Orange County Vantage Point: One Eye on Egypt as Little Saigon Rebrands Tet


Scenes from Egypt, Tunisia and other places in the Middle East provide a stark reminder of the chaos that can consume entire nations. The scene on Bolsa Avenue in Little Saigon last week offered evidence that chaos can be overcome.

Don’t get me wrong—chaos had a place along Bolsa as streams of drivers sought rare parking spaces, crowds gathered around impromptu fireworks displays on the streets, and shoppers elbowed their way among dozens of flower merchants who set up shop in parking lots.

The buzz came in advance of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration. Flowers are a big part of the tradition, and peddlers offered their best orchids and other selections.
Restaurants and ad hoc vendors of various goods also aimed for some business, with everything from silk fabrics to baked goods on sale.

The jumble of commerce, tradition and celebration that made parking so hard in Little Saigon was a relatively nice sort of problem for all involved. It was certainly nicer than the American experience in the Vietnam War, which ended in utter chaos.

Many historians say the end started with the Tet Offensive in 1968. Vietcong forces picked the New Year holiday to unleash a campaign of attacks that sowed chaos throughout South Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive failed to score any military victories by standard measures. Yet it succeeded in fostering a perception of chaos that struck a significant blow against the South Vietnamese government, which stumbled along with U.S. aid for another seven years.

The chaos that started with the Tet Offensive and ended with crammed refugee boats fleeing Vietnam also led to the creation of Little Saigon. It’s a sprawling district that takes in parts of five cities in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles.

Little Saigon is now home to the largest concentration of ethnic Vietnamese outside of Vietnam itself. It’s where refugees staked a claim to something more than—better than—the chaos they faced as their native country crumbled.

What better place to rebrand Tet by reclaiming the celebratory sense of a new year and laying to rest darker images tied to yesteryear’s misfortunes? There are no doubt many who continue think of the Vietnam War when they hear the word Tet.

Little Saigon’s recent hustle and bustle built around flower peddlers indicates another view, though. It shows that many others have remembered that the holiday existed before war and survived combat. They do not ignore history by considering Tet’s traditional meaning. They allow room for a larger view and an eye on the future.

Jim Schlusemeyer, owner of Tuyet’s Orchid, is a good example. He sells his flowers to retailers and the general public, working the weekly swap meet at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

Schlusemeyer was born in Vietnam and came here as a refugee, eventually taking the last name of his stepfather. He’s a competitive businessman who needs unique product, so he breeds his own orchids. Land in Orange County is either too expensive to make commercial flower growing worthwhile or too far inland to provide the cooler atmosphere that orchids require. So he breeds small lots of hybrids here and leases space at growing operations in Northern California for commercial production.

Schlusemeyer enjoyed the big crowd in Little Saigon in the days leading up to Tet. His business has taken hits along with most others the past few years. The holiday and its call for flowers is a nice spike.

Schlusemeyer says Tet sales get helped along each year by growing numbers of whites and Latinos who come to Little Saigon. Word has gotten around that the Tet holiday brings out the best orchids. There still aren’t a lot of shoppers from outside the local Vietnamese community, but the numbers are rising and appreciated.

Not bad for a holiday that bears a name once firmly associated with one of the most frustrating and fractious periods in American history.

Rather impressive for a community of refugees who only recently carved a new life for themselves as Americans.

Any doubts about the rebranding of Tet were answered by a small booth set up amid the flower peddlers on Bolsa. It was sponsored by Sam’s Club—a division of retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. A salesperson pitched the crowd on home improvements looking to sell everything from patio covers to vinyl fencing.

You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better example of putting the hyphen in Vietnamese-American. Keep those hyphens handy considering events in the Middle East. There’s a neighborhood known as Little Arabia just a few miles away from Little Saigon.

Jerry Sullivan is a contributing editor to New Geography and managing editor of the Orange County Business Journal.