Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpDecades before Clarendon became the pub crawl mecca for Arlington twentysomethings, it was home to “Little Saigon.”

Though only a few Vietnamese restaurants remain, many locals recall the era from 1975 through the 1980s when Clarendon – long Arlington’s quasi-downtown —was dramatically altered and dubbed “the Mekong Delta” by the press. (As Arlington absorbed the big migration following the Vietnam War, cynics called Wilson Boulevard “the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”)

Memories of this roll-out-the-welcome-mat chapter in Arlington’s history were shared at Central Library May 8 in a talk the Arlington Historical Society put on to showcase three Arlingtonians touched personally by the Vietnamese arrival.

Kim O’Connell, a freelance writer and preservation advocate whose mother was a Vietnamese war bride, showed photos of Little Saigon’s long-gone mainstays: Café Dalat, Vietnam Center, Saigon Market, Saigon Souvenirs, Queen Bee.

“I recall the sights and smells of the stores my mother shopped in while, as a 9 year old, I sat on a crate with my coloring book,” she said. O’Connell was fond of the Pacific Oriental variety store, which sold food (oh, the fish sauce!) and fabrics while offering billiards and a Vietnamese band called the Uptights.

Why Arlington? Our county became “a household name in Vietnamese refugee camps,” she speculated, because of proximity to the capital and our cosmopolitan population. (Many among 230,000 Vietnamese who came to the states between 1975 and 1980 settled in California, Texas and Indiantown Gap, Pa.)

As mixed luck would have it, Clarendon had fallen into disrepair as streets were torn up for Metro construction, driving away Mom and Pop businesses, O’Connell said. “As the county struggled to achieve what newspapers called revitalization through Metro, the timing was perfect—landlords needed tenants, and the Vietnamese needed low rents.”

They arrived in two waves – in 1975 when the Communists took over, and in 1978 with boat people fleeing oppression.

“You had to have someone vouch for your financial viability or have a sponsor,” O’Connell explained.” Complaints about the burdens of taking in the Vietnamese were common in letters to the editor—a Gallup Poll in 1975 showed 54 percent against it.

But Arlington set up an immigrant integration center at Page School (now Science Focus) and began staffing Vietnamese language speakers. To the night’s two other panelists, the payoff was immeasurable.

Anhthu Lu, 16 when she left Vietnam in a boat in 1975, recalls being scared at speaking no English. Students in her Fairfax schools were not friendly, and she was “last picked for the teams,” she said. She’ll never forget the delicious taste of her first hot dog. Recalling one Christmas when the only family present was a Barbie doll, she now gives toys yearly to the Salvation Army. That special “meeting place” on Wilson Boulevard was “like Fifth Avenue in New York.”

Thien Huong, raised in Vietnam in a house with a pool, left abruptly in a cargo plane. She felt welcomed by her teachers in the ESOL program at Key Elementary and Swanson Middle School. Her family survived on housing grants, said Huong, now in information technology at Deloitte. “I happily pay taxes now because we received so much.”

Little Saigon dispersed beginning in 1982 after landlords raised rents by 30 percent, many businesses ending up in Falls Church’s Eden Center. O’Connell hopes to persuade Arlington to erect an historical marker.

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The “busty mermaid,” the nationally publicized fantasy lady carved from a front-yard tree on Lee Highway in 2004, bit the dust on April 30, the victim of ants. Owner Paul Jackson told me he called in the chainsaws because “she was just getting old, and I didn’t want to get on her anymore.” A dozen neighbors thanked him for her great 10-year life.