Little Saigon Asks the Mayor to Walk The Talk

In Cộng Đồng, Chính trị (Politics), LittleSaigon - Seattle on 2009/08/19 at 13:58

Below is the letter written by the Northwest Neighborhood Activists for Democracy & Social Justice responding to the essay Little Saigon takes a Walk with the Mayor by Quang Nguyen (WaVA Executive Director & International Examiner contributor, International Examiner, Vol. 36, no. 15, August 5-18, 2009, p. 5)

Latest News: Nickels concedes: ‘time for a new generation’

Letter to the International Examiner Editor, International Examiner, September 2nd, 2009 – Volume 36, No. 17

“People in media can help facilitate democracy or participate in its betrayal.” —B.J. Bullert

On July 27th, something happened in Seattle’s Little Saigon that didn’t surprise anyone in the Vietnamese community. On that hot July day, Little Saigon received its ever first official visit [i] by the Mayor of Seattle after two terms—a long eight-year in office. Election year politics played out in this “historic” visit. He was desperately looking for votes. Of course, his Vietnamese associates curried his favors by showing him around to get photo-ops, and jockeying positions as “leaders” playing roles of “representatives” of the Vietnamese community. Desperate time brings desperate measures, none more evident than his showing in the primary results.

International Examiner Photo, August 8 & September 2, 2008

Mayor Greg Nickels, left, meets with Viet Wah grocery store owner Duc Tran, right. International Examiner Photo, August 8 & September 2, 2008

The Mayor down-your-throat push for gentrification of South Seattle as well as the International District, and specifically boxing Little Saigon into a corner had alienated and angered many. The failed Dearborn/Goodwill project is the focal point of contest between the Mayor, City Council of Seattle, Department of Planning and Development, and the Vietnamese at-large in Seattle and vicinities. Many unconcerned Vietnamese residents of Seattle and vicinities woke up alerting to the fact that their cultural and public space in Little Saigon was under threat of being overwhelmed by the out-of-scale, out-of-character urban regional mall to be built at the Goodwill site. This event has further enhanced the political awareness and involvement of the Vietnamese American community in the greater Seattle Area.

In the 30-plus years since Vietnamese refugees first settled in this area, politics and political involvement in this community have always been about exile, ethnic identity, human rights, and anti-oppression (anti-Communism included). Communism as a political system is dead, thrown in the trash bin of history since the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Communism became a relic banner, an empty shell for oppressive and dictatorship regimes existed in Vietnam and China. The corrupted, oppressive, mafia-liked Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has ruled and exploited its people and resources for the benefits of their own gang. Vietnamese refugees have been and will continue to fight for freedom and democracy of their motherland, and simultaneously, they will fight for social justices and equality in a civil society at their local level.

The gentrification struggle started in the year 2000 with small business owners along the Rainier Valley’s MLK Jr. Way organizing to voice their concerns about the impacts of the light rail construction on their livelihoods. That effort was key in sparking the creation of the $50 million Rainier Valley Community Development Fund. Where did the money go? Who benefits? The cronies of the Mayor or the real people who were impacted by this construction? [ii]

The community began to mobilize once again around the issue of the Goodwill/Dearborn Street development in 2005, but eventually was hijacked and coopted [iii] by WaVA (Washington Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce)–previously named as VAEDA (Vietnamese-American Economic and Development Association) when involving in the light rail construction project. This campaign was waged behind the back of the Vietnamese community without inputs, without transparency, without accountability, and worse, with disrespect toward the spirit of the community at-large.

WaVA tacitly “represented” the Vietnamese voice in a coalition of groups and organizations outside the Vietnamese-American community. The combined effort of this coalition resulted in a Community Benefits Agreement in secret meetings. This agreement favors the developer, the unions, the so-called “progressive” work that Sage labeled as “affordable” housing guarantees. It provided little tangible benefits to support Little Saigon’s business district and the political identity of the community at large.

On April 24th, 2009, the Ravenhurst developer officially cancelled The Dearborn Street development partially due to the current recession, and partially due to many deficiencies in their rezone request and the EIS (Environment Impact Study) Design Review which might not be accepted by the city council. The possibility for this super regional mall to be approved by the council members was therefore slim chance.

At the same time, a series of meeting from the opposing groups (who did not agree with the Community Benefits Agreement, did not go along with the token representatives, and/or were pro-environmental concerns) with all City Council Members (except Jan Drago) before the Street Vacation Process added more political pressure to fail this big box mall project. In other words, the awareness of Vietnamese community regarding political intricacies and maneuvers on this project inevitably constituted a solid platform for more engagement by the Vietnamese American community in the future. Just like the Vietnamese community in the city of New Orleans or San Jose.

Without doubt, this spirit is an instilled cultural characteristic strongly grounded in Vietnamese history for its people rallied together to fight injustice and oppression. This character stretches back more than a thousand years with the Vietnamese fighting against the Chinese dynasties (Han, Jin, Tang, Zhou, Song, Ming, Qing) to retain their sovereignty; and it manifested in the 19th and early 20th century, in fighting for independence against the French Colonialists.

As the political discourse [iv] within the Vietnamese-American community always tangled with anti-Communism in the US context and anywhere outside of Vietnam, this multiplied and complicated voice has played and will play an important movement in motivating people participate in the political process. For the first time, issues of cooptation [iii] and implication within and outside the Seattle Vietnamese community are exposed due to the Dearborn/Goodwill Mall project.

Disappointingly, the traction phenomenon, which happens in any engaging community, was used to make excuse and cover up for inequitable land-use and development process. Together with the discourse [iv] of “refugee”—a discourse generally equating with the refugee achievement of American dream, refugees seeking a shelter hence won’t speak up, and they would survive no matter what—this traction signal was schemed to perpetuate non-engagement from the City for real economic development policies with and for all Vietnamese merchants in Little Saigon and South Seattle.

This traction became intense when social service and other non-profit agencies also acted as if they were neutral, and refused to participate in community meetings when receiving activists’ invitation. In addition to suppressing the alert of what causing gentrification–a new form of racism, the commercial ethnic news and mainstream media undeniably engaged in silencing and pathologizing this complicated voice.[ii]

There is little doubt that the Vietnamese American community will become more involved in local, state, and national politics in the near future. The biggest challenge is to charter a participatory and shared leadership instead of the worn-out from-the-top, elitist, neo-liberal, neo-conservative, and internalized colonial leadership.

Mayor Nickels’ visit is like drinking a political kool-aid, artificially sweet with no substance. Little Saigon has asked and will continue to ask the Mayor to walk the talk. Little Saigon asks the Mayor to implement citizen commission recommendations in many of their studies, strategic plans, visions (2010, 2020, 2030) drafted in the last 10 plus years for the International District, South Downtown, rather than pretentiously asking for inputs and putting them on the shelves for posterity.


[i] VietSoul:21’s essay: The Vietnamese ambiguous and confusing socio-political engagements in Seattle (Part II) — Nhập nhằng sinh hoạt cộng đồng người Việt TB Washington (2)

[ii] Joe Debro’s newspaper article: Gentrification, the new form of segregation

[iii] Definition of Co-optation:

(a) To take or assume for one’s own use; appropriate:

• co-opted the criticism by embracing it.

(b) To neutralize or win over (an independent minority, for example) through assimilation into an established group or culture:

• co-opt rebels by giving them positions of authority.

[iv] Definition of discourse:

All texts–written and oral–contribute to shared meaning. These texts represent cultural knowledge and are affected by intentional or unintentional uses of power. In addition, the nonverbal patterns are significant as well. For example, according to E. Valentine Daniel, many signs–-gestures (say pity or contempt), structures (e.g. boundaries or ghettos), material things (like visas hay citizenship certificate), silence (e.g. the silence of the media about the fact that urban displacement or gentrification is a new form of racism and segregation), and not least of all, ignorance (regarding such facts, for instance)–are included in building the urban refugee discourse. These signs communicate messages and create a reality that “comes without saying and goes without saying.” Above all, a discourse determines who will speak for what, when, where and to whom (p. 277).

Daniel, E. V. (2002). Refugee: a discourse on displacement. In J. MacClancy (Ed.), Exotic no more: Anthropology on the front lines (pp. 270-286). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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