The Formation of a New Refugee Community: The Vietnamese Community in Orange County, California

Hien Duc Do




The Formation of a New Refugee Community:

The Vietnamese Community in Orange County, California.

by Hien Duc Do

This thesis will examine the formation of a new community by Vietnamese refugees in Orange County, California. The Vietnamese arrived in the United States in 1975 after the fall of South Vietnam to the Provisional Revolutionary Government and Communist North Vietnam. The deliberate policy of the United States government was the dispersion of Vietnamese refugees with an explicit intent to impede the formation of Vietnamese communities in order to encourage their assimilation. However, contrary to this policy, a large number of Vietnamese congregated in Orange County, California, to establish a new community. This thesis will attempt to explain how this phenomenon occurred with an analysis of the structural conditions that existed at the time of their arrival and the cultural characteristics of this group. In addition, there will be a brief description of the ethnic community.



Many people have helped in many ways in enabling me to complete this thesis.

I want to first thank my thesis committee members for their intellectual guidance and personal support. Professor Richard Appelbaum read an earlier draft and made mumerous insightful critique and comments. Professor Tamotsu Shibutani challenged me to apply my research and analysis to a more theoretical level. Professor Richard Flacks, my intellectual mentor and a friend, taught me the essence of doing research.

I am especially indebted to Dick Flacks who took the time and energy to guide my intellectual development and personal growth. Without his support and encouragement, I would not be where I am today.

I am also grateful to Harvey Molotch and Victor Nee for organizing and teaching the seminar that led to this research. Many thanks to Don Mar, Dana Takagi, Beth Schneider, and Beverly Duncan for earlier comments, ideas, and suggestions. Your valuable comments helped me more than you will know.

Obviously, this study could not have been made without the cooperation of those interviewed. To them, I would like to express my gratitude for their generous time and for sharing their lives with me.

For technical advice and computer expertise, many thanks to Joan Murdoch, Bill Hyder, and especially Robert E. Sams.

Finally, thanks to my parents, Hanh and Kim-Cuc, my brothers and sisters for their encouragement, love and support.

This is dedicated to the Vietnamese refugees and to future generations.



I.  ABSTRACT  iii 
   Historical Background 
   Cultural Background 
   Social Characteristics 
    Classical Ecology 
    Sociocultural Ecology  10 
    Neo-Orthodox Ecology  12 
    Social Area Analysis and Factorial Ecology 13 
   Refugees and Labor Markets  14 
    Dual Economy  15 
    Ethnic Enclaves  17 
   The Data  20 
    Participant Observer Data  20 
    The Interview Data  22 
    Documentary Materials  23 
   The U.S. Response  25 
   The U.S. Government Dispersal Policy  26 
   The Resettlement of Vietnamese Refugees  27 
   The Vietnamese Adaptation Process  29 
   The Formation of the Vietnamese Community  44 
   The Vietnamese Community  50 
   The Ethnic Enclave  55 
    Capital  56 
    Labor  58 
    Market  59 



Table 1. Vietnamese Refugees Admitted to the U.S. 
Table 2. Number of Immigrants Resettled by State as of 31 December 1975  30 
Table 3. Vietnamese Refugee Arrival by Year and State of Primary Migration 1975-1978  31 
Table 4. Vietnamese Refugee Arrival by Year and State of Primary Migration 1979-1982  33 
Table 5. Total Vietnamese Refugee Arrival by Year and State of Primary Migration 1975-1978 and 1979-1982  35 
Table 6. Jobs Held in Vietnam versus in the U.S.  38 
Table 7. Jobs Held in Vietnam versus in the U.S.  39  (people I interviewed) 
Table 8. Vietnamese Population in the U.S. (1980) by State and percentage  48 
Table 9. Table of Contents (Vietnamese Business Directory)  52 


We have come by the sea
From a land far away,
And each of us
is a testimony of man's inhumanity to man.
Listen to us,
Listen with a heart
for we speak from the heart.




The focus of this thesis is twofold. First, it will offer a brief history of the end of the Vietnam war, the emigration of the Vietnamese refugees to the United States, along with the analysis of the structural conditions they faced when they arrived. Second, it will examine the process by which the Vietnamese adapted to American society by establishing a new community in the face of certain specific structural and economic conditions.

The thesis includes five sections. In the first section, I introduce a brief history of the conditions that forced the Vietnamese refugees to leave their homeland, their cultural background and their social characteristics. The second section is a review of three different bodies of literature; (a) the refugee literature, (b) the “community” literature and (c) the labor market literature. The third section is a description of the methods and data used. The fourth section, evidences of a new community demonstrate different strategies in adaptation, rather than assimilation, by the Vietnamese refugees to the American economic and social structures. The final section is the conclusion and suggests topics for further inquiry about this community.

Historical Background

In order to understand the conditions that gave rise to the formation of this Vietnamese community in Orange County, California, a short discussion

will examine the conditions of their arrival and the United States' government policy at the time.

As it is well known, after having spent years financing the Vietnam war, the United States' government withdrew its financial and military assistance to the South Vietnamese government after the cease fire agreement on January 28, 1973. However, soon after the withdrawal of the United States' support, the military situation deteriorated rapidly for the government of South Vietnam. By 1975, many cities outside of Saigon had begun to fall under the attack and advancement of the North Vietnamese army. Da Nang was evacuated on the 27 and 28 of March 1975. This was soon followed by other coastal cities, such as Nha Trang and Cam Ranh (Kelly, 1977). As a result, Prime Minister Thieu resigned on April 21, 1975 and was succeeded by Vice Prime Minister Huong.

However, as political and military conditions deteriorated further, Huong transferred the remaining of the government power to General (Big) Minh (Liu, Lamanna, Murata, 1979). By the end of April 1975, South Vietnam, under the direction of General Big Minh, surrendered to the North Vietnamese Communist government. On April 30, 1975, Saigon was under the control of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. This resulted in the flight of the newest Asian Pacific immigrant group to the United States.

Cultural Background

Although the Vietnamese refugees have different backgrounds in their socio-economic status and the time of their arrival to the United States, they nonetheless share many cultural characteristics derived from their common

experience in Vietnam. Despite the rapid urbanization and Western influence, life in Vietnam was principally based on a “rice culture”.

The majority of the people were attuned to the rhythms of the seasons of planting and harvesting. The cradle of the society was the village, the place that provided the individual with security in a potentially hostile environment. The family, rather than the individual was the basic unit of the society. This along with the importance of the village created a network of extended kinship and family ties (Nguyen, 1976; Thuy, 1976; Henkin and Nguyen, 1981).

Contrary to the high value placed on individualism in the United States and Western culture generally, in Vietnamese culture strong individuals in a family have an obligation to the weaker and less fortunate members of the family (or village). The family in Vietnam was an extended one, unlike the typical “nuclear” family in the United States (Nguyen, 1976; Thuy, 1976; Henkin and Nguyen, 1981). The family is composed of three to five generations living in the same house, typically including parents, children, grandparents and sometimes uncles and aunts.

Traditionally, the village served as a community where people planted their roots and felt a sense of belonging to a collective body, and the extended family acted as an institution where problems and conflicts could be resolved as well as a source of mutual support. However, the long war changed the basic structure of the Vietnamese family. Although fundamentally the structure remained an extended one, in urban areas particularly, the family was limited to three generations; grandparents,

parents and children and at times, unmarried brothers and sisters of the husband (Henkin and Nguyen, 1981).

Social Characteristics

The Vietnamese emigration is generally divided into 2 periods, each with several “waves” (Kelly, 1977; Nguyen, 1985). The first period began in April 1975 and continued through 1977. This period included the first three waves of Vietnamese refugees.

The first wave of refugees, involving some ten to fifteen thousand people, began at least a week to ten days before the collapse of the government. The second wave, and probably the largest in numbers, involved some eighty thousand, who were evacuated by aircraft during the last days of April. The evacuation of American personnel, their dependents, and Vietnamese affiliated with them was achieved through giant helicopters under “Operation Frequent Wind.” According to Newsweek magazine (May 12, 1975), it was a “logistical success…the biggest helicopter lift of its kind in history.”

These individuals were relatively well educated, spoke some English, had some skills that were marketable, came from urban areas, and were Westernized. Members of these two waves were primarily Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. government and American firms. There was also a small percentage of ethnic Chinese in this group. All were thought to be prepared for life in the United States on the basis of their contact with the U.S. government and association with Americans (Kelly, 1977).

The final wave during this period involved forty to sixty thousand people who left on their own in small boats, ships, and commandeered aircraft

during the first two weeks of May 1975. They were later transferred to Subic Bay and Guam Island after having been picked up, in many cases, by United States' ships standing off the coast. Individuals from this wave were described by Kelly (1977, p.36) as:

lower-level Vietnamese government officials, teachers, rank and file members of the Vietnamese army and navy, petty traders, farmers and fishermen. They were not necessarily urban, had few skills that were usable in the U.S., spoke little or no English, and were totally unacquainted with life outside their parishes or villages in Vietnam. Unlike the first two waves, individuals from this group were people many American officials believed “should not have gotten out” but somehow did (Kelly, 1977).

The second period of the Vietnamese refugees migration began in 1978 and continues even today. Since the fall of South Vietnam, many Vietnamese have tried to escape the political oppression, the major social, political and economic reforms instituted by the authoritarian government of North Vietnam. Although the influx continues steadily, the numbers are no longer as massive as they once were. In addition, a significant characteristic of this period, especially between the years 1978 to 1980, is the large number of ethnic Chinese migrating out of Vietnam and Cambodia (St Carmail, 1983; Whitmore, 1985).

These individuals have been called “boat people” because the majority of them escaped in homemade, poorly constructed boats and wooden vessels (Grant, 1979; Haskins, 1980; Wain, 1981). Due to the lack of sophistication of vessels that cannot withstand the forces of nature, the scant knowledge of navigational skills, the limited amount of provisions they were able to bring

and finally, numerous attacks by Thai sea pirates, the death rate of the “boat people” is very high. Some verbal testimony from surviving refugees has estimated it as high as 50%, while Grant (1979, p.81) and Wain (1981, p.83) have placed it much lower at 10% to 15%. However, the percentage will never be accurately known since there is no systematic way of knowing how many refugees actually left Vietnam, only survivors are accounted for. Today, many former receiving countries are now turning away refugees because of the economic, political and social strain that they are putting on their economies (Grant, 1979). Table 1 presents the total number of Vietnamese to have entered the United States from 1975 to 1982.




In trying to understand the status of the Vietnamese refugees, one must distinguish between a “refugee” and an “immigrant”. Refugees are typically people who are reluctant to uproot and resettle because of their formal social backgrounds and status but are forced to do so. Their flight is usually the result of a fear of being persecuted and or physically harmed for reason of past affiliation with certain political, social or military groups should they remain in their native country. (Kunz, 1973; Liu and Murata, 1977).

Immigrants, on the other hand, have a choice. They have made a “rational” decision based on relatively better economic opportunity, have had time to prepare for the journey, estimated the cost versus gain, made all the necessary arrangements and only then left their country. The Vietnamese refugees were not immigrants who chose to come to the United States primarily for the economic opportunities and political stability that it offers. Their migration was for the most part unplanned and out of desperation. This is what distinguishes them as refugees rather than immigrants (Liu, and Murata, 1977).

However Kunz (1973) distinguishes two different refugees movements; “anticipatory” and “acute”, depending on the conditions that led to their flights. As the word suggests, in an “anticipatory” movement, the refugees

leave their homeland in an orderly fashion, after having had a certain amount of preparatory time, much in the same way as voluntary migrants.

The second, “acute”, refugee movement, is characterized by a quick response to tremendous, relatively sudden, political and social upheaval conditions in their homeland. As a result, such refugees have very little time to prepare for their flights. Their main concern is to leave conditions in their homeland in order to reach safety and obtain asylum elsewhere. As will be shown, the Vietnamese can be categorized as “acute” refugees (Liu and Murata, 1977).

The history, experience, and development of many immigrant groups and their interaction with the dominant society has long been a traditional research topic for sociology. As a result, many sociologists have studied communities and the literature has flourished in this subfield of sociology.

The “Community” Literature

It is difficult to find a widely accepted definition of “community”. Lyon (1987) noted that Hillery (1955), in an earlier review of community definitions, found 94 separate uses of the term. Although the entire body of literature in this large field is beyond the scope of this thesis, one part of it–the human ecology theory–is reviewed. This theory is important insofar as the concern of how immigrant communities form, change and relate to the larger community are addressed.

Theodorsen (1961) reported four main divisions within the ecological approach: (1) classical, (2) sociocultural, (3) neo-orthodox, and (4) social

area analysis, or factorial ecology. Although the four divisions are described in some details, only the first three contributed to the development of this research.

Classical Ecology

The classical ecological approach is generally attributed to Robert E. Park and the Chicago School of Sociology (Berry and Kasarda, 1977; Lyon, 1987). The central concept in Park's approach was the division of community organization into two levels; the biotic and the cultural (Berry and Kasarda, 1977), or the community and society (Lyon, 1987). Park and other classical ecologists emphasized the biotic and community aspects instead of the cultural and social aspects. For Park, human ecology “is concerned with the communities rather than societies, though it is not easy to distinguish between them.” (1952, p. 251). Furthermore, “the struggle of industries and commercial institutions for a strategic location determines in the long run the main outlines of the urban community.” (1952, p. 151. as quoted in Lyon, 1987)

For the classical ecological approach therefore, the most fundamental assumption is that competition is the overriding factor in determining the spatial relations and allocation of natural areas. With this conceptual framework, Park, his students, and colleagues at the University of Chicago embarked upon a tremendous collection of studies, including classics such as The Hobo (Anderson, 1923), The Gang (Thrasher, 1927), The Ghetto (Wirth, 1928), The Gold Coast and Slum (Zorbaugh, 1929), The Jackroller

(Shaw, 1930), and The Taxi Dance Hall (Cressey, 1932)–all describing urban life (Lyon, 1987).

Although the classical ecological approach rise to eminence was relatively quick, its duration was relatively short. Berry and Kasarda (1977, p. 6-7) have argued that the downfall of classical ecological approach resulted from four weaknesses: (1) its muddled distinction between biotic and cultural elements, (2) its excessive reliance on competition, (3) its exclusion of cultural and motivational factors, and (4) its general structural concepts to hold up under comparative examination. Recently, Logan and Molotch (1987, p.9) have also argued that human culture has been “left out”. Specifically, they argue that “they [ecologists] ignore that markets themselves are the results of cultures; markets are bound up with human interests in wealth, power, and affection.” Largely as a result of the criticisms mounted against them during the 1940's, “by 1950, the ecological approach as developed by Park, his colleagues and students at the University of Chicago was virtually dead” (Berry and Kasarda, 1977). Although “virtually dead”, the classical ecological approach influenced the establishment of sociocultural, neo-orthodox and social area analysis or factorial ecology approaches to community (Lyon, 1987).

Sociocultural Ecology

Unlike classical ecologists, sociocultural ecologists argue that culture and values should be made central to ecological theory. Seeman's study (1938) of how religion influenced the patterns of Salt Lake City and other cities in Utah is among the earliest examples of this approach (Lyon, 1987). A more

contemporary proponent is Heckscher (1977) who has argued that the spatial patterns of American cities reflect American values of freedom, individualism, growth, and business success (Lyon, 1987).

While the role of culture and values were emphasized by socioculturalists, the distinctness of the ecological approach began to disappear. This resulted in the almost complete merger with mainstream sociology (Lyon, 1987). In fact, Berry and Kasarda (1977) have argued that current analysts largely ignore this approach, while Poplin (1979), has argued that they describe it historically with reference to only Firey and Seeman's research. Finally, Lyon (1987), noted that current analysts have merge sociocultural ecology with urban ethnographies such as The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian Americans (Gans, 1962); Tally's Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (Liebow, 1967); and All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (Stack, 1974).

Although successful at criticizing the classical ecological approach, socioculturalists had difficulties developing a distinct approach of their own (Lyon, 1987). The most notable contributions of sociocultural ecology lie in the application of symbolic interactionism to communities. Perhaps the most influential works of Strauss' (Images of the American City, 1961), Suttles (The Social Construction of Communities, 1972), and Hunter (Symbolic Communities, 1974) are the only vestige remaining of sociocultural ecology (Lyon, 1987).

Due to the inability of socioculturalist to develop and articulate a distinct ecological approach, there has been a resurgence of the classical ecological

approach. The neo-orthodox ecologists were able to resurrect this conceptual framework while insulating it from previous criticisms (Lyon, 1987).

Neo-Orthodox Ecology

The emergence of Amos Hawley's Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure in 1950 marked the beginning of the neo-orthodox ecological approach (Berry and Kasarda, 1977; Lyon, 1987). Contrary to Park's emphasis on the role of conflict and competition, Hawley's emphasis of the community was on the local “interdependence”. In fact, Hawley's ecological approach was directed at a macro level (Lyon, 1987).

Through the development of statistical measurements, and the application of four basic, interrelated, reference variables (population, organization, environment, and technology), Otis Dudley Duncan (1959) is one of the most influential neo-orthodox ecologists (Lyon, 1987). Duncan defines population to include any internally structured collectivity of human beings that routinely functions as a coherent entity. The second variable, organization, includes the entire network of symbiotic and commensalistic relationships which allows a population to sustain in an environment. The third variable in Duncan's ecological complex, environment, refers to all phenomena, including other social systems, that are external to and influence the population. Lastly, technology includes all skills, tools and artifacts used for adaptation (Berry and Kasarda, 1977, Lyon, 1987). Following Hawley's

conceptual framework, these four variables are interdependent and changes in any one will result in changes in the remaining three (Berry and Kasarda, 1977).

Current ecological analysis therefore attempts to understand the developmental processes of human's adjustment to the environment as well as the form it takes using Duncan's POET or ecological complex (Berry and Kasarda, 1977; Lyon, 1987).

Social Area Analysis and Factorial Ecology

Social area analysis approach refers to a method outlines by Shevky and Bell (1955). They constructed three different indeces–social rank, urbanization and segregation–to allow identification and comparison of social areas within different cities. The first index, social rank, is obtained by combining occupation, education, and rent to assess changes in the distribution of skills. The second index, urbanization, includes measurements from fertility rate, changes of women in the labor force, and productive activity. The final index, segregation, incorporates measurements of the changes in the “population redistribution in space, alteration in the age and sex composition and the isolation of the group (Shevky and Bell, 1955, p. 229). A contemporary equivalent of these three indexes would be the individuals' economic, family, and ethnic status (Berry and Kasarda, 1977).

Criticisms of social area analysis have been on both theoretical and empirical grounds (e.g. Duncan (1955), Hawley and Duncan, 1957). The central concern is the restrictions imposed by using only seven variables (Lyon, 1987).


Although criticisms have mounted against human ecology, this study nevertheless combines certain aspects of this approach to identify a community. Since competition determines the allocation of natural areas in classical ecology, the formation of the Vietnamese community in Orange County will be examined in this light. In addition, since the Vietnamese cultural characteristics serve as a large focus in the analysis, studies from sociocultural ecology, especially ethnographies, will be incorporated. Finally, although the literature in neo-orthodox ecology and social area analysis are not directly applicable in this study, certain aspects proved to be helpful throughout the conceptualization of this study.

The adaptation processes by a new immigrant group into the United States has long been a central focus for research in sociology since the early days of the discipline. However, recently have researchers focused on the processes of economic incorporation developed by the new immigrants.

Refugees and Labor Markets

An ongoing debate in stratification centers on whether the structure of the labor market should be seen as a single entity or as segmented into different sectors (Averitt, 1968; Galbraith, 1971; O'Connor, 1973; Edwards, 1975; Baron and Bielby, 1980; Tolbert, Horan, and Beck, 1980, Hodson and Kaufman, 1982; Baron and Bielby, 1984).


Dual Economy

In this model, two distinct economic sectors have evolved in the United States to form a “dual economy” (Averitt 1968; Galbraith 1971; O'Connor, 1973; Tolbert, Horan and Beck, 1980). Averitt (1968, p.7) defines the “center economy” in economic dualism as:

composed of firms large in size and influence. Its organizations are corporate and bureaucratic; its production processes are vertically integrated through ownership and control of critical raw material suppliers and product distributors; its activities are diversified into many industries, regions, and nations…Firms in the large economy serve national and international markets, using technologically progressive systems of production and distribution…

while the “periphery” economy is:

populated by relatively small firms. These enterprises are the ones usually dominated by a single individual or family. The firm's sales are realized in restricted markets…Techniques of producion and marketing are rarely as up to date as those in the center…

The “center economy” therefore is dominated by large firms with the ability to monopolize or oligopolize the market. The “periphery economy” on the other hand, comprises mainly many small businesses, serving local communities and regions, including both and minority as well as majority-owned firms. Corresponding to the dual economy are two separate labor markets, the primary and secondary labor markets, each with distinguishing features.

The major differences between the primary (center economy) and secondary (periphery economy) labor markets result in relative

disadvantages for persons in the latter to obtain upward social mobility. The primary labor market provides the relative advantages of stability, chances for promotion, higher wages, good benefits and good working conditions (O'Connor, 1973). The secondary labor market, on the other hand, is characterized by very low wages, harsh working conditions, no stability, no promotion ladder and usually no opportunity for career advancement. In addition to this, there seems to be little relationship between human capital (that is, formal education, occupational skills, experience) and employment. Also, due to the intense competition from other firms, businesses are unable to pass costs to consumers. As a result, firms in the secondary labor market must exploit and maintain low wages to avoid bankruptcy. For this reason, the primary source of labor in the secondary labor market seems to be minority group members, family members, women, and illegal workers who are the most vulnerable and easiest to exploit.

However, the underlying assumptions of the dual labor market theory have been questioned by recent research (Baron and Bielby, 1980; Kaufman, Hodson and Fligstein, 1981; Wallace and Kalleberg, 1981; Hodson and Kaufman, 1982; Baron and Bielby, 1984). Hodson and Kaufman (1982, p. 737), for example, have argued that although dual labor market theory has offered a useful critique of neoclassical economic theory by demonstrating that labor market structures condition labor outcomes in the workplace, the model itself has serious flaws. Three major criticisms of dual labor theory are: (a) that a systematic model has never been elaborated, (b) it is inadequate for sustaining theoretical and empirical development and inhibits

further development, and (c) an empirical issue, the consistent alignment of the various dimensions of economic structure, is treated as an assumption (Hodson and Kaufman, 1982).

Although the debate will likely to continue, the main thrust underlying the study of stratification continues to be the segmentation of the labor market. However, because this model has been based on the view from the center of the American political economy, the emphasis has largely been on the exclusion of immigrant minorities from the primary labor market and therefore only occupying the secondary labor market.

Ethnic Enclaves

An alternative to both neoclassical and dual labor market theory is the concept of the “ethnic enclave economy” or “ethnic labor market”

1. Portes and Wilson use the term “ethnic enclave economy” to refer to a geographically located, and ethnically owned economy, while Mar uses the term “ethnic labor market” to refer to the labor relations between ethnic capital and ethnic labor. In this thesis, although I adapt the term ethnic enclave economy, my interest follow more closely to that of Mar.

Studies of this third alternative have been reported by Bonacich and Modell (1980); Wilson and Portes (1980); Kim (1981); Portes and Bach (1981); Wilson and Martin (1982); Mar (1985); and Waldinger (1985).

However, there is a sharp contrast in the role and benefits of this ethnic enclave. On one hand, Portes and Wilson (1980, p. 302) hypothesized that “enclave workers will share with those in the primary sector a significant economic return to past human capital investments. Such a return will be

absent among those in the `open' secondary labor market.” In other words, although an ethnic enclave economy serves as an alternative labor market for certain immigrant groups, its economic structure is one of dynamic and robust, thus allowing participating workers economic benefits that are otherwise closed in the secondary labor market.

On the other hand, Mar (1985b) has argued that ethnic labor market serve as an extension of, or as the lowest tier in the secondary labor market. Unlike Portes and Wilson's argument, Mar as well as Sanders and Nee (1987, p. 762-763) argued that only the owners benefit in this ethnic labor market. Since this area of research is relatively new, the argument will likely to continue while evidence are gathered on both sides.

Although the enclave economy is considered to be distinct from the mainstream American political economy, it is generally described as having characteristics similar to the peripheral economy. In addition however, Wilson and Portes (1980, p. 302) reported a “necessary condition for the emergence of an economic enclave is the presence of immigrants with sufficient capital. Capital might be brought from the original country,… or accumulated through savings”.

Nevertheless, an ethnic enclave economy generally comprises clusters of small businesses located in areas of ethnic settlement, mostly owned and operated by immigrant minorities of a particular ethnic background. They are generally geographically isolated and have little dependence on the center economy. Examples of these exist in communities of the Cubans in

Miami, the Chinese in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles; the Koreans in Los Angeles and New York and as will be illustrated later, the Vietnamese in Orange County, California.



The Data

Because this is an exploratory and descriptive study of this new community, one objective is to arrive at a qualitatively rich description in order to set the ground work for further inquiry. With this in mind, this study combines three sources of data designed to reveal the overall boundaries of this community and people's daily interactions or “their way of life”. These sources of data are: (1) participant observation data, (2) personal interviews, and (3) documents and accounts written about the Vietnamese refugees in the United States. The following is a brief description of each source of data.

The Participant Observer Data

I have spent the last three years, on and off, as a participant observer in this community. I became interested in this community as research topic when, as an undergraduate student I participated in a seminar titled “Economy and Ethnicity in American Society”, taught by Professors Harvey Molotch and Victor Nee at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the Winter quarter of 1984. However, it was not until I began my graduate work that I began to seriously think of this topic as a master thesis and eventually, a doctoral dissertation.


As a result, I developed and was awarded an Instructional Development Grant from the University of California, Santa Barbara to produce a slide presentation titled “Stories from the Heart: the History of the Vietnamese Refugees”. This enabled me to spend time as a photographer and participant observer in Orange County, California. During the summer of 1985, I spent a two-week period with many two to four days weekends observing and photographing the activities of this community. However, since that summer, due to the demands of graduate work and the long driving distance of approximately 280 miles roundtrip, I have been limited to weekends and holidays.

The first goal was to set out to get acquainted and observe as many different social aspects and activities of this community as possible. Therefore, I spent hours walking around the geographic boundaries and participated in as many social and public events as possible. These activities included eating at Vietnamese restaurants, buying specialty (exotic) food at supermarkets, buying books and magazines printed in Vietnamese, watching people interact with each other, talking to many different people about upcoming social events, going to a nightclubs that featured music from Vietnam as well as Vietnamese “new wave” music, celebrating the Vietnamese New Year's (Tet) festivities, and finally, participating in an all Vietnamese volleyball tournament with participants from throughout California and from as far as Texas and Oregon.


The Interview Data

I interviewed numerous people throughout my time spent as a participant observer. The people interviewed were diverse and came from a variety of backgrounds.

2. Out of courtesy and out of respect for the privacy of the people involved, I have changed their names and used pseudonyms.

. Among these were the Director of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, a businessman with a Legal Service Office, a Certified Public Accountant working outside of the community, a woman in her fifties who used to work in a Vietnamese restaurant, an unemployed man collecting workman's compensation as a result of an injury to his back from working in a high-tech company, a bus mechanic working for Orange County's public transportation company, three youths dressed as “punks” (who thought I was affiliated with the police), and a couple of students from the University of California at Santa Barbara who live in that community.

Some of the interviews were focused interviews lasting from forty-five minutes to one hour, while others were encounters that only lasted a few minutes with some people on the street. The interviews occurred at different places, with the settings as diversified as the people interviewed. Some interviews were conducted at the person's house, others were at the person's office or business while others were on the street and, some were over the telephone.

During these interviews, I investigated the person's relationship within the community as I understood it. Although this central concern structured all the interviews, if the person chose to reveal other informations, I allowed them to pursue such a course. As a result, the interviews were largely

unstructured, and different questions were asked of different persons. This allowed the person the freedom and flexibility to expand on what they thought was important.

Although I asked the participants' permission to tape the interviews, most of them felt uncomfortable and denied the request, although they did permit me to take notes. Note-taking however proved to be a difficult task since the interviewees would speak at a faster rate than I was able to write. Thus, I usually had to rely on my memory until I had the chance to write down the information in the privacy of my car.

Given that all of the participants are first generation Vietnamese, the interviews were frequently conducted in Vietnamese and later translated to English. However, despite linguistic differences, I have tried to preserve the meaning of the words in the translation as much as possible.

Documentary Materials

A substantial body of literature exists on the Vietnamese refugees in the United States since their arrival in 1975. Except for some journalistic accounts (Brody, 1986, 1987a, 1987b, 1987c; Devoss, 1986, May, 1987), much of the literature focuses on the early processes of adaptation–mental health, adjustment to a new society, the assimilation process, American attitudes toward Vietnamese, work patterns, and family relations (Kelly, 1977; Grant, 1979; Liu, Lamanna, and Murata, 1979; Montero, 1979a, 1979b; Starr, 1980; Starr & Roberts, 1981, 1982a, 1982b, 1986; Strand & Woodrow, 1985). Since one of the goals of this thesis is to describe the formation of this community, such materials from the existing literature were relevant to reconstruct its

early history. In addition, the 1980 Census Data and the 1987 Vietnam Business Directory were also used to profile the population characteristics of the Vietnamese and the range of business enterprise in the community.



The United States' Response

The Vietnamese exodus and their resettlement in the United States could not have come at a worse time in that period of American history. The Vietnam War was an extremely unpopular war at home in which 57,692 American men and women died with 2,500 listed as “missing in action” or as prisoners of war (Capps, 1982). The war deeply divided the nation.

Indeed, the general atmosphere of the American public at the end of the war was hostile toward the Vietnamese refugees. The Gallup Poll taken in May 1975 showed “54% of all Americans opposed to admitting Vietnamese refugees to live in the United States and only 36% were in favor with 12% undecided” (Time, May 19, 1975). A common concern of the American public was one of economic self-interest–a fear of having jobs taken away as well as too much public assistance and welfare given to the refugees. During this time, the United States was in a period of recession with an unemployment rate of 8.3% (Kelly, 1977). Several early studies documented that a substantial number of Americans preferred the exclusion of the refugees from the United States (Schaefer and Schaefer, 1975; Liu, Lamanna, Murata, 1979; Starr and Roberts, 1982b; Simon, 1985).

Apart from specific conditions resulting from the Vietnam War and the recession, this hostile reception given by the American public represented a continuation of the tradition of racism and hostility toward immigrant

minority groups that has been prevalent and well documented throughout United States' history (Dollard, 1957; Gans, 1962; Gossett, 1963; Baudet, 1965; Smora, 1966; Jordan, 1968; Thomas and Znaniecki, 1968; Knowles and Prewitt, 1969; Conroy and Miyakawa, 1972).

The Vietnamese refugees therefore arrived in the United States with a legacy of hostility directed toward Asians. Most of hostility was racially and economically based (Gilbert, 1951; Daniels, 1962; Walovits, 1966; Daniels and Kitano, 1970; Ogawa, 1971; Rabaya, 1971; Saxton, 1971; Wu, 1972; Sandmeyer, 1971; Sue and Kitano, 1973; Ignacio, 1976; Lyman, 1977; Modell, 1977). Despite this legacy, there were a substantial number of Americans who extended humanitarian aid and sponsored families out of refugee camps.

The United States' Government Dispersal Policy

In order to minimize the social impact of the large influx of Vietnamese refugees on an American public that was unfavorable to the Vietnam War, the United States government adapted the Refugee Dispersion Policy. This policy served four purposes: (a) to relocate the Vietnamese refugees as quickly as possible so that they could achieve financial independence; (b) to ease the impact of a large group of refugees on a given community which might otherwise increase the competition for jobs; (c) to make it logistically easier to find sponsors; and (d) to prevent the development of an ethnic ghetto (Liu, Lamanna, Murata, 1979). Given the political and social climate of the United States at the time, the influential factors leading to this Dispersion Policy were primarily political and financial, not social (Kelly,

1977). If this policy was carried out successfully, the Vietnamese refugees would quickly assimilate into the American society.

As a result, nine voluntary agencies (VOLAGS) were contracted by the government's Interagency Task Force to handle the resettlement of the refugees in the United States. The agencies included the United Hebrew Immigration and Assitance Service, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the International Rescue Committee, Church World Service, the American Funds for Czechoslavak Refugees, the United States Catholic Conference, the Travelers Aid International Social Service and the Council for Nationalities Service. Each refugee family chose a resettlement agency in refugee camps. If the refugee did not have a preference, one was assigned (Liu, Lamanna, Murata, 1977).

The primary task of these agencies was to find sponsors that would have the ability to fulfill both financial and moral responsibilities, and to match them with the refugees' families. The responsibilities included providing temporary food, clothing and shelter, assistance in finding employment or job training for the head of the household, enrolling the children in school and finally, providing ordinary medical care (Liu, Lamanna, Murata, 1977). In other words, the sponsors would serve as a resource to introduce the Vietnamese refugees into the society while they become self-supporting.

The Resettlement of the Vietnamese Refugees

There were four ways for the refugees to leave the four temporary refugee camps (Camp Pendleton, California; Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; and Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania) and enter into

American society: (1) resettlement to a third country, (2) obtain repatriation to Vietnam, (3) demonstrate proof of being financially self-supportive, and (4) find a sponsor through the voluntary agencies (Kelly, 1977).

Although third-country resettlement was encouraged by the United States government, this avenue was hardly chosen by the Vietnamese refugees. Very few other countries offered their assistance unless the refugees fulfilled at least one of the following requirements: (a) professionals in needed areas, (b) had relatives living in that country, or (c) could speak the language (Kelly, 1977).

Only a small number of refugees chose to return to Vietnam. Montero reported (1979, p. 27) “by October 1975, repatriation had been granted to 1,546 refugees by the new government of Vietnam.” The majority were military men who were forced to leave their families behind at the time of their evacuation.

The third method by which the refugees were allowed to leave the refugee camps was to demonstrate financial independence. Kelly (1977, p. 129) and Montero (1979, p. 27) again documented, “the Task Force required a refugee family to show proof of cash reserves totalling at least $4,000 per household member.” However, due to their abrupt plight, only a few were qualified to use this avenue. In addition, not many refugees would report to the authorities their financial savings for the fear of the unknown that awaited them. Thus, the Vietnamese refugees entered the United States' society primarily through the family sponsorship method.

The sponsors found by voluntary agencies consisted of congregations, parishes or affiliates, individual families, corporations, and companies with

former Vietnamese employees. In addition, if the refugees had relatives that fulfilled the same requirements, they could qualify as sponsors as well. However, Skinner (1980, p. 104), reported only 15,000 Vietnamese living in the United States prior to 1975. Most of these individuals were students staying temporarily on visas or wives of U.S. soldiers. In essence, the Vietnamese did not have an established community in the United States and therefore, this method hardly applied to the first waves of refugees.

Nevertheless, the family sponsorship method was used more frequently at a later time by the Vietnamese from the first waves in order to sponsor relatives and friends who entered after 1975. In either case, the Vietnamese refugees would be dispersed throughout the United States as a result of this policy.

The Vietnamese Adaptation Process

These, then were the structural conditions that the first Vietnamese refugees had to face at the time of their arrival. How did this affect their experience?

First of all, as a result of the Refugee Dispersion Policy, the Vietnamese refugees were resettled throughout the United States. Table 2 illustrates the results of this Government Dispersion policy for the first waves of Vietnamese in the U.S.:



The Dispersion Policy continued throughout succeeding waves of Vietnamese refugees. Table 3 represents the number of refugees admitted to the United States between 1975-1978 while Table 4 represents the years 1979-1982 along with their primary immigration state. Finally, Table 5 represents the total number of Vietnamese for each of the migration period along with their primary immigration state and their total percentage in each state:






Secondly, the extended family network that existed in their homeland was temporarily broken by migration. In order to find churches, social organizations, families and individuals that were willing to sponsor the Vietnamese refugees, many Vietnamese extended families were broken-up. Only immediate family members were allowed to stay together. In addition, many of the social networks that formed while they were abandoning their homeland as well as in refugee camps were also temporarily disrupted (Mineta, Francis, Ginger and Low, 1975 as cited in Liu, Lamanna, and Murata, 1979). This forced the Vietnamese refugees to interact with and depend on the sponsors and the immediate environment for social and

emotional support. In essence, the Vietnamese were deprived of the emotional, social and psychological support generated from the extended family and also the support that was generated from a shared culture, language, customs and experience.

Thirdly, in order to minimize the strain put on local economies by the refugees, the government encouraged the American sponsors to help the refugees to become financially independent as soon as possible. Therefore, in order to survive, many Vietnamese accepted jobs of lower status than the ones they had in Vietnam. The majority of these jobs were concentrated in the periphery economy which required no skills and little or no English proficiency. Table 6 illustrates the different first jobs obtained by refugees as reported by Kelly (1977, p. 179) while table 7 illustrates the first jobs held by those I interviewed.



Since language proficiency was thought to be the major factor which prevented the refugees from obtaining jobs in the primary economy, their first few jobs became a method of surviving while they learned the new language in the hope of obtaining other jobs later. Among those interviewed, three categories of people surfaced as they explained their situations while learning English. The first category includes those who used English to study either a new occupation that did not exist in Vietnam or a continuation and modification of an occupation from Vietnam.

Two of the respondents fall into this first category. Mr. Dang, a former low-ranking officer in the Navy Republic of Vietnam in his early 40s, works

as a Certified Public Accountant outside of the community in a Savings Associations in Long Beach. Although he doesn't work directly in the community except during the tax season when friends and other Vietnamese utilize his expertise, he and his wife, shop, eat, and spend time there with their children. He recalls:

“When I left my sponsor and lived on my own, I got a job as a gas station attendant and went to Los Angeles City College and studied accounting. I don't remember why I chose it but it wasn't extremely difficult. I think my sponsor encouraged me to follow his advice and footsteps. He was also studying to take the CPA exams. You just have to be diligent and study hard. Once in a while though you just get a big headache from reading too much.”

The second respondent, Mr. Dao, a former diplomat in his mid-40's, owns two Legal Service Office in Orange County and works primarily with Vietnamese clients. He's familiar with the English language and although he studied law in Vietnam, the two legal system are very different. He has been studying to take the California Bar exam for the 5th time. I interviewed him prior to the last time he took the exam:

“It's harder and harder to study for me. I am not young like you. I have a lot of things on my mind. I work full time, I have a family and then I have to study. I can't study the way I used to, you know? Sure law is difficult but it's the time pressure that gets me. If I was given enough time, I can pass it [the Bar exam] but here, you have to have the answers immediately, bang, bang, bang.”

Mr. Dao typifies a group of Vietnamese refugees with certain skills and occupations compatible with the United States' economic structure. However, the transferability of their former occupation to those in the

United States is not always successful due to the language barrier. Although there are certain professions such as medicine, pharmacy, engineering, dentistry and other professional occupations that are transferable, one must first achieve English proficiency. Then, a series of state and federal examinations have to be successfully negotiated in order to be recertified. It often takes years to acquire enough English proficiency before these exams can be passed. As a result, this process sometimes poses problems for some of the refugees. Some of them are middle-aged and unable to master the English language. In the end, some of these individuals give up trying and are forced to either work for lesser wages and prestige or change professions altogether.

Mr. Tran, a former lawyer in Vietnam in his 40s, was not as fortunate as Mr. Dao. In the interview, he remembers:

“I like practicing law in Vietnam, it was a lot different than here. It wasn't as structured. At first, I wanted to continue with law but my English wasn't good enough. It's very different. I couldn't afford attending a law school. Besides, I didn't have the patience to study. I also didn't have time to sit there and read all these books. I had other things to worry about. My wife was still in Vietnam and my energy was spent trying to bring her over here.”

He abandoned his pursuit of a law career and enrolled in CETA, a government job training program. He concluded his training in 1980. He then moved to Orange County from Los Angeles, found a job in a small industrial firm in as a technician. Unfortunately, he hurt his back in 1984 and

is now collecting Workman's compensation. Despite all this however, Mr. Tran was lucky, his wife rejoined him in 1980. He is living with his wife and three children in Orange County and is doing odds and ends jobs.

The second category, on the other hand, includes people with occupations and skills that more easily allow for re-entry into former occupations. These skills and occupations are primarily concentrated in industrial and skilled work such as automechanics, welding, carpentry, electrical, and plumbing. One of the respondents I interviewed is Mr. Truong, a former lieutenant in the Vietnamese Navy. In his late 50s, he is a bus mechanic in Orange County and declares:

“I wanted to be a medical doctor in Vietnam but was drafted into the Navy. I like working with my hands a great deal and use to work on boats and little things in Vietnam. I was already too old when we got here so instead of learning something new and that I didn't know about, I just started to work as a mechanic-assistant. It was hard because they [the other mechanics] spoke really fast and had their special tools. I had to read a lot of manuals to pass an annual recertification test. It was a struggle but I had my two sons to feed and a family that I wanted to bring over.”

The final category includes former white collar workers such as politicians, soldiers, teachers, and professors, who have found it almost impossible to continue their former career. These individuals abandoned their former occupations in pursuit of something more marketable. Mrs Nguyen, a former Junior High School teacher in Vietnam in her mid 50s did not have the opportunity to continue her career. As she reflects:

“I couldn't continue as a teacher. Who wants a Vietnamese school teacher? I had to find something else to do. Although I was receiving AFDC (aids to families with dependent children), I wanted to find a

job. I first worked illegally as a cook in a Vietnamese restaurant to save money and receive AFDC at the same time. But then I got a job as a key punch operator in Bank of America in Los Angeles which had to be reported.”

In sum, the United States' Refugee Dispersal Policy, along with the absence of an established Vietnamese community, had a two-fold effect on the Vietnamese refugees. First, these individuals were geographically and socially isolated. In essence, the Vietnamese refugees were deprived of the mutual support network from family and friends that was so prominent in their homeland. This seems to affect divorced/widowed female heads of households the most, followed by older men who were established in Vietnam. These individuals seem to be more vulnerable to such mental health problems as depression, homesickedness, grief over the losses, survivor-guilt syndrome, suicide impulses, uncertainty about the future, and general frustration (Rahe, Looney, Ward, et al. 1978; Lin, Tazuma and Masuda, 1979; Miller, Chambers, and Coleman, 1979; Kinzie, Tran, Breckenridge, and Bloom, 1980; Masuda, Lin, and Tazuma, 1980). The lack of interaction and moral support offered by family members, friends, or a community is compounded with the unfamiliarity of a new country.

Secondly, the Vietnamese refugees were indirectly pressured to find jobs almost right away. Since the United States was in a recession and job opportunities were difficult, many obtained lower status jobs to survive. In addition, many of the wives had to work for the first time in their lives to supplement the husband's low income and help support the family (Montero, 1979; Bach, 1980; Marsh, 1980; Bach and Bach, 1980; Strand, 1984).


The Formation of the Vietnamese Community

These were the structural and social conditions that the Vietnamese refugees have encountered and dealt with since their arrival in 1975. These structural and psychological factors alone, however, cannot explain the reasons and forces that were instrumental in the formation of a community and an ethnic enclave. Another set of factors involves the cultural characteristics and the background of the people of this group.

First of all, there is a great variation in backgrounds of the refugees who came in the different waves. For those who came in the first and second wave, the majority were Vietnamese from middle to upper-middle and upper class in social and economic status when they left Vietnam. They were generally well-educated and have had some experience with Western culture. They were also politically informed regarding the deteriorating conditions in Vietnam, and therefore were probably more prepared for the evacuation.

Coming from a higher social, political and economic background would also indicate they they had time to transfer some of their wealth into French, Swiss, American and other foreign banks before the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975 (Kelly, 1977; Liu, Lamanna, and Murata, 1979). Other arrangements for this transfer took the form of sending gold, silver, jewelry and national treasures abroad to relatives and friends. It was a common practice at that time for wealthy families to send their sons abroad to avoid being drafted, with the excuse of obtaining a college education. Finally, there were ethnic Chinese in addition to Vietnamese who married French,

Americans, and Hong Kong Chinese who provided numerous connections for expatriating family wealth.

In some cases, the transfer of wealth would later serve as a source of capital to open small businesses. This group of refugees also had the advantage of having skills that would later be beneficial in running a small business because of their educational background. These skills include the ability to fill out forms, do inventory, comply with laws and regulations, establish connections, and so forth. These skills are generally regarded as entrepeneurial skills. This would later serve them well as many became owners and operators of small and larger businesses.

The third, fourth, and fifth waves of Vietnamese refugees were less fortunate than those in the first two waves. They did not have the chance to prepare themselves for the evacuation and therefore the majority left empty-handed. They were for the most part from lower social political and economic backgrounds and often were living in the cities outside of Saigon, suggesting that they have had little experience with the Western culture.

An interesting characteristic on the composition of this latter wave of refugees is in the large number of ethnic Chinese included. Ethnic Chinese are Chinese who live in Vietnam and fiercely preserve their cultural distinctness and do not consider themselves Vietnamese. They were generally concentrated in business, industry and commerce in Southeast Asia in general and particularly in Vietnam. (Skinner, 1951 as quoted by Desbarats, 1986). As a result of their experience in Vietnam, ethnic Chinese are more familiar in operating small, family-owned businesses.


Unlike the previous two waves, with the possible exception of the ethnic Chinese, these people lacked the entrepeneurial skills and the capital to act as owners of small businesses. They would thereby later serve as either laborers and/or consumers in the enclave economy, selling their human labor to the owners who had the capital and the entrepeneurial skills. The role of those Vietnamese refugees who entered the United States thereafter is very similar to this group.

Despite the chaotic and abrupt nature of the Vietnamese refugees' departure, a substantial number of people came in family groups, accounting for approximately 62% of all the immigrants from the first two waves (Kelly 1977). However, as a result of the Refugee Dispersion Policy of the United States' Government, only immediate family and their members were allowed to stay together.

The consequence of this policy resulted in a relocation of Vietnamese across the United States which temporarily disrupted their mutual support system. Weather conditions that exist in many parts of the country were substantially different from that in their homeland. In only a few cases was the weather similar to that of Vietnam. Among these places are California, Texas, and Florida. This fact played a significant role in the formation of this enclave economy.


The 1980 Census Data on the Vietnamese in the United States indicated that most populated states are California with 34.78%, Texas with 11.34%, Louisiana with 4.43%, Washington state with 3.65%, Virginia with 3.86%, Pennsylvania with 3.31% and finally, Florida with 2.89%. Table 8 presents the population of Vietnamese in the United States from the 1980 Census data, along with the percentage in each state.



Table 8 illustrates that a disproportionate number of Vietnamese refugees residing in only three states—California (34.78%), Texas (11.34%) and Louisiana (4.43%)—constituting 50% of the entire Vietnamese population. In addition, almost two thirds (64.26%) live in only 7 states, including the aforementioned three states, plus Virginia (3.86%), Washington state (3.65%), Pennsylvania (3.31%) and Florida (2.89%).

As the harsh winter conditions hit the cities throughout the United States where Vietnamese refugees were initially resettled, the desire to find a location with a warmer climate and a Vienamese community increased for those who were had settled in colder parts of the United States. California's reputation of having a warm climate with an abundance of unskilled jobs, espcially in San Jose's “Silicon Valley”, Santa Ana, and San Diego along with the existence of small Vietnamese communities in Los Angeles and San Jose became a magnet or an “attraction” that would draw people. Baldwin (1982, p.23) found that 43% of Vietnamese migrating to Orange County gave “climate” as their primary reason for migrating while 22% gave “job/finances/education” as their second reason, followed by “family nearby” with 13%.

In addition, since there were a number of ethnic Chinese (Chinese who lived in Vietnam but spoke Chinese and do not consider themselves Vietnamese) who were relocated in California, Los Angeles' Chinatown served as a catalyst for learning the new culture. Mrs. Nguyen recalls her experience working for ethnic Chinese employers:


The owners were two married couples that are Chinese from Vietnam. You know, they are used to working in the retail and wholesale business back home. They have the brain, the experience, the knowledge and the advantage of the connections here. They can use the Chinese here and those they know from Hong Kong and Taiwan to help them with their business. They asked Chinese they know here to become their partners and open businesses with them.

A number of the businesses raised the capital needed through this social network. There were also other Vietnamese from the first two waves with enough capital who managed to start their own small businesses. However, due to the overcrowded conditions and the low possibility for expansion, Los Angeles proved to be far from ideal for people who wanted to open their own businesses. It did provide a springboard, however, from which the skills and needed experience could be drawn later.

The formation of the Vietnamese ethnic enclave economy in Orange County can be understood therefore as a synthesis of both structural barriers and the Vietnamese refugees cultural characteristics. However, in order for an ethnic enclave economy to be functional, a community needs to be present.

The Vietnamese Community

The Vietnamese community in the United States in general, and in Orange County in particular, is primarily new, a product of the large number of Vietnamese refugees who were sponsored out of Camp Pendleton. Added

to the secondary migration of Vietnamese and other factors discussed earlier, California has the largest number of Vietnamese.

The 1987 Vietnam Business Directory lists over 1,700 “firms” for the Los Angeles and Orange County areas. However, one of the characteristic not shown in the directory is whether or not the business is owned by Vietnamese or by ethnic Chinese. Although some are not strictly businesses (associations, churches, temples) and are marginal cases, the directory nevertheless suggests a well organized and active community from the wide range and diversity of firms, services, and organizations listed.

The Vietnamese community in Orange County boast all the firms regularly found in other enclave economies: restaurants, supermarkets, medical clinics, cafes, legal firms, cultural (herbal) medicine, tailoring and fashion shops, cosmetic and beauty salons, bookstores, video stores, and pharmacies and so forth. In addition, however, the Vietnamese community has an unusally large number of community organizations as well as a wide variety of periodicals available. Table 9 is the Table of Contents from the 1987 Vietnam Business Directory listing of major categories of businesses.



Table 9 illustrates that Vietnamese in Southern California are participating in a wide range of businesses. These range from specialized cultural and ethnic businesses to businesses commonly found throughout cities in the United States.

There are 6 major book stores located in Westminster, and about a half a dozen of shops that print Vietnamese books, newspapers, advertising brochures, and community activities pamphlets. In addition, a strong indicator of this community is reflected in having 34 newspapers and magazines circulating locally and nationally, ranging from daily to biweekly to monthly. The newspapers and magazines focus on most aspects of daily life from cultural events, economic news, social issues, art, entertainment, education and finally sporting news. All are written in Vietnamese with some in both Vietnamese and English. The community press serves as an important community indicator as reflected by earlier research by Park (1922) and Janowitz (1952). All the printing materials can be seen circulating on a regular basis during the weekends when I observed a large number of young workers distributing advertising leaflets to people shopping there and leaving them on people's cars.


There are 58 different associations listed in the 1987 Vietnam Business Directory. These associations are generally divided into three categories: (1) religious–including Catholics and Christians churches, and Buddhist temples, (2) professional–including the associations of lawyers, doctors, dentists, and so forth, and (3) mutual assistance–including former military unit members, students, martial arts, refugee assistance, resettlement and sponsorship. Other factors indicating the existence of a community include the formation of religious institutions such as churches, temples, community service organizations and community-planned activities. These activities include New Year's Celebration (Tet), free music concerts, a variety of sporting events, traditional festivities and community meetings.

In closely observing the Vietnamese community, one does find evidence of an ethnic enclave. There seems to be a geographical factor that is critical in explaining the existence of this enclave economy. The heart of the enclave economy is located within a mile radius of Bolsa Boulevard in Westminster. There are twelve major shopping centers in this area. Some are fully developed and operated while others were under construction (Brody, 1987). This area is generally referred to simply as “Bolsa” by the Vietnamese I interviewed and those in California.

As previously mentioned, Orange County is both climatically and locationally favorable to the development of an ethnic enclave economy. The area is located on a vast and semi-developed piece of land that offers cheap rental rates, thereby allowing the possibility for growth and expansion. Seven of the twelve shopping centers are co-owned or managed by Frank

Jao, an ethnic Chinese land developer and other Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, and overseas Chinese investors (Brody, 1987).

Although there is a definite Chinese flavor blended into the signs and ownerships of some of the centers, and while some people have questioned whether it would be more appropriate to call it “Little Cholon”, (the Chinese business district outside of Saigon) it is generally agreed that Bolsa is considered to be the Vietnamese capital of the United States (Brody, 1987). Throughout my time spent as a participant observer, I observed a large proportion of Vietnamese shopowners as well as Vietnamese customers frequenting the stores and other establishments.

The Ethnic Enclave

Labor market analysis generally centers around three essential elements; capital, labor, and market, and the social relations between these (Mar, 1985b; Portes and Bach, 1985). The first essential element, capital, refers to money either brought over from abroad or accumulated while in the United States. Labor, the second essential element, includes labor from the owners, family members, fellow ethnic workers and outside workers (Portes and Bach, 1985). The final element, market, refers to consumers who are buying the products sold by the businesses. For an ethnic enclave to exist therefore, these three elements must be present.



Capital is provided through three main sources. The first source of capital consists of the assets brought over to the United States by the people from the first and second wave. The second source consists of the resources and connections from the Chinese-Vietnamese in Chinatown and overseas Chinese (Brody, 1987). The third source–the “hui” (rotating credit system)–imported from Asia, is a method widely use by Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans for accumulating a lump sum of money at a lower interest rates and without the strict requirements imposed by lending institutions (Light, 1972; Lyman, 1974; Miyamoto, 1972; Bonacich and Modell, 1980; Kim, 1981). Although there are variations between North, South Vietnamese, and other Asian countries, the basic principle of the “hui” system is the same. Mrs. Nguyen, the former junior high school teacher, gave the following description:

“Under this system, a person in need of money would organize a group of people, usually friends, relatives, people from the same village, or trusted colleagues who agree to contribute a fixed sum of money to a common pool for a fixed time period; usually months or the same amount of months as the amount of participants. At the first meeting, everyone contributes to the common pool but the organizer collects the first sum of money. A month later, again, each participant would contribute the same amount of money and depending on the agreement, either by lottery or by bidding a certain interest rate, a different participant would collect the sum of money from the pool. This process would repeat and continue to rotate recepient until each and everyone of the participants had received the money from the common pool. By the end of the agreed period, everyone would have received a lump sum of money and paid no interest to banking or lending institutions.”


Since a small business requires relatively little capital, this system would sometimes generate sufficient capital for investment. In his study of Vietnamese Entrepeneurs in the U.S.A, Leba (1985) reported examples of an Egg Roll Manufacturing business needing only $3,000 to open and operate, and the capital needed to open a Rice Noodle Soup shop varies between “a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars” (p. 149).

In this study, I asked Mr. Dao, the Legal Service Office owner, about the necessary capital to open his office. He replies:

“It didn't take very much to open this office. The start up funds was about $2,000-$3000. Most of it is because the owners want you to pay a couple of months' rent in advance. Then there is the furniture, I just bought those. It didn't cost very much since my office doesn't require a whole lot of things. I didn't need to buy anything special or expensive, just functionable. I basically just needed a desk, a filing cabinet, lamps and a phone. From then on, I just have to pay the rent, the electricity, the phone and the water.”

When asked whether he used the “hui” rotating credit system, he continues:

“No, not to open my office. I was able to save enough money because my wife and I both worked. We were somewhat fortunate. It can be somewhat difficult to organize although I have friends who played it [hui] and opened their business that way but they also had a little money saved.”

Although there are some benefits from the rotating credit system, people have also been cheated and lost their money. Mrs Nguyen, the former worker in a Vietnamese restaurant, now a supervisor in a computer manufacturing company, still participates in a “hui”. When asked if she ever

lost money, she explains:

“I never really lost any money. I don't participate in large “hui”, only small ones. You know, $30, $50 a month or so. Those that I play with are usually long time friends and wouldn't cheat. I know people who lost money though. Also, I heard from friends that in San Jose, someone just collected thousands of dollars and left. Mrs Pham [her sister-in-law in Texas] also heard of people losing a lot of money. The organizer is usually responsible and accountable for everybody but sometimes, you just don't know.”

In sum, “hui”, the rotating credit system, is sometimes used by Vietnamese refugees to help open small businesses that require little capital. Although this would explain the exponential growth of Vietnamese small businesses, it does not account for larger businesses or firms requiring considerably more capital. Further research is needed in this area.


There are two main sources of labor in the Vietnamese enclave economy. The first involves those workers who are family members, relatives or friends of the owners. Similar to the other Asian immigrant groups, family members are widely used as workers in small, family-owned businesses (Bonacich, Light, and Wong, 1976; Bonacich and Modell, 1980; Min, 1986). This is another part of the Vietnamese culture that has been discussed earlier. The second source involves those with little or no education, without any marketable skills, and usually unable to speak English. Since they are not able to find better jobs outside of this economy, it is more “convenient” for them to work in this enclave economy. These two groups often overlap and are not easily distinguishable. Some of the workers from both groups are too

old to learn new skills or try new occupations and are therefore only left with the option of working within this enclave economy. Others are uneducated and not aware of other opportunities outside of the enclave economy. (it is doubtful in any event that they could obtain better jobs elsewhere.) This is not only with respect to higher wages and better working conditions, it is also with respect to other benefits that are not measured in monetary values. A significant part of this labor force consists of workers who have just recently entered the United States from refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia and other nations, and chose to relocate in this enclave economy because of the support that it offers. These workers are usally paid low wages, work long hours without many benefits: they are exploited by the owners for their cheap labor. Despite this treatment, most choose to stay and work for them.


The third and final element needed for an enclave economy is a market. With the largest population of Vietnamese in California, this enclave economy has a substantial market from which to draw customers. Many Vietnamese who live relatively far away are willing to travel the distance to have “a taste of home”. It is also an area where people can shop for their traditional goods, taste authentic Vietnamese food, socialize with other Vietnamese, use the services and enjoy the mutual support system that is there.

These three elements create the possibility of forming an ethnic enclave economy. But for such an economy to exist and thrive, something must hold

it together as a cohesive unit. The cohesion is provided by the symbiotic relationship between the workers and the owners, in which both parties benefit. Although the workers are being exploited with respect to their wages and working conditions, there are nonetheless tangible benefits that cannot be measured in terms of monetary values. These benefits include the job itself, along with certain “securities” that come with it, such as the opportunity to live in a Vietnamese community that they are familiar with; an opportunity to socialize, develop social ties, and perhaps find a chance to meet one's mate; friendship with other Vietnamese; the usage of the mutual support system, the convenience of communicating in the same language and be able to express themselves; and finally, the confortableness of being at “home”. The fear and uncertainty of a new and strange land is thereby greatly reduced. These benefits and securities that workers working in this enclave economy have that cannot be measured in monetary values nor observe through usual data collection methods, except for personal, in-depth interviews.

What benefits do owners obtain in this relationship? First of all, they receive a cheap source of labor, thereby enhancing their profits. Secondly, they also enjoy the personal freedom of being their own boss and not having to work for someone else under a structured setting. Again, Mr. Dao elaborates:

“I am my own boss. I can go to work whenever I want to. Except for a few things which have deadlines and are at times pressing, I can go in at any time. Of course, I have to work and find new clients in order to survive but I have built a core group of clientele that keeps me busy. I don't have to work for anyone else, it's more pleasant and less stressful. I no longer have to show up

at a definite time everyday. I don't have to do this and that for other people.”

But the owners can achieve both of these benefits outside of the ethnic enclave economy. However, as a result of the lack of oppotunities for employment in the general labor market, the owners adapted to the structural conditions by creating a niche to fill in this ethnic enclave. Therefore, perhaps the third and more crucial benefit resulting from this adaptation process is the social status that they are given in the community. They are considered as the leaders of and for the community, where they are well-respected and well-liked.




In summary, the formation of the Vietnamese ethnic community occured as an economic, social and cultural adaptation strategy resulting from (a) the structural and social barriers that existed in the United States at the time of their arrival in 1975, and (b) their cutural characteristics. This community acts as a ethnic enclave where people can interact and continue the mutual support system as well as the extended family network that was prominent in their homeland.

The community and ethnic enclave also serve as a place of refuge for the new refugees to feel more comfortable and at home. Furthermore, this community and ethnic enclave serve as a place for cultural preservation where Vietnamese can bring their children to share their proud cultural heritage and pass it on to the next generation.

Finally, there was no indication that this enclave economy serves as a “stepping-stone” for people to move into the primary labor market. On the contrary, it acts as a place where first generation immigrants, especially those who are less educated and non-English speaking, can find jobs. The jobs are not as well paid as those in the primary market but there are some benefits that cannot be measured in quantitative scales. Although the workers inside this enclave economy are not “better off” than those in the secondary and certainly the primary labor market, the intangible benefits are more important than the monetary gains.



This thesis is only an exploratory study of the Vietnamese community in Orange County, California. As such, the study is meant to set a solid foundation and initial ground work for further research. The findings presented therefore, are work-in-progress.

Although the thesis covered a wide range of topics, the coverage was complete in some while relatively incomplete in others. This is inevitable since a community study cannot be accomplished within the limited framework of a Master thesis. However, there were a number of important sociological questions that were analyzed, with still many more that require further research.

At least two research questions come to mind immediately. First, what are the processes by which this new Vietnamese community will perpetuate and sustain this itself? That is, is the formation of this new community a survival strategy for the first generation of Vietnamese only? Or will the structure of this community change considerably with the coming of age of the next generations and their exposure to the American society at large? And finally, will it continue to exist as an ethnic community like other established ethnic communities in the United States or will it disintegrate?

Second, what is the role of the workers and the bosses in the Vietnamese ethnic enclave? In other words, is this strategy an alternative to entering the secondary labor market as Portes et al. suggested? Or, is this ethnic labor

enclave only benefiting the bosses, and therefore only an extension of the secondary labor market, as argued by Mar, and Nee and Sanders?

Many other sociological questions have emerged since this research began and no doubts many more will follow. The answers will only be obtained with further research. As a result, I will frame these issues and study some of the questions as my dissertation topic.



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About this text
Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives. The UC Irvine Libraries, Main Library 5th Floor, PO Box 19557, Irvine, CA 92623-9557;
Title: The formation of a new refugee community : the Vietnamese community in Orange County, California
By:  Do, Hien Duc, Author
Date: 1988
Contributing Institution: Special Collections and Archives. The UC Irvine Libraries, Main Library 5th Floor, PO Box 19557, Irvine, CA 92623-9557;
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Do, Hien Duc