Authored by Thao Nguyen
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The Little Saigon community, located in Westminster, California, is a well-known Vietnamese enclave forged from a series of distinct migration waves beginning in the 1970s. The first wave of refugees to arrive were those who had just escaped Viet Nam in the days immediately following the fall of Saigon to the Vietnamese Communist in late April, 1975.1 The United States government removed these individuals from South Viet Nam quickly, as they faced imminent threat under Communist rule; many had fought against Communism or had affiliations with the United States. The Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 (IMRAA) provided the legal means to assist Vietnamese refugees in resettling in the United States.2 The act authorized Operation Frequent Wind, a process of military evacuation of the initial 130,000 at-risk Vietnamese refugees to four scattered military bases at Camp Pendleton (California), Fort Chafee (Arkansas), Eglin Air Force Base (Florida), and Indiantown Gap (Pennsylvania). This first wave to Camp Pendleton later went on to establish the roots of Little Saigon in Westminster.3 Alongside the first wave, the second wave Vietnamese refugees made up the primary workforce for the new Little Saigon community.
The second wave of Vietnamese refugees was not so lucky in their exodus from Viet Nam. There were no military evacuations to secure their safety or streamline the immigration process for the “boat people,” who arrived in the United States from 1977 to 1979. During these years, the United States admitted over 80,000 refugees from first-asylum countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. The remaining waves of Vietnamese transnational migration occurred during the 1980s. The Refugee Act and Orderly Departure Program of 1980, which legalized direct migration from Viet Nam to the United States at a rate of over 40,000 refugees a year, sparked the third wave of migration. The Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987 constituted the fourth wave, reuniting over 23,000 biracial Vietnamese children whose fathers were United States soldiers and 70,000 additional family members. The fifth and final wave began at the close of the decade, in 1989, with the Humanitarian Operation Program (HO), which granted political prisoners and their immediate family admittance to the United States.4
The most significant differences between the Operation Frequent Wind evacuees and all subsequent waves of refugees rested on the exiles’ financial, human, and social capital. The first wave was wealthy, well-educated, and maintained firm religious affiliations that became immediate assets in the United States; of the first 130,000 refugees, half were college graduates, two-thirds had some fluency in English, and half were Christian.5 The remaining waves, on the other hand, primarily consisted of Chinese descendants who experienced very different economic and social conditions in Viet Nam.6 The Vietnamese-Chinese had a long-established, tension-riddled presence in Viet Nam up until 1977 when the Communist government took forceful actions against them by limiting their work, seizing their property, and increasing threats of deadly harm against them. As a result, when these later waves of immigrants finally arrived, they were desperate to find work wherever they could; they accepted the most labor-intensive, lowpaying jobs available to remain close to their community and to have the flexibility they needed to tend to their family members.
In the literature, information specific to Vietnamese migrant women with regards to Little Saigon’s economic development is scant. Formal acknowledgment of their impact is virtually nonexistent when compared to the achievements of prominent Vietnamese immigrant men written about in city newspapers, websites, and archives. My research seeks to shed light on the contributions of Vietnamese women to the community of Little Saigon, thereby securing their rightful place in the Little Saigon ethnic archive. Vietnamese women, depending on their time of migration, experienced and reacted differently to war and resettlement. For the initial refugees, privilege and former capital strengthened their positions as elite women and allowed them access to a broader breadth of resources. For later waves of refugee women, work and family intermingled as a means of survival. Vietnamese women persevered in a United States context by blending Vietnamese tradition and family with free enterprise to form different economic tactics (patriarchal bargaining, downward mobility, and patchworking) and specific childrearing strategies (stringent scheduling, and an emphasis on children’s education).
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- Prior to the Immigration Act of 1965, the few Vietnamese who came to the U.S. were war brides or international students – these roles were the most common for many Asians, who were not allowed to legally immigrate to the United States in large numbers until after the discriminatory national quotas established by the 1924 Immigration Act were eliminated.
- For a history of Vietnamese immigration, see Phuong Tran Nguyen’s Becoming Refugee in America.
- For a history of Westminster from 1900-1995, see Elisabeth Orr’s “Living Along the Fault Line.”
- Phuong Tran Nguyen, Becoming Refugee in America: The Politics of Rescue in Little Saigon (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 1.
- Elisabeth Orr, “Living Along the Fault Line: Community, Suburbia, and Multiethnicity in Garden Grove and Westminster, California, 1900-1995” (Doctorate’s thesis, Indiana University, 1999), 13.
- Orr, “Living Along the Fault Line,” 186.