines of customers that snaked around the building. “Special for the noodle soup,” says Dam. 

She has long wanted Oakland to have a Little Saigon neighborhood. “We have a Korean community, a Chinese community, but no Vietnamese community in Oakland,” says Dam, referring to the Chinatown and Koreatown neighborhoods. For Dam, it’s about legacy. She doesn’t want second or third-generation Vietnamese people to forget about their roots. 

It’s the same for Kim Tuyen, who grew up in Saigon.  She came to the U.S. in 1985, when she was 20 years old. ““No English. No car. No money,” the 56-year-old remembers. To earn money, she delivered The Oakland Tribune in Alameda from a grocery store shopping cart. By 1990, Tuyen was a full-fledged entrepreneur, having bought four nail salons. She’s since sold two, but now owns two apartment buildings in the proposed business district area. 

Tuyen said she wants the BID is happy to pay additional taxes so her hometown has a place on the map in Oakland. Saigon is “not just a place” says Tuygen. “It’s the soul of Vietnamese people. It’s always been in the minds and hearts of people.” To Tuyen, the creation of a Little Saigon would help “materialize the dreams wishes and aspirations that people have left behind and wish to start a new here.”

For Denise Manguyen, it’s about recognition—“an identify the whole United States can recognize.”  

“When people say ‘Let’s have some pho,’ they say this of ‘Little Saigon,’ not ‘New Chinatown,’” she says. 

For Anna Wong, the owner of Saigon Printing, it would “just be nice to remember.” Wong left Vietnam in 1979, first traveling by boat to a refugee camp in Thailand, then to the United States. Sitting at her printing shop desk, shadowed by what she calls a “lucky tree,” she recalls that when she left Vietnam she didn’t know if she could escape, but “if you think it might happen, it will happen.” She feels the same about the “Little Saigon” effort, stating definitively: “It will happen.” 

The former flag of South Vietnam flies over businesses in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood as a tribute to the thousands of refugees who live in the area. Photo by Stephanie Penn.

Wong—who mainly prints business cards and menus for local restaurants—has been dreaming of “our city” for at least a decade. This is the closest the community has ever been to making the dream a reality. Business owners say it’s because vocal second-generation Vietnamese residents aren’t nervous to about asking city officials for the designation. Their parents were—and still are—much more uneasy. “In Vietnam, if we have to talk to the government, we are afraid to talk,” says Truong. “When you talk, you go to jail.” 

Denise Manguyen says the older generation is more “submissive” compared to their millennial and Gen Y children. She feels she falls into the “gap generation” —people in an age group that understands both viewpoints. That is part of the reason she and her husband are involved in the push to get the neighborhood distinction. 

But despite hesitation, some older Vietnamese community members say they’re ready to fight for “Little Saigon.” Even as she says the name, Dam’s lips turn up into a huge grin. “Very happy” she says in a high-pitched voice as she claps her hands together in delight at the idea. “It’s like an old dream,” she says, staring ahead with big eyes, imagining what it might be like if that dream came true. 

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