In a city with the largest Vietnamese population in the nation, Vietnamese Americans are still struggling to find their voices in politics.
The lack—and loss—of Vietnamese representation in San Jose politics is the result of a number of factors, community leaders say, including an inherited distrust in politics and a generational and ideological division in the community.
“This has been a longtime problem,” said David Duong, chairman of the Vietnamese American Business Association in San Jose. “It’s so dividing within the community, when we need to stand together.”
San Jose, the most populous city in the Bay Area, has seen a dramatic surge in the Vietnamese population for the last four decades, becoming one of California’s Vietnamese enclaves. The surge began in 1980 when some of the thousands of refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon saw opportunities in the warm weather and high-tech jobs of Silicon Valley.
San Jose is home to more than 180,000 Vietnamese residents, making up more than 10% of the city population. Grand Century Mall, the largest Vietnamese shopping center in the area that sits at the entrance of Little Saigon, is home to more than 100 small businesses.
Still, the history of Vietnamese representation in San Jose is short. The city elected its first Vietnamese American councilmember, Madison Nguyen, in 2005. Since then, San Jose has only had four councilmembers of Vietnamese descent.
Three served only one term in City Hall, the most recent being Lan Diep, who lost his District 4 election last year to Berryessa Union School District board member David Cohen.
After a tumultuous year in which the nation faced a racial reckoning, lived through a pandemic that disproportionately hurt communities of color and saw Vietnamese flags fly at the U.S. Capitol during a riot on Jan. 6, some residents see this moment as a tipping point for San Jose’s Vietnamese community.
“After Trump, (the community’s) way of engaging with politics changed, and they definitely had more conversations about what was going on,” said Christina Johnson, secretary of the Vietnamese American Roundtable who grew up in East San Jose. “Especially once we saw our flags on Jan. 6, that was a pivotal moment in our community.”
‘Stay away from politics’
Philip Nguyen, an Asian American Studies lecturer at San Francisco State University and local community organizer, said he grew up with his parents telling him to stay away from politics.
“My parents were refugees… and because we came from this history of division, family division, country division, etc., they shied away from what politics really meant,” Nguyen said. “There’s this fear of the word ‘chính trị,’ of being involved in the political processes and advocating for oneself and for one’s communities.”
The war in Vietnam pushed almost a million Vietnamese people overseas and killed millions more, and Nguyen said the conflict still haunts the minds of the diaspora of refugees, who might not have the space in the U.S. to process the trauma they went through. He added that the sentiment is then passed on to the younger generation here, deterring them from civic engagement.
“Their understanding of Vietnamese political identity as it was shaped by their parents is when you play with politics, you end up dead or you end up lost at sea, or you never make it,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen, who also serves as president of the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations and program manager for the Vietnamese American Roundtable, is working to change that.
“It’s a matter of destigmatizing this term ‘political,'” he said. “We need to understand ‘political’ in the way that we see ourselves amongst community and as we see a collective goal for one another.”
While younger Vietnamese residents in San Jose such as Johnson and Nguyen have strong progressive values, many older residents still hold anti-communist sentiments. To be labeled a communist is like having “a scarlet letter on you,” Johnson said.
After Madison Nguyen made history as the first Vietnamese American to hold political office in the city, the once “golden child” of San Jose’s Vietnamese community was accused of being a traitor and communist sympathizer over a controversy of not naming a retail center “Little Saigon.”
Duong said he also faced backlash in San Jose for investing his company in Vietnam.
Political tensions eased under the Obama administration as “he did help unite a lot of folks,” Johnson said. But the division widened as the anti-communist sentiment reignited during former President Donald Trump’s time in office, she added.
While Trump is no longer in office, “those beliefs and those ideals are still there, and they’re simmering in the background,” Johnson said, adding that the test for the next few years is whether the Vietnamese community is ready to unpack and challenge those beliefs.
A generational division is also apparent in San Jose’s Vietnamese community. Johnson said when her mother arrived in California, like many other refugees, she “kept her head down, focused on her work and tried to provide as best as she can.”
“Talking about the Vietnamese American community broadly and understanding what we need to do for the community is a generational shift from just being Vietnamese people living in the same place,” Philip Nguyen said. “There was a time where not all skin folk were kinfolk, where some people felt as though they were betrayed by their countrymen, by their brothers, sisters, families.”
Despite the divisions, community leaders say representation still matters.
“The only way that we’re able to get equity is (when) we have a seat at the table,” Johnson said.
But representation can ring hollow if the representatives don’t understand the needs of the community. Duong said he called the city and talked to a Vietnamese-speaking official during the pandemic to seek help for small Vietnamese businesses.
“He couldn’t answer one question I had,” Duong said. “I’m looking for leaders who would take care of the whole community and who would reach out to us.”
The Vietnamese American Roundtable is working to get more local Vietnamese youth involved in the community and civically engaged.
“We’re trying to build a leadership pipeline,” Johnson said. “This is our way of making sure that our community is represented and that the next generation of leaders are ready and are thinking about these things critically.”