Standing in the chill of nighttime, and right as mass shooting reports were coming in over the wire, Westminster’s city manager looked on at what would become a half-mile stretch of Lunar New Year street crowds in just a matter of hours.

On the other side of Bolsa Avenue stood the culmination of seven weeks’ planning under Christine Cordon’s staff – a time in which some seriously questioned whether City Hall could run the year’s biggest event for one of the largest Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam. 

Critics had their reasons: It had been a decade since the city itself last ran the Little Saigon Tet Parade, one of several local new year events that included festivals in Fountain Valley and the county fairgrounds. The parade’s reins typically rested in private hands, and yet no one but city staff stepped forward for the role late last year.

Around ten years ago, budget constraints made city officials step aside and turn the event over to community foundations, where outrage erupted in 2013 over the exclusion of LGTBQ+ groups. And after ensuing problems with local politicians jockeying for control of it, City Hall leaders were back in the driver’s seat this year.

But could they pull it off?

As many as 15,000 people were believed to have coalesced around Bolsa Avenue in Westminster for the Little Saigon Tet Parade of 2023. Credit: Jacobo Hernández

Overhead political turmoil caused some to bet against a City Hall whose scale of Vietnamese American leadership made electoral history in 2008, but has since wrestled with council in-fighting, thin staffing, and a close call with bankruptcy that threatened public services and programs.

Before a turnover of old executives created vacant desks, some city department leaders today were, just a few years ago, either lower in the ranks or managing different divisions entirely. 

That included Cordon, who previously tallied votes and kept records as the city clerk and said she never expected to end up steering the ship beside her elected bosses – much less be the first Vietnamese American woman to do so.

“I’ve embraced challenges over my career,” said Cordon, who was named city manager in 2021. “But I certainly did not anticipate that.”

Then came another test, as January approached and still no private Tet organizer had materialized by November:

Planning a parade for as many as 15,000 people. 

Adolfo Ozaeta, the city traffic director who these days doubles as assistant city manager, said he lost sleep — in the weeks before the parade — over just one question: Would the community show up to a city-sponsored event, as opposed to one by a community-known figure?

“We had to think, ‘Why should people come out?’ ‘Why should they believe in it, considering the political turmoil that we’ve gone through?’” Ozaeta said in a phone interview, reflecting on a process that involved him and other top staffers appearing on Vietnamese media.

But that was before the night of Jan. 21.

Lunar New Year festivities seep into the nearby Asian Garden Mall, usually a focal point in the area’s yearly occasion, with onlookers in awe. Credit: Jacobo Hernández

A mass shooting at a dance studio near a Lunar New Year festival in Monterey Park took 11 lives — and sent shockwaves through a community in the midst of celebration, as many in town were ringing in the Year of the Rabbit, or the Year of the Cat under the Vietnamese zodiac. 

The next day, shootings in Half Moon Bay took the lives of two Latino and five Chinese farmworkers.

And while 70 groups, floats and marching bands waited to walk that Sunday morning in Westminster, city staff on the ground found themselves fielding hard questions over a town 26 miles away. 

“When I got the alert, I thought, ‘Oh my god,’” Cordon recalled. 

“‘I’m about to run a parade.’”

Details were still unfolding up north, but nearby news crews already wanted to know: How come the city wouldn’t cancel? What were the safety measures for a road as porous as Bolsa? 

“And as we set up, we were still trying to pay attention to everything that was happening out in Monterey Park for more details. We didn’t know if it was a hate crime or not,” Cordon said. “It was wild. I can’t say that people weren’t nervous, because you just didn’t know.”

Eventually that morning, Cordon and the city’s police chief, Darin Lenyi, declared “no unknown threats.” The city’s emergency operations plan, as Cordon recalls, “was well put together.” 

It was the same calculation that council members and staff made in November – weighing the problem in front of them against what was, to many, an essential tradition.

“It’s an event that sets the stage for the rest of the year. Were we going to cancel and give in to the fear? It would have been even more devastating to the community. Whether it’s city-run or not, people from around the world come to Little Saigon,” Cordon said.

People in costumes and traditional dress enhance the colors of the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster. Credit: Jacobo Hernández

The results that day impressed even those who had their doubts.

“They did it. They pulled it off,” remarked Terry Rains, a resident and City Hall watchdog who initially advised the city against taking charge of this year’s event. After Sunday, Rains hailed it as “one of the best organized.”

“It was incredible.”

With little to no other hiccups on parade day, and a start time the city more or less made good on, as many as 15,000 people converged on Little Saigon’s main drag for what Cordon called peak community pride.

“We had a lot of student groups, a lot more school districts, marching bands, nonprofits that are out there,” Cordon said. 

One entry of note was the Viet Rainbow of Orange County (VROC), whose inclusion in the Tet Parade wasn’t always a sure thing. Instead, it was something to be fought for. And in 2013, a fierce legal battle over LGBTQ+ exclusion made VROC’s visibility efforts all the more literal. Eventually, private organizers in the following years allowed the group in.

Before they could even process the previous night’s events, VROC members on Sunday found themselves parading down Bolsa with complicated feelings.

The group’s priority was to stay in line that morning, driven by the weight of an all too familiar responsibility.

“The importance of this parade is, in a lot of ways, celebrating ourselves and being visible for others out there,” said My Hoang Nguyen, VROC’s program manager. “It’s a way to celebrate who we are.”

“Our identity should not be fragmented.”

The way Cordon sees it, the parade was a “statement.”

“It was a statement of the fact that we’re going to be hopeful,” Cordon said. “That people are going to be kinder this coming year, that people are going to be respectful of each other, that when there’s adversity and chaos, or bad things happening, we’re going to hang on to that hope and move forward.”

“I think that’s what made this parade so much more than just a parade.”

Staffers from every department – HR, finance, the city clerk’s office – were out working the event, said Community Services Director Vanessa Johnson, who rose to her position in 2021. “It was all hands on deck – that’s exactly what the atmosphere is.”

“We were in the thick of it and it was surprisingly smooth, how everything went, given all the circumstances,” she added. “And that just speaks volumes of where the city’s at right now.”

Cordon pointed out the parade’s theme this year: “Spring of Hope.”

That, she said, “couldn’t have been more fitting” for the road ahead.

Singers rejoice following the parade’s conclusion in Little Saigon. Credit: Jacobo Hernández

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