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Meet John Nguyen, From Vietnam To Charity Work In The Tenderloin

This article, written by Tom Carter, was originally published in Central City Extra's December 2015-January 2015 issue. You can find the newspaper distributed around area cafes, nonprofits, City Hall offices, SROs and other residences – and in the periodicals section on the fifth floor of the Main Library.


John Nguyen has just returned from his massive mailing project in San Jose and slips into a seat at Mangosteen restaurant on Larkin Street, which has a granite pillar outside that holds a marble, mythical lion welcoming all to Little Saigon. 

It’s not a spot he’d normally pick for a late lunch. He likes things a little higher end, places that speak more to his aspirations, like the Bistro Cafe in the Westfield mall overlooking Market Street or the Samovar Tea Lounge in Yerba Buena Gardens with global cuisine and tea pairings and a grand view of the glittering cityscape. 

“I don’t want to be reminded of what my parents went through,” he says, ordering banana blossom salad and a large vegetable dish. “But they loved this area and kept coming back to eat at the restaurant where they worked. I don’t know why.” 

They were dishwashers at Them Ky, a restaurant around the corner on Ellis Street. It was hard work, long hours, little pay. 

John and his parents arrived from Vietnam in 1992. It was a struggle to find work, nearly impossible to learn the language and a daunting daily ordeal to face Tenderloin street life. John was 15. They lived at Leavenworth and Ellis, near the restaurant. Now, they and John’s wife, Van, live at TNDC’s Curran House on Taylor Street, marking 23 years in the hood.

John Nguyen and his wife, Van Le, review donation documents recently at Franciscan Charity on Golden Gate Avenue. (Photo: Paul Dunn)

“I remember my grandfather standing in line at Glide for free food, and it was pretty good. He was happy. But I remember him as a powerful man — we always thought he could move the Earth.”

In Saigon, the grandfather had his own business, selling refrigerators and refrigeration systems. But the city fell in 1975, and the Communists jailed him for three years as “a capitalist pig,” for “being a businessman,” John says.

Warring in Vietnam continued after the U.S. left. There were shortages of everything and long lines for the government-controlled rations, the only food available. The battered populace fled by sea by the thousands in flimsy, leaky boats, many drowning. John’s grandfather was one of the “boat people” survivors who made it to San Francisco in 1980. But he couldn’t tame the language, was getting old and didn’t find the success he’d had in Vietnam.

“It’s sad,” John says. “He died a broken man.”

Even so, his grandfather put in the paperwork to get the family to San Francisco and succeeded. It took 10 years.

Not that much has changed in the Tenderloin over his 23 years here, John says. “A lot more building,” he says with a shrug, but “it doesn’t seem to be affecting those (street) people. The world is moving on without them. I see them every day, and I did as a teenager — the same blank looks back at me.” The soup kitchen lines too, just as long, if not longer.

“So many,” John says. “There should be a place for them. Why are they suffering like this? This is one of the richest nations,and people are lying in the street — and they speak perfect English and have the ability to work — and they don’t have a house. I don’t see it as much wherever I travel.” Moreover, he thinks the TL’s Vietnamese population, an estimated 3,500, is dwindling. 

People long to get out of the crowded, messy conditions, he says, and he does, too.

“Yes, I want to. If I could, I would have been gone a long time ago.”

Charity For Vietnam

John’s mailing in San Jose went out to 35,000 Vietnamese Americans and supporters, a holiday plea for donations to the relief work in Vietnam that his employer, Franciscan Charity, does. It’s a high-ceiling space beneath de Marillac Academy in the St. Boniface building on Golden Gate Avenue. John, its office manager, is also the charity’s chief fundraiser.

He reorganized and revitalized the charity a few years ago, taking it from a one-man program — founded in 2004 by a Franciscan priest — into a $3 million annual operation with a staff of eight. Its mission is to help disadvantaged Vietnamese children, and has 20 projects in place. A rate card in the office shows what earmarked donations provide: $100 buys a wheelchair or eye surgery, $3,000 pays for heart surgery, $5,000 builds a water-purifying system.

“We make a big impact in Vietnam,” John says. He’s motivated by the thought that “there might be a boy out there like me.”

His wife is project manager for outreach, which can mean assisting flood victims who lost their homes or grants for women to learn sewing skills. They work also with Catholic-run orphanages. One of the longest-running programs is aiding pregnant Vietnamese girls. Franciscan Charity supports their decision to keep the baby or give it to an orphanage.

John and Van chat with Curran House manager Tammy Walker, left. (Photo: Paul Dunn)

“When they hold the baby, most keep them,” John says. Then the charity helps them get on their feet financially. “But some don’t and give it up. They don’t want to face the shame” of being an unwed mother.

Charity is foreign to the Vietnamese, making John and Van’s choice of employer a bit unusual. Philip Nguyen (no relation), director of Southwest Asian Community Center on O’Farrell Street, explains:

“There is no charitable consciousness (in Vietnam),” he says. “It’s the thing we learn from this country. That’s why a lot of Vietnamese go back to help out. Any charity in Vietnam comes mainly from the U.S.”

John was born in Saigon the year after the North Vietnamese took over. Now, it’s Ho Chi Minh City, but to those who have left, it’s forever Saigon.

“It was a mess over there,” John says, speaking rapidly, sometimes tripping over words. His parents had quickly married because his mother feared the Communists would make her marry someone she didn’t even know.

“There was a lot of uncertainty and fear, but people thought the Communist regime would fall — a big mistake.”

Party control made John’s youth oppressive and barren. He was an only child, but there were shortages of everything. His family wasn’t destitute, but nearly so. He describes his youth like scenes out of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“I remember standing on a pile of garbage looking up at the planes going overhead hoping for a miracle to get out of there. That was my childhood.”

The Vietnamese Tenderloin

The Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians were the last of the immigrating ethnicities to come to the Tenderloin in significant numbers. As the city’s cheapest neighborhood, it had the added attraction of being close to Chinatown  with its similar cultural roots.

The 2010 census showed 12,971 Vietnamese living in San Francisco. Philip Nguyen says it’s higher. The Southeast Asian Community Center he runs was founded in the 1980s by Vietnamese refugees and immigrants to help their countrymen assimilate. Philip served on the committee overseeing the 2010 U.S Census in San Francisco and Alameda counties.

“It’s more like 14,000,” he says, citing reasons for the disparity. A number of the immigrants are monolingual and reclusive. Still others identified as Chinese. The census doesn’t call out the Tenderloin, but Philip estimates its Vietnamese population is around 3,500. The biggest community in the U.S., however, is in San Jose: 100,000.

When Vietnamese Americans in the TL hit a financial sweet spot, sometimes after years of living eight to 10 in a room, all adults working two, sometimes three jobs, they move out of the city to where “they think their social status will be better off. And they understandably want a larger house for an expanding family,” says Philip. The choice three decades ago was Oakland, Philip says, then it shifted to San Jose, which was near Silicon Valley where “jobs were abundant.”

Little Saigon in the Tenderloin, as seen in Google Maps.

Over his 19 years in the northwest section of the Tenderloin, the neighborhood’s prosperous quadrant, Philip has seen dramatic changes. Vietnamese businesses have surged with an estimated 300 — 75 in Little Saigon — amid escalating homelessness in the ever-filthy streets. The TL’s Vietnamese population has leveled off, he says, predicting that Sacramento will see the next influx. 

“There is no charitable consciousness (in Vietnam). It’s the thing we learn from this country. That’s why a lot of Vietnamese go back to help out. Any charity in Vietnam comes mainly from the U.S.” Philip Nguyen Director, Southwest Asian Community Center

The Tenderloin will begin to draw more “middle-income people,” and the new California Pacific Medical Center on Van Ness should become a significant employer, Philip believes.

John disagrees that the Tenderloin’s Vietnamese population is stabilizing. He sees a serious decline at church where he and Van sing in the 20-member St. Boniface choir for the Sunday afternoon Mass said in Vietnamese. He’s been in the choir since he was 16; she joined four years ago.

“Young people don’t come to the Vietnamese service anymore. They want the English one as part of their assimilation,” he says. “And the old people are dying off. I feel (the population) is shrinking. At least at my church, it’s in crisis.”

Even so, the smaller congregation of 200 today swells to 400 at Christmastime with Vietnamese returning to the Tenderloin from all over the city.

A major stumbling block to the hood for the immigrants has been language. Even those here 10 or more years have trouble, Philip says.

In John’s middle school in Saigon, where two-thirds of the students were named Nguyen, Russian or English was the foreign language option. If you didn’t take Russian, like the politically correct majority did, “you were looked down on.” John chose English, anyway. But it was the king’s English and didn’t help much here because it caused pronunciation confusion.

It didn’t dampen his desire for things American, though. Some Saigon families, despite book bans and risking harsh punishments, kept secret libraries. When John had saved enough pennies, he could rent the Jack London stories his father had recommended. “I read them all,” he says. In Vietnamese.

Mangosteen in Little Saigon, Tenderloin. (Photo: Lin Y. / Yelp)

And he concedes he perhaps orders too much food when he eats out because of its scarcity in his youth, much like London’s character in “Love of Life” who was starving in the subzero Yukon, finally got rescued, then afterward never seemed to get enough to eat.

John’s path when he arrived in San Francisco was paved by his aunt and uncle. They had been translators for the CIA and got out with a U.S. attaché just before Saigon fell. Had they stayed, “they would have been condemned as spies.”

The couple found jobs as restaurant dishwashers for three years. The aunt, who had better English, then became a bank teller. They sent money back so the rest of the family could come here and they became John’s closest advisers in his assimilation.

John went to Newcomer High School in the Fillmore District. It was designed to improve immigrants’ English speaking and understanding. He later graduated from Lincoln High.

His parents sent him after school to the Vietnamese Youth Development Center on Eddy Street for two years. The Tenderloin nonprofit that now serves 500 mostly Vietnamese youth with a spectrum of language, job training and other support programs, was created in 1978 to serve the incoming Vietnamese youth.

“They wanted me to be a leader,” John says. “But I was too shy, and my English wasn’t that good.”

John wrestled with nuances, too, like just saying no.

“(Vietnamese) people don’t say ‘no’ to your face,” he says. “It’s disrespectful and considered uneducated. You have to find a way to let someone down easy. You’re always looking to see that you don’t offend the person you’re talking to. It’s so important in our culture.”

He hasn’t kept track of the teenagers who attended VYDC with him, but he knows some joined Vietnamese drug-selling gangs, some got married, and very few went on to college. His priorities were high, however, and he had role models from the church congregation and choir, the “well-to-do with a good moral compass,” about 30 of them, doctors, dentists, scientists, real estate agents. He stays in touch to learn from them. “Good habits,” he says, “rub off on me.”

John went to City College, then to San Francisco State University. Computer-smart, he wanted to be a doctor but found in a chemistry class he was color blind. He switched majors and got a degree in corporate finance in 2007. It was a huge year in which he started paying off a $40,000 student loan and moved his wife here from Vietnam to live with him and his parents, and they moved into Curran House.

A Covert Marriage

He had met Van on a trip back to Saigon in 2004. They kept communicating through “chat rooms and messaging programs to avoid the Communist government firewall.”  He returned in 2006 to wed, but opened a can of worms. Van was a doctor, a liver disease specialist at one of Vietnam’s biggest hospitals, where it was common for three patients to occupy a single bed and for supporting family members to be sleeping on the floor. With a shortage of doctors, Vietnam didn’t want to lose any.

“They told me it would take three months (to get married),” John said. “I only had three weeks I could be away.”

He was poor then, working at the Pizza Hut on Geary and Leavenworth. But he got his boss to guarantee his job, and his parents to pledge to take care of Van if he couldn’t.

Still, Vietnamese officials were reluctant to let her go.

Then, ahead of a scheduled meeting between Van and officials from both countries, he wrote a letter explaining his difficulties. Van hid it in her clothing and it went undetected in a pre-meeting search. On the sly, she gave John’s letter to a U.S. Embassy official who then maneuvered the approval.

Van’s medical credentials are worthless in the U.S. She tried to obtain her records, which might have given her some credits toward a degree here. But that, too, was a conundrum. Officials in Vietnam demanded $3,500 just to locate the documents.

“Then it would be much more (in bribes) to get them — a problem in backward countries,” John says.

John and Van at Samovar. (Photo: Paul Dunn)

Still, Van has chosen a route back to medicine. She’s taking premed night courses at San Francisco City College. She’d have enrolled sooner, but missed two years recovering from being hit by a car in a crosswalk. There was no settlement. The driver, a student in a junker, was destitute and had no insurance.

“We couldn’t pursue that,” John says. “There was no money.”

Politics is dormant in San Francisco’s Vietnamese community. There are no elected Vietnamese American officials here. San Jose City Council has three, in a city with 100,000 Vietnamese. Philip Nguyen believes it will be another generation before a Vietnamese could be elected in San Francisco. John Nguyen sees a depressing stone wall when he tries to speak to Vietnamese members of the St. Boniface congregation about democratic power.

“Many come from a country (where) if you speak out you get arrested,” he says. “If they’re not distrustful, they are timid and unaccustomed to political freedom. They choke themselves off.

“But we are part of the country. I say, ‘Speak out — nobody’s going to speak for you.’ But they are not listening. I see it right away when I talk to them.”

John’s own voice has grown in the community along with his political awareness. Sharen Hewitt, Curran House’s former building foreman who has suggested interview subjects for The Extra’s diversity series, earlier this year asked John to find residents to hear a political speech downstairs by former Supervisor David Chiu, then a state Senate candidate. About 20 showed up, but not many had been recruited by John.

Hewitt, who motivates Curran residents to get involved with neighborhood issues, lobbied the school board to create a Vietnamese language pathway K-12. The board passed a resolution in May to begin that initiative in 2017. Currently, 1,100 SFUSD students of more than 60,000 speak Vietnamese.

She persuaded John to apply for a vacant seat on the Tenderloin Community Benefits District board. He applied as John Nguyen, forgoing his Vietnamese name, Thanh, though that appears on the CBD website.

“I don’t think of myself as Vietnamese anymore,” he explains. “I’m an American. I don’t want to go back. It’s me they deal with, not a name. I’m willing to adapt.” He adds with a smile: “Thanh in Vietnamese means success.”

Working On Neighborhood Issues

In September, he was elected to the CBD board and Executive Director Susie McKinnon said she was glad to have him.

“We were all so impressed with John’s desire to work for the neighborhood,” she said.

He was assigned to the District Identity and Streetscape Improvement committee, which now is called Community Engagement and Communications. John had been unaware of the CBD until Hewitt came knocking, but now bristles with anticipation for the work to be done, from landing improvement grants to getting the CBD widely known.

“To me, marketing is where you make money,” he says. “And the CBD doesn’t have a marketing team. My goals are to change that.” The CBD is dedicated to promoting cleanliness, beautification, street improvements and job training among other objectives for a 29-block area with 

27,700 residents where the average income is $21,183. A concern of John Nguyen’s is how to protect the poor people who have lived here a long time.

“People are coming in with money. Nothing we can do about it. It’s frustrating. We love the city and want to be here,” he says. Another CBD concern is Little Saigon. Business falls off after dark — there’s plenty of lunchtime foot traffic — but “people are afraid of the Tenderloin at night,” John says.

One of the poster designs, from the SF Public Utilities Commissions, that Hoodline covered in May.

It looks certain that it will get improved lighting. But poster designs to promote it, that the CBD solicited from artists, so far have missed the mark.

“They’re too complicated,” John says.” I don’t know what they mean. They miss the point.”

John and Van visit many restaurants, not so much in Little Saigon, where Van does weekly grocery shopping, but on occasion the Pakistani and Indian restaurants on Mason Street, and Sunday mornings the Oriental Restaurant on Market Street near Seventh for dim sum. And they make an occasional trip with a friend to Balboa Park to try their hand at tennis.

Otherwise, the star of their outings, and Van’s favorite, is the glassy, high-ceiling Samovar Tea Lounge in Yerba Buena Gardens near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial fountain. They go twice a week. Sitting outside or inside, she loves looking north at the cityscape with the red brick St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, built in 1851 on Mission Street, in the middle.

Back home at Curran House, where both of John’s parents now contend with dementia, their busy routines keep them occupied; they are hardly the building’s social butterflies. John has some “acquaintances” and Sharen Hewitt “is safe to consider a friend.” Van knows three Vietnamese residents, one Chinese and Hewitt.

“Curran House is just a step away from the beauty of the city,” John says. “That reassures me of the goodness of people, working hard and enjoying life.”

Even so, when their eyes close, all Nguyen family members have had recurring nightmares that they are in Vietnam and can’t get out. And after lunch that day at Mangosteen, John packaged up more than half the food he had ordered and took it home.

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