A crowd of people walks outside at a Lunar New Year festival in San Jose.
Scores of Vietnamese Americans attended the Tết festival at History Park in San Jose on Feb. 3, 2024. Photo by Brandon Pho.

Scores of people in colorful dress basked in the light of lanterns of San Jose’s History Park, as fragrant white smoke from grilled pork skewers scented the air in celebration of the Lunar New Year, also known as Tết.

The Year of the Dragon might bring greater representation to residents with the potential election of Santa Clara County’s first Vietnamese American supervisor, as attendees were encouraged to register to vote at the event. The multiple celebrations this month are an opportunity for voters to meet candidates and learn about their political leanings, along with local officials. The Vietnamese American Roundtable organized Saturday’s festival.

While residents are aware of two Vietnamese American frontrunners in the race for Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors District 2, some remain unfamiliar with the faces behind the names, as well as the other candidates in the contest. District 2 spans East San Jose and covers parts of downtown.

Children kick a soccer ball at History Park in San Jose on Feb. 3, 2024  for the annual Tết festival. Photo by Brandon Pho.

Grace Sullivan, a Filipino American county election worker, sat at a voter registration booth on Saturday and spoke with about 30 people. Sullivan said she still needs to study the local candidates and ballot measures more deeply, but the No. 1 issue for her is homelessness.

“Also the rising cost of rent, housing,” Sullivan told San José Spotlight, “and an issue I just recently experienced, the high cost of PG&E utility bills.”

University of California, Davis student Tiffany Nguyen helped community members share calligraphy art during Saturday’s festival at History Park. Photo by Brandon Pho.

University of California, Davis student and East San Jose native Tiffany Nguyen said her top issue is public health. She said there is a language barrier for residents, especially the elderly, when it comes to receiving and understanding a medical diagnosis and other information.

The county’s Vietnamese community for years has struggled with political representation amid intergenerational gaps, language barriers and ideological differences. But events such as Tết offer a key opportunity for local policymakers and community leaders to reach people where they’re at.

Mai Luu, a San Jose family law and immigration attorney, attended the festival with her family and their dog Moka. Photo by Brandon Pho.

Public safety is top of mind for immigration and family law attorney Mai Luu, a San Jose resident living in the Rose Garden neighborhood with her husband and son. She and her family frequent Vietnam Town and East San Jose to shop. She said many of the mom and pop businesses end up on the news because of break-ins.

“I definitely feel for business owners and vendors. They really need important leadership and a liaison to the city, to the county and to law enforcement,” Luu told San josé Spotlight. “Where is this crime coming from? Where is this wave coming from? There are deeper roots to look into.”

San Jose resident and UCLA student Cindy Nguyen was Miss Vietnam California for 2022. Photo by Brandon Pho.

One of the stars of Saturday was San Jose resident and UCLA student Cindy Nguyen — Miss Vietnam California for 2022.

Wearing her official sash and red áo dài dress, Nguyen said the historic supervisor election year, as well as its potential to split Little Saigon along ideological and generational lines, wasn’t lost on her.

But she’s connected to the community in other ways.

Nguyen said she met numerous Vietnamese clients while volunteering at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley, and the experience helped her recognize the need for culturally-appropriate access to food.

“Right now food banks are giving boxes of produce that some members of the community don’t necessarily use,” she told San José Spotlight. “Statistically speaking, the Vietnamese community faces the highest percentage of food insecurity within the larger Asian American community.”

Supervisor candidate Madison Nguyen was at Di Lac Temple on Saturday for a different festival.

“Vietnamese residents generally know there are two Vietnamese candidates in the supervisor race. That much they’re aware. But in terms of the total number of candidates and those other candidates’ names? Not so much,” she told San José Spotlight. “I would say that the two biggest issues that were on people’s minds, at least when they came up and talked to me, were the cost of housing and homelessness.”

But she and fellow competitor Betty Duong both said these celebrations are not the time for campaigning.

“I was there at History Park, truly, as a member of the community, celebrating with my friends — a lot of the organizers are my childhood friends. And a lot of the vendors in the booths are people that I’ve already known from the community,” Duong told San José Spotlight. “So it was just a really great time to be with my neighbors.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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