For the first time in two years, scores of people will gather in Orange County’s Little Saigon this Saturday for an in-person Tet Parade, marking the Lunar New Year widely celebrated by people of various Asian descent. 

And unlike 2020, which saw two dueling Tet Parades born out of political, community in-fighting, this year marks the return to a singular event activating the heart of Little Saigon. For a full list of Lunar New Year festivities in Orange County this week, click here.

The parade, like other in-person festivities scheduled for this weekend in Orange County, also comes on the heels of this winter’s fourth COVID-19 wave, driven by the virus’ Omicron variant. 

Westminster Community Services Director Vanessa Johnson said parade organizers under Garden Grove City Councilmember Phat Bui are taking health safety precautions above what state guidelines are for large outdoor events.

“They have indicated they will go above and beyond and ask all parade participants to be vaccinated. They are having testing stations, so if people want to be tested they can do so. And I believe they are checking vaccination cards and requiring negative tests for the VIP area,” Johnson said in a Thursday phone interview.

Requests for comment to Bui went unreturned Thursday.

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The in-person nature of festivities this year has prompted words of caution by local public health officials working to manage the spread of the virus in Orange County, though the current wave is falling. 

If “you are closer to individuals and there’s a lot of shouting or singing or coughing, maybe you wanna wear your mask outdoors.”

Orange County’s Deputy Public Health Officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, in response to questions about Tet festivities during a Jan. 26 news briefing

Public health experts have said the chance of spreading COVID-19 generally decreases outdoors; but the likelihood isn’t zero, especially with large crowd sizes.

Despite public health concerns, in-person new year events are a much-needed opportunity to culturally connect after a pandemic marked by anti-Asian racism and local political turmoil, say Vietnamese American community leaders looking toward attending the parade.

[Read: Orange County Grapples With Wave of Hate Toward Asian Americans Over Coronavirus]

The circumstance is “a tough one because obviously we’re in the middle of a pandemic and there are outbreaks in specific areas of the county,” said Garden Grove Councilmember Kim Nguyen in a Jan. 27 phone interview. 

“But Tet is also the largest holiday for the Vietnamese community and we haven’t been able to celebrate in two years,” Nguyen added. “Coming off the last year, especially around the violent attacks on the AAPI community, I’m hoping this is something we can do safely and it can be an event that reminds us of our community values and traditions and be together in solidarity.”

The event re-contextualizes the role of a public official in a community like Little Saigon, said Thai Viet Phan, Santa Ana’s first Vietnamese American council member and the first Asian American woman on the city government panel overseeing the heart of the county.

“As public officials, our job isn’t just to deal with emergencies or immediate policies but also to create a sense of purpose and a future that’s better for the community,” Phan said in a Tuesday phone interview. “These events are healing, fun, and frankly give us all a sense of hope.”

It’s also a chance for economic respite, Phan said. 

“We all know that a lot of folks in the Vietnamese American community are in the service industry – hair, nail, restaurants – and they’re the most impacted by COVID. So to have these events and get people out in that atmosphere is something where we feel like, ‘Okay, this is Little Saigon.’”

For younger Vietnamese Americans like Tracy La, an organizer of the Vietnamese immigrant advocacy group VietRISE, the in-person festivities this year “are significant for us because we have to maintain our connection to our culture.”

Unlike older generations of Vietnamese Americans who fled to the U.S. from Vietnam after the war, the events are – for later generations born in the U.S. – “our one connection” to a home country overseas, La said. 

La added she wants to see future parades be more community-driven, as opposed to an event that, currently, she said, serves more like a “photo-op” for Little Saigon politicians and a “proxy war” between rival factions struggling to maintain political power in the community. 

Such rivalry came to split the community event into two different parades in 2020. 

[Read: Dueling Tet Parades in Little Saigon Still Lead to Happiness]

Since then, political turmoil and divide between sparring factions in Little Saigon have only worsened — especially on civic affairs in Westminster — around plans for new Vietnam War memorials in town and the role of the mayor at City Hall, among other issues.

[Read: Westminster Officials Call for More Probes into Alleged City Hall Impropriety]

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During a tense 2019 Westminster City Council meeting, a majority faction voting bloc under Mayor Tri Ta Council voted to take control of the parade away from Bui’s group, which had organized the event since 2013, the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California.

Bui has been outspoken in his criticism of Ta and those in the community aligned with him. 

Thus, the council majority that year instead gave organizational duties to a group more supportive of their camp. 

The issue dragged the 2019 meeting past midnight. 

All the while, nearly 70 public speakers and two rallies outside the chambers earlier that day pressed the council on other issues facing the Vietnamese American community, calling for rent control across the city’s 17 mobile home parks and criticizing the city’s stance against sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants.

“We went to the council meeting to talk about immigration — yet a majority of that meeting ended up being a fight between council members on the dais,” La said, adding the parade “took up the majority of what that meeting was about, as opposed to real issues Vietnamese people were trying to raise awareness on.”

La said she finds it interesting – “almost insulting” – that “during election years, politicians and candidates will show up and share their photo ups at our cultural events to show that they ‘care’ about us, but when we go to them to talk about issues Vietnamese people care about like rent control and immigrant rights bills like the VISION act many of them choose to ignore us or say they can’t do anything.”

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The power dynamic on the Westminster council has changed since the last in-person parade, and a new council majority has returned the event to Bui’s hands. 

Though Bui has concerns about the new challenges facing the parade this year, according to a Jan. 28 news article from Nguoi Viet.

Bui said the parade typically relies on security-trained volunteers at the Westminster Police Dept. – volunteers who are no longer available this year due to the pandemic. 

The Garden Grove council member told the Vietnamese news outlet that the organizing team must now pay for private security, something which ups operational costs by thousands of dollars. 

It’s an issue that Westminster’s Acting Community Services Director Vanessa Johnson said has impacted nearly “all events this year.”

The volunteers who usually work the parade are “not just random volunteers,” Johnson said. “They’re trained, they go through background checks, they are in uniform … they’re very well-trained.”

They’re valuable especially to “an event like this,” Johnson said. “Little Saigon is very porous, there are lots of entry points. A lot of work is needed. Those kinds of volunteers are super valuable and it’s a shame they’re not there, to be honest.”

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