Viet-Wah, a local grocery store in Seattle's Little Saigon. [Image: Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

Little Saigon of Seattle: The Survival of Southeast Asian Communities during COVID-19

ASEAN The Mekong Asia

There is no escaping the cost the COVID-19 pandemic has had on many community centers and cultural hubs throughout the United States. Regardless, communities have banded together to support themselves in the face of growing adversity. One story comes from the Little Saigon of Seattle, Washington. Little Saigon of Seattle has grown over 40 years as a hub of cultural and economic opportunity in the Puget Sound area.

Vietnamese Americans are the fourth largest Asian American ethnic group in the United States, composed of just over 2 million individuals according to the 2019 US Census Bureau American Community Survey. A majority came to the United States following the Vietnam War as refugees, which has influenced how they have been treated, especially in occupation and education opportunities. Little Saigons have since emerged throughout the United States, such as those in Orange County and San Jose, California, which are linked by the Xe Đò Hoàng intercity bus service to connect Vietnamese-American communities throughout the coast.

In Washington, there are over 86,000 Vietnamese Americans. In the past two years, newspapers have reported the Little Saigon community has struggled and felt neglected, describing a lack of collective responses to surging violent crime in the area. The Seattle Times Editorial Board described Little Saigon as the “Seattle neighborhood that the government forgot”. However, the bleak opinion this editorial presents is not shared by all members of the community.

The Friends of Little Saigon, seeks to preserve, enhance, and support the Vietnamese cultural hub. The organization was founded in 2011 and has been involved in various projects, including setting up an exhibit on the history of Little Saigon, drafting the Landmark Project to develop a cultural center and public market, and hosting several community outreach events on building new local apartment complexes.

Through hosting events at their space, the Little Saigon Creative, this organization has put its heart into supporting the community. Part of this has been fundraising efforts, such as selling custom sweatshirts with proceeds going towards supporting various small businesses.

This year there has been increased support from the larger Seattle community for such a revitalization. In partnership with The Mission Continues (a veteran-run non-profit focused on serving under-resourced communities throughout the United States) the Friends of Little Saigon began Operation Clean Street’, which recruited 150 volunteers to clean and remove over 2,000 pounds of trash from the streets. Since the street clean, organizers have received many inquiries on future events. Several council members and public officials have also voiced their support. Yet, it is the overwhelming surge in volunteer work, largely those of the AAPI community, which will set the tone for the future of Little Saigon, Seattle.

Ryan Ahn Roden is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is currently a first-year graduate student at American University's School of International Service.