The highlight of this year’s Little Saigon Tet Parade in Westminster was not the procession of local politicians in cars emblazoned with campaign signs – or the fact that 2022, the Year of the Tiger, marked a return to in-person festivities for the first time in two years filled with local political turmoil and anti-Asian racism.
It was the energetic turnout by a community that mostly came masked up, minding the public health risks of a large gathering on the heels of Orange County’s fourth COVID-19 wave.
And the perfect weather.
Clear skies and morning sunlight enhanced the colors of Bolsa Avenue on Saturday and offered a glimmer of hope for the Lunar New Year, known by Vietnamese people as Tet. Ao dais (traditional Vietnamese garments) and balloons danced in the wind and among a crowd of roughly 10,000 – per Westminster police estimates – which gathered by the Asian Garden Mall as early as 8 a.m. for a parade that started around 11 a.m.
A COVID-driven shortage in trained, local police volunteers usually on hand to work the annual event’s security meant mostly privately-hired crowd control had to keep sidewalk-bound onlookers from spilling onto the street.
But many found a vantage point from wherever they pleased.
Orders for people to return to the sidewalk were heeded by some but waved off by others, uninterested at the prospect of losing their view of the passing floats. Some watched from the center median dividing the avenue, where police officers stood.
In the time between floats, treat-fueled children provided an amusing side spectacle for onlookers as parents worked to keep kids behind yellow tape – at times to no avail.
The event saw no shortage of Vietnamese American pride throughout a procession marked by floats carrying South Vietnamese war veterans and a few from the U.S. military, which occupied and fought in the Southeast Asian country for as many as 20 years.
The tiger – which is also tied to the years 2010, 1998, 1986 and 1974 – also had symbolic meaning during the war. For instance, Army of the Republic of Vietnam commandos known as the Vietnamese Rangers, or Biệt Động Quân, wore a snarling black tiger on their helmets in combat.
One float during the parade commemorated the Second Battle of Quảng Trị in 1972, an event of historical significance for the South Vietnamese who retook the area from the north toward the end of the war, as U.S. involvement declined. The historical event is now fueling another battle of sorts in Westminster, over whether residents really want their local politicians building more war memorials on public spaces in town.
Politicians on Parade
For a bulk of the parade on Saturday, local Orange County politicians led cars that flashed their names and carried their families down Bolsa Avenue.
Among the participating local elected officeholders, many of whom are up for reelection this year, were Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, State Senator Tom Umberg, State Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen, and members of the politically-disarrayed Westminster City Council.
The central Little Saigon city’s five elected leaders – Westminster council members Kimberly Ho, Tai Do, Carlos Manzo, Charlie Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta – were all smiles Saturday, a stark contrast to a typical Wednesday night council meeting in town.
Little Saigon’s representative congress member, Michelle Steel, also walked the parade, introduced by announcers as a fighter of taxes and communists.
Nguyen and Do also had their campaign teams pass out countless balloons with their names on them to visitors around Bolsa Avenue throughout the day, and their names were everywhere by the time the parade kicked off.
The parade’s organizing process itself has been politicized in recent years. Phat Bui, a Garden Grove councilmember and longtime organizer of the event through his group, the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, has long been an outspoken critic of Westminster Mayor Ta. This rivalry split the parade into two competing events in 2020.
Yet this year, Bui’s parade was the singular event activating the heart of Little Saigon.
Ta, meanwhile, was an avid participant on Saturday, handing out red envelopes full of money to lines of youngsters along Bolsa – a traditional gift and much-anticipated sight during Lunar New Year celebrations. Other adults walking the parade handed out plain cash.
While a political display for some, the parade was a community showcase at its peak.
Students, dancers and marching bands from the Anaheim Union High and Westminster school districts put their school spirit on full display.
The parade also featured floats representing a number of Little Saigon’s local businesses, ranging from restaurants to beauty schools.
One participant of note was the Viet Rainbow of Orange County (VROC), whose inclusion in the Tet Parade wasn’t always a guarantee. The group, which advocates for LGBTQ+ Vietnamese people, was excluded from the parade in 2013. After public advocacy, the group was included the following year and has been every year since.
“As most folks may know, our presence here is an advocated presence,” said My Hoang Nguyen, who is the program manager for VROC, minutes after the parade ended. “We view it as a need to be visible because we want to remind everyone in our Vietnamese community that there are LGBTQ folks who are Vietnamese and that acceptance can happen.”
Newcomers Enjoy the Festivities
It was the first Tet parade for Orange County newcomer Anh Minh, a transplant from Seattle to Huntington Beach, and her family.
Minh said attendance is important for younger Vietnamese generations overseas like her son, who tugged her sleeve Saturday morning on the sidewalk of Bolsa Avenue.
“I think in America, as you get older, you need to understand your culture so I think it’s very important that they maintain it,” Minh said of Vietnamese people born outside their home country. “It’s their one connection.”
Minh noted that many Vietnamese Americans come to Orange County from other states, “just to experience” this connection.
One such person was Jen Le, a college student visiting with family and friends from Hawaii, who said it’s also her first Tet parade in Orange County’s Little Saigon.
“My parents are immigrants. So they just wanted to experience it. Orange County has such a strong Vietnamese community so we just want to see what it’s like,” Le said, her friends standing at each side. “We’ve never experienced this before.”
Elsewhere in Orange County, the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations held its 40th annual Tet Festival at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa. The festival took place Saturday and Sunday and featured live music and entertainment, a traditional Vietnamese cultural village, the Miss Vietnam of Southern California pageant, modern talent competitions and a pho eating contest.
Lunar New Year is an important holiday not just for Vietnamese; it’s celebrated by many other Asian cultures, including Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, Mongolian and Singaporean.
The Segerstrom Center for the Arts offered performances by Asian and Asian American musicians Saturday, as well as by local music and dance groups, including the Chinese Dance Company of Southern California. The Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall lobby and Argyros Plaza were decorated with floating lanterns and hosted outdoor performances.
In Santa Ana, the Bowers Museum held a virtual Lunar New Year on Sunday that included lion dancing and festive art projects. The event was shifted online because of the COVID pandemic.
In San Clemente, Casa Romantica hosted its first-ever Lunar New Year celebration with performances, arts and crafts and a scavenger hunt.
In Fountain Valley, the OC Tet Festival took over a big chunk of Miles Square Park. The festival — sponsored by O.C. Supervisor Do, county health agency CalOptima and OC Parks — started Friday evening at 5 p.m. and continued through Sunday night.
The OC Tet Festival featured live performances, a firecracker ceremony, a Vietnamese village setting, lion dances, carnival rides and games, Vietnamese food vendors and booths occupied by local businesses.
Thousands of attendees came dressed in traditional ao dai outfits, and most wore masks.
“It’s important to continue the tradition of celebrating Lunar New Year, and it’s just kind of nice for us to be able to get together for something like this, because not everyone gets to do it like this,” said Erika Nguyen, 23, of Stanton. She brought two of her friends to the festival on Sunday.
“My friends know the traditions and everything,” she said. “This is our first time coming out together like this. Honestly, it’s a lot bigger than I imagined.”
Tanya Huong Tho of Santa Ana and Quoc Binh of Irvine served as emcees for the entertainment onstage, which included singers, Vietnamese American rock bands, fashion shows and a couple of dance troupes.
“It’s great — you see all the Vietnamese traditional dress. You don’t see that every day,” said Binh, a regional hospital coder for Kaiser Permanente. “And you see the Americans wear that too.”
Throughout the OC Tet Festival, attendees listened to performances, strolled around, played games for stuffed animals, and posed on old motorcycles and scooters or in front of flowers or photographs of Vietnamese temples and buildings in the traditional village setting.
Christina Luong, 25, of Anaheim, said Tet is an important tradition for the Vietnamese community in Southern California.
“We celebrate it every year, more than American new year,” said Luong, a graduate of Cal State Fullerton.
Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.