The 2008 Tet Celebration in “Little Saigon,” Westminster California
A colorful procession of South Vietnamese flags (now a symbol of the Vietnamese-American community) leads the Tet parade in “Little Saigon.”
Introduction: “A Nation of Immigrants”
America is a nation of immigrants. The topic of immigration has so dominated the news that we may have lost sight of that fact. An immigrant community is a population that has been transplanted (and in some cases uprooted) from the home country and has found a home in ours. And there is nowhere in the United States where the blossoming of an immigrant community is more on display than in Westminster, California, on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. I have had close contact with the Vietnamese-American community for the past two decades, thanks in large part to my friendship with Mrs. Lora Pham (known as Ba Hien Pham in her community), a colleague at Montclair High School. Through her, I have met many of the leaders of the Vietnamese community, and have been able to observe their progress through the years. The immigration of Vietnamese to the United States took place in very recent times. In California, for example, the Mexican community was essentially here already when the land changed into U. S. hands and then became a state. But the Vietnamese arrived in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, and in the early 1980s when thousands took to the seas in small boats, escaping to Indonesia, the Philippines, and eventually to the United States. The experience of Mrs. Lora Pham in one of those small boats is chronicled in the article I wrote in 2000 called “The Old Fishing Boat (A Vietnamese Escape Adventure).” In that article, I described an old refugee boat that the Vietnamese community had received from the government of the Philippines. This article contains a major update involving the current career of that boat. It is also a celebration of a vibrant group of Americans who have bloomed where they were planted, who have risen from the ashes of their country to become enthusiastic, successful Americans.
The boat Mrs. Pham escaped in, as it looked in 1980. Follow the link in the text above for that amazing story. (Photo and inscription courtesy of Mrs. Lora Pham)
A group of high school students pass down Bolsa Avenue, where the signs of the local businesses are almost all in Vietnamese, in the heart of Westminster’s “Little Saigon.” The emblem of a country that is no more, the South Vietnamese flag now represents cultural solidarity rather than political power.
Tet in Westminster, California
It is a Saturday in early February in 2008, and thousands of people line the streets in Westminster, in the heart of Orange County California. On this weekend, the Vietnamese-American community is celebrating Tet, or Vietnamese New Year. We are gathered behind makeshift barricades of temporary metal railings and yellow tape and orange traffic cones along Bolsa Avenue to watch a New Year parade. Dozens of late arrivals, most dressed in colorful traditional clothing, hurry past smiling police officers to find the best spot to enjoy the sight. People have driven from as far away as San Diego and Stockton to take part in the weekend carnival and to view the parade. As one of many photographers on site, I am given pretty much free reign to shoot; the bystanders are proud today, and happy to share that pride with the world.
This group’s banner helps to explain the flag. The three red bands on the flag of South Vietnam stand for the regions around Hanoi, Hue and Saigon, the three main regions of the country. When South Viet Nam fell in 1975, the entire country came under extreme Communist rule. The majority of these immigrants wish for a unified, democratic country. Many families are still trying to get loved ones out of the country and out of the oppression that is still prevalent in Communist Viet Nam.
The parade begins noisily with a Westminster fire truck festooned with American flags, the firefighters in yellow suits waving enthusiastically and setting off the sirens and horns. Then there is a large group of young people waving bright yellow flags with three red bands across the center: the symbol of South Viet Nam, a country which no longer exists. The flag is now a cultural symbol, waved in celebration of survival and freedom in a new land. There must be hundreds of those yellow and red flags, but there are nearly as many US flags as well. This is a group of immigrants who are extremely grateful to be Americans!
The lady on the left sports a traditional dress made from the colors of the US and South Vietnamese flags, while the lady ahead of her carries Old Glory.
This says it all: the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) veteran in the red beret proudly waves at my camera. His message says: “America believes in fighting for world peace, saving lives for all people, and maintaining freedom. Thank you Army, Airforce, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine and Reserve for making my family and I proud to be American.”
A group of dragon dancers and a beauty in traditional dress work the crowd as they wait for the next float to pass by. The two men on the right will spot the dancers when they get tired.
Another dragon team comes over to our side of the street as a third team passes by. In person, the colors of these costumes almost defy description.
The parade continues with Buddhist and Catholic youth groups, colorful dancing troupes, and many units of veterans of ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army. There are frequent, poignant reminders of the long and difficult struggle these people have experienced. And one of the most tangible reminders is still to come. But this is Orange County, Southern California, just weeks before a Primary Election, and most of the adults in the crowd are American Citizens and registered to vote. In a quintessentially American scene, seemingly every elected official and candidate is in the parade, mostly in the back seat of classic convertibles, waving and calling out to the crowd. A Latino US Congresswoman, dressed in a flowing traditional Vietnamese pantsuit, jumps out of her vehicle to pump the hands of the onlookers, shouting “Chuc Mung Nam Moi (Happy New Year)!” Not a few of the elected officials are Vietnamese-American, and an increasing number are successfully participating in government, not only in Westminster, but across the country.
A local high school orchestra specializing in traditional Vietnamese music has a blend of European-style violins and Asian drums, a reminder that Viet Nam was once occupied by the French.
A marching band from the local high school shows the diversity of Westminster: about half seem to be Vietnamese-American, and the rest are an evenly divided mix of Latino, black and white kids, all making beautiful music together. Another high school music group, young men women clad in traditional Vietnamese gowns, seem to be playing mostly violins, a reminder, perhaps, that Viet Nam was once part of French Indo-China. Incidentally, the flourishing local bakeries also exhibit a heavy French influence, especially in the pastries on display. I find out later that my favorite Vietnamese bakery is unfortunately closed for the holiday, which is undoubtedly a blessing to my waistline!
A New Friend
An elderly gentleman beside me named Trinh strikes up a conversation, asking if I am a Viet Nam veteran. I am not, but we have an animated conversation about the war, the aftermath, and his own journey to this country. I share with him my experiences with the Vietnamese-American community, and how much my thinking has been changed as a result. (See the “Lessons from a Tet Festival” article) There is no trace of bitterness in his voice, as he tells his story and expresses his gratitude for the sacrifices made by our country for his. This is a man who, by his command of English and his age, must have been of some importance to our forces, and consequently must have suffered greatly after the collapse of his country. He tells me very little about his wartime experiences, and nothing of the aftermath, but I have some knowledge of the horrors of the “reeducation camps” and the vindictive cruelty meted out by the current regime against any remnants of the old order. The only trace of regret in his voice comes when he reminds me of what so many in his community feel, that “If only the Americans had kept up the bombing of the North for a few more days, the Communists would have been defeated.” And yet, he reminds me, these refugee citizens have nothing but gratitude for the price our country paid on their behalf. He writes me a very nice letter a few weeks later, in literate, precise English and clear, beautiful handwriting, expressing his pleasure at our meeting and conversation. I regret that I never got anyone to take a picture of us; the parade was our focus that day.
The Westminster Police keep the crowd back as one of the more elaborate floats passes by. Well-known businesses such as Bank of America also provided floats for the parade, an indication of the influence the Vietnamese-Americans have had on the California economy.
The “Freedom Boat” Begins its Tour
Finally, near the end of the parade, an old cab-over diesel semi approaches. Its flatbed is carrying the most emotional reminder of these immigrants’ past: the old fishing boat that once held dozens of escaping refugees, a gift from the government of Indonesia to the Vietnamese-American community. The boat itself looks much the same as it did when it slid out of the coastal boundary of Viet Nam under cover of night nearly thirty years ago, loaded to the gunnels with anxious escapees. But along the side of the flatbed a huge banner announces the upcoming 50-state tour of the “Freedom Boat.” This tangible symbol of defeat, desperate escape and eventual freedom is a reminder of what this parade is all about. The Americans who came here so recently know the meaning of freedom, know the price of freedom, and are grateful for it in a way that those of us who were born into it would find hard to understand. And so the old boat is a reminder for all of us, that we are indeed a nation of immigrants, that freedom comes at a price, and that America is still a place of refuge and opportunity for those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as the old poem states. My friend Lora Pham waves excitedly to me as she passes in the boat, happy to see that I made it to the parade. Madalenna Lai, the boat’s curator and the organizer of its tour, also recognizes me and waves. What a privilege it is to be a friend of the Vietnamese-American community, and to watch them find success and contentment in their new home!
The refugee boat, a gift of the Philippine government, approaches on its flatbed, with flags of all the countries that assisted the refugee “Boat People” displayed at its stern. The boat is embarking on a 50-state tour to thank America for its sacrifice in the war and its open arms afterwards.
(Left to Right) Ms. Diep Fintland, my good friend Mrs. Lora Pham, and Mrs. Madalenna Lai (the curator of the boat museum) greet me enthusiastically as the boat passes by, while Mr. Ky Linh Nguyen greets the parade watchers on the other side of the street.
The voyages of boats such as this mark one of the most daring escapes in history! Imagine this boat (designed originally for river fishing) filled with thirty or forty people, trying to make it to the Philippines or Indonesia from coastal Viet Nam! (Check a map!) The banner proudly announces the 50-state tour that this historic boat is now making.
Shopping in “Little Saigon”
The parade concludes with a float featuring a Rose Parade Princess who is Vietnamese-American, sponsored by a local pop music station which broadcasts in Vietnamese. The music is loud, and the DJ celebrity works the crowd, calling up loud cheers and chants, as young people set off strings of firecrackers in the streets (under the watchful eye of firefighters, who enjoy the spectacle as much as anyone). By this time I have walked half a block up Bolsa and am now in front of a large, two-story indoor shopping mall made up entirely of Vietnamese businesses. I do some sightseeing, still slightly miffed that the Champagne Bakery inside is closed for the holiday. There are sights and sounds here that replicate the environment of Saigon. It seems that everything one could ever want is housed in that mall, all with a distinctly Vietnamese accent. Not to worry, the language barrier is inconsequential, because practically every shopkeeper is a proudly bilingual American, serving his or her home culture while succeeding as American entrepreneurs.
A child dances in the confetti, which is released with a loud bang from tubes such as the ones carried by the lady in pink. The red, white and blue banner in the center of the photo is a candidate’s poster; all the local politicians were out in force!
A child and her grandfather stand outside the indoor shopping mall in “Little Saigon.” The statues speak to a long and rich cultural heritage, now preserved in the middle of Orange County, California.
A grinning statue representing Buddha greets shoppers in the indoor mall, a reminder that the majority of Vietnamese-Americans are Buddhists.
A colorful statuary shop caters to the Vietnamese Catholics. The freedom of religion the immigrants experience in the United States is a far cry from the Communist-controlled country of Viet Nam, where Buddhist monks and Catholic priests are regularly imprisoned and even tortured for going out of bounds.
The shops in the mall are a riot of color, which this photo only barely begins to capture.
Near one of the entrances, a row of lifelike store mannequins causes a double-take. The flowing, comfortable clothing is a joy to behold on a live person!
In the tiled hallways of the mall, both upstairs and down, troupes of dancers with the traditional colorful dragon and old man (representing the chasing out of the old year) happily accept red envelopes containing money from shoppers and shopkeepers alike, preserving the tradition of good luck that is centuries old, all to the loud rhythm of large drums. The dancers take turns beating the drums with large sticks as the dragons bob and weave, occasionally opening their colorful mouths to accept red envelopes from cautious children. The colors of the costumes verge on the psychedelic, an impression that’s reinforced as the dances become more animated. A sense of excitement is everywhere, and in the crowded hallways everyone seems to appreciate my presence and politely give way for my camera. Several people stop to explain to me what the dancers are doing, with smiles and gestures and an impressive command of their new language. This community is happy to share its joy in their new year and in their new life!
Two dragons dance to the beat of the drums in the upstairs hallway of the mall.
The old man, representing the old year, watches as a child prepares to give a gift to one of the dragons, as shopkeepers watch through the window. The act of placing an envelope into the mouth of a fearsome-looking dragon was simply too much for some of the younger children!
A riot of color spills over the curb and into the street in the happy aftermath of Tet 2008.
Written by Timothy Smith, web author. See the About Me page for more information. Always feel free to send me comments, suggestions or corrected information about this article or any of the articles on this site. (Write to: Tanignak@aol.com) This article and website is © 2008 Timothy L. Smith, Tanignak Productions, 14282 Tuolumne Court, Fontana, California, 92336 (909) 428 3472. The photos in this article were taken with a Nikon D50 digital SLR in February 2008. This material may be used for non-commercial purposes, with attribution. Please email me with any specific requests. You are welcome to link to this site.
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