Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Irony of Little Saigon Gate

In the mid 1990s, Frank Jao, the successful developer of Asian Garden Mall in the original Little Saigon district in Wesminster, proposed to have a pedestrian bridge built across the Bolsa Avenue. The intention was to relieve traffic congestion on the very busy road at the heart of Little Saigon. The city council approved the project. Frank Jao would pay out of his own pocket. It was supposed to be a straight forward endeavor. Well, it turned out to be at that time the most fractious and divisive fight the community had to endure. For about 6 months, waves of nasty attacks between opponents and proponents of the bridge played out on radio and in articles in daily newspapers. The contention - which design of the so called Harmony Bridge would most appropriately represent the cultural values and historical significance of the Viet community in Little Saigon.

In the end with no concensus and not wanting to upset any particular groups, Frank Jao withdrew the project and said: " I am just businessman trying to improve the business condition of the area, in this case traffic. But if the community cannot decide and just tearing each other apart, I have to move on."

A little more than a decade later, Janet Nguyen, the first Vietnamese-American OC supervisor, proposed a $2.5-million pedestrian bridge across the same Bolsa Avenue to help relieve heavy traffic at Little Saigon's busiest intersection. The project will be funded from Proposition 1-B bond act which allocates money to improve highway safety, air quality and traffic reduction. The structure, temporarily named the Freedom Bridge, is waiting for Wesminster city council's approval.

But here is the catch, the two Vietnamese-American city councilmembers are opposing the idea. Why? Because it comes from Janet Nguyen, a political antithesis of State Assemblyman Van Tran. As the last two supervisorial elections showed, Van Tran threw everything he had at his political disposal to undermine Janet's career. His underlings in Wesminster city council, Andy Quach and Tri Ta, are in marching order to not allow this project becoming a reality since it would give Janet Nguyen more political clout within the community. Besides, Van Tran and his team already initiated a project to build two Little Saigon archways at a cost of $500,000 a piece. Most of the cost will be paid for by private funds (i.e. the community) which yet to be raised.

Not to be out done, in San Jose, the naming Little Saigon for a 3 blocks stretch on Story Road took on a dramatic political battle as Madison Nguyen, the only elected Vietnamese-American in the city council, opposed the name wanted by the majority of the community in favor of the name Vietnam Town Business District as a quid pro quo payback to Tang Lap, the biggest developer of Vietnamese strip malls in San Jose. The aftermath right now is a contentious recall effort of Madison Nguyen where the community will be once again deeply divided. In a district where 38% of the voters are Vietnamese-Americans and 43% are Hispanics, the conventional wisdom is that the recall ballot aiming for early 2009 is closer to reality than ever. Whether the community can muster 4,000 to 5,000 votes necessary to recall Madison Nguyen is still to be seen.

The two areas that have the largest concentration of Vietnamese-Americans in the US often show political diversity, unity and conflict exhibited in any typical ethnic community. In San Francisco where there is a relatively small population of Vietnamese-American and no elected Vietnamese-American officials, the community just broke ground for Little Saigon Gate to mark a 12 blocks area near SF City Hall as a Vietnamese-American business district. The project is mostly funded by the city and approved in 2003 by former Mayor Willie Brown under the sponsorship of city supervisors Fiona Ma and Chris Daly. Former Mayor Brown and the now State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma are infamous within the community for their fierce opposition to the Freedom Flag resolution which recognizes the flag as the official flag of the Vietnamese-American community in San Francisco.

In case one is not in tune with the Vietnamese-American politics, this is a classical political irony of strange bedfellows. Why? The Freedom Flag recognition has been the mainstay of anti-communist politics in the community. There are at least 3 dozen major cities in the US that have some kind of resolution adapting the Freedom Flag as the official flag for the diasporic community. The Freedom Flag is the old flag of the Republic of South Vietnam. It is not diplomatically recognized worldwide since 1975.

Politicians like Van Tran and his cohort of elected officials including Madison Nguyen always use the issue of Freedom Flag resolution to get the votes. To them, this is what the community really cares about, everything else is for show.

Mr. Tien Nguyen, a respectful leader of the San Jose community was asked about the recent success of the Little Saigon Gate in San Francisco. He replied:" They are successful because they do not have a Vietnamese-American elected official in city council."

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