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Members of the local Vietnamese and Asian American communities celebrated the Lunar New Year, or Year of the Rat, over the weekend.
But Jan. 25 and 26, 2020 will forever go down in Orange County as the year of the dueling Tet parades.
In Westminster on Saturday, thousands of people walked down Bolsa Avenue between Magnolia and Bushard streets, wearing ao dai— colorful, traditional Vietnamese garments — waving to the crowd, playing musical instruments and greeting each other with “happy new year!” in Vietnamese and English.
In Garden Grove on Sunday, hundreds of people strolled down Westminster Boulevard between Brookhurst and Euclid streets, marching with classmates or fellow veterans, riding in convertibles and military jeeps, waving to onlookers and also wearing colorful ao dai. They also greeted each other with wishes of “happy new year!”
There was even a third Tet parade in Costa Mesa on Saturday. But that was part of the annual Tet Festival at the OC Fairgrounds, and that’s been going on for 39 years.
“Every year, we used to do it over there (in Westminster),” said Richard Tan, a dental technician who lives in Garden Grove. “But this year, the group decided to come over here (to Garden Grove). I don’t know why.”
Tan, 65, is part of a club that rides motorcycles called V-HOG, or Vietnamese Harley Owners Group. Tan didn’t know the exact reasons for riding on Sunday in Garden Grove instead of Saturday in Westminster. He just followed his fellow riders.
Tan and his son Andy were like a majority of attendees at both parades — they didn’t know the precise reasons for the split. For them, the parade and Tet are an occasion to get together, spend time with family and friends, exchange gifts (especially red envelopes filled with money), celebrate the new year and practice time-honored traditions.
But a minority of parade participants did seem to know that there was something brewing behind the scenes.
“There’s a lot of politics going on,” said Ricky Pham, a liaison for the Anaheim Union School District who works with high school kids and various local Vietnamese communities. “It’s all about politics.”
The parade in Westminster is officially called the Little Saigon Westminster Tet Parade. More people are familiar with the Bolsa route and Saturday schedule, which had been going on for seven years. It was a bonus that the Westminster celebration actually landed on Jan. 25, the official Lunar New Year. Organizers estimated that about 70,000 attended this year’s Little Saigon Westminster Tet Parade.
The new parade in Garden Grove is called the Little Saigon Tet Parade. That parade is hosted by the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, although both parades claim ties to the group.
The chairman of the Garden Grove Tet parade is Phat Bui, while the Little Saigon Westminster Tet Parade changed hands a couple of times before it wound up in the purview of an executive committee of seven members.
Lan Quoc Nguyen is chairman of the Little Saigon Westminster Tet Parade. David Vo is co-chairman, and Alan Vo Ford is treasurer.
The origins of both parades and the political machinations get quite complicated. Essentially, Bui used to head the Westminster Tet Parade, but a vote by Westminster’s City Council forced him out. With all of his connections, Bui, a Garden Grove city councilman, decided to start his own parade in Garden Grove.
“We only had two months to do it, but here we are!” he announced gleefully to the crowd at Sunday’s Tet parade. While participants had to wait more than an hour for the parade to get underway Sunday, spirits were high and the mood on the announcer’s podium was positive, loud and joyful. More than 1,000 people participated in the parade, including school marching bands, color guards, Vietnam veterans’ organizations, area politicians and private businesses. Hundreds more lined the blocked-off street.
“This is a great celebration,” said Stephen Cooper, vice president and Vietnamese community liaison for Chapter 756 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. “I love coming to Little Saigon. You see the most beautiful dresses in the world. You know, Vietnam veterans were not always welcomed back with open arms. But the Vietnamese accept us very well.
“I love seeing the children — they don’t have fear in their eyes,” said Cooper, 74. “They’re proud, and I’m proud.”
A Community Coming Into Its Own
Little Saigon is home to the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, more than 200,000 Vietnamese live in Orange County, and 600,000 Asian Americans reside in the county.
Forty percent of Westminster’s population is Vietnamese, while close to 30% of Garden Grove’s population is Vietnamese American, according to the census. Garden Grove actually has a larger total number of Vietnamese, according to census figures.
While many Americans just experienced the end of the holiday season, for Vietnamese Americans, the true holidays are just beginning.
“The Tet parade, the Tet holiday is the No. 1 in Vietnamese culture,” said Pham, an Anaheim resident. “In America, Christmas is No. 1. In Vietnam, the Lunar New Year is No. 1. So the parade is a chance for the community to combine together. All the community enjoys coming back together.”
This year, the Little Saigon Westminster Tet Parade spent about $115,000 organizing its gathering, with about $70,000 going to the city of Westminster for police, security and public works (such as setting and cleaning up), according to treasurer Ford.
The Westminster parade featured 14 floats and 65 organizations.
Figures for the Little Saigon Tet Parade in Garden Grove were not immediately available. Bui did not respond to multiple phone calls and text messages from the Voice of OC.
Participants in the Garden Grove parade included a number of schools from the Anaheim Union High School District, the Vietnamese Aerospace Peer Association, members of the political group Viet Tan, supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, representatives from Census 2020, and lots of local politicians.
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido rode in a vehicle, as did Mayor Pro Tem Juan Villegas, and council members Vicente Sarmiento, David Penaloza, Jose Solorio and Phil Bacerra.
Westminster city council members Tai Do and Sergio Contreras were also present, as was the clerk-recorder for Orange County, Hugh Nguyen.
For an organization that wanted to avoid politics for a day and embrace unity (this year’s theme), it sure was a political showcase.
Suzie Xuyen Dong of Orange marched with the international political group Viet Tan, which promotes people power and opposes dictatorship. Members and supporters of Viet Tan held up blue Viet Tan flags with white petaled flowers in the middle, as well as yellow South Vietnamese flags.
Dong said she participated in both O.C. Tet parades over the weekend. She walked with the LGBTQ group Viet Rainbow of Orange County in Westminster on Saturday.
“I walked with them to support them,” she said. “I like diversity. The more the merrier.”
Dong said there’s room enough for both Tet parades in Orange County. And judging by the robust turnout for both, she’s probably right.
Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at email@example.com.