Vietnamese Community Leader
In recognition of Asian and Pacific Island American Heritage Month, for May we are sharing community leader Nguyeb Ngoc Bich's oral history describing the Vietnamese refugee community in Arlington from roughly 1975 to 1980.
During that 5-year period, the U.S. population of Vietnamese immigrants - many of whom were refugees - had grown from 15,000 to 245,000. At the same time, the Clarendon neighborhood was transformed from a declining shopping destination to a supportive and bustling enclave, brimming with stores that provided both imported goods and a sense of community for Vietnamese-Americans. This area became known informally as “Little Saigon.”
But as construction on the Metro was completed and leases expired, Vietnamese business owners moved west to the Eden Center in Falls Church. This move was spearheaded by Nguyen Ngoc Bich, who had first come to the U.S. in the 1950s as a student.
In this clip, Mr. Bich describes the economic and social contexts of the rise of Little Saigon.
NARRATOR: Nguyen Ngoc Bich
INTERVIEWER: Andrea Dono
DATE: November 9, 2014
AD: Did you call it Little Saigon, or did you have another name for that area?
NNB: Little Saigon. Well, because before April 1975 the whole Vietnamese community in the Washington area was probably no more than about 3,000 people. But nonetheless, these three thousand people became the anchor for family. For instance, our family became the anchor for trying to resettle these twenty-some people that we brought from Vietnam and so on and so forth. Because of the fall of South Vietnam the embassy had to close. Then these people also have to find some way to make a living, and so a secretary there at the Embassy of Vietnam, her name is Zu Mak Zu (?), she was the very first one to open what you call the Saigon Market on Wilson Boulevard in the Clarendon area.
I think we were sort of lucky in a sense at the time. They were talking about building the Metro, and so they tore down a lot of things in the Clarendon area, and so the real estate became very, very cheap. Many of the major American establishments moved out. And because of that some of this real estate became available for very cheap. But they gave you a very short contract, like six months or one quarter.
AD: Were most of the buildings in that Little Saigon area mostly commercial, or were there some social services as well?
NNB: No, mostly commercial because the social services for the refugees tend to be run out of American establishments like the US CC, US Catholic Conference, the Catholic university or the Lutheran Services that are on 16th Street. In fact, the Lutheran Services is only three blocks away from the Vietnamese Buddhist temple up there. While most of the things are here, businesses, restaurants, tailor shop, photo shop, jewelry store, bridal things, we had all that. We all congregated around the Clarendon area. At one point we might have—I don’t think maybe 100, probably not 100, easily 70 or 80 establishments that catered to Vietnamese customers. And so a trip to Clarendon gets you not only to go and get what you need but also run into a lot of friends, new friends that we make, and that became the core of the community in this area.
You can find Nguyen Ngoc Bich’s interview in its entirety in the Center for Local History - VA 975.5295 A7243oh ser.12 no.1. Photo: Vietnam Center Clarendon, Source: Photographs of the Arlington Historical Society, PG 230-1096
The goal of the Arlington Voices project is to showcase the Center for Local History’s oral history collection in a publicly accessible and shareable way.
From June 2017 – May 2018, we will post one oral history clip and transcript each month, focusing on Arlington’s history, culture and identity.
What is the oral history collection?
Oral history is a popular method of research used for understanding historical events, actors, and movements from the point of view of people’s personal experiences.
The Arlington Public Library began collecting oral histories of long-time residents in the 1970s, and since then the scope of the collection has expanded to capture the diverse voices of Arlington’s community. In 2016, staff members and volunteers recorded many additional hours of interviews, building the collection to 575 catalogued oral histories.
To browse our list of narrators indexed by interview subject, check out our community archive. To read a full transcript of an interview, visit the Center for Local History located at Central Library.