Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Tet Festival 1: The Hoa

Sunday on Larkin Street between Eddy and O'Farrell Streets was the site of a day-long Vietnamese Lunar New Year Festival known as Tet.

The gritty western Tenderloin neighborhood has become the center of a thriving set of restaurants, sandwich shops, and stores catering to Vietnamese immigrants.

Last year I was taken to a remarkable lunch by David Lei at a Vietnamese restaurant on Larkin, and I noticed that he was ordering our meal in Chinese (Cantonese to be exact).

"Is this place Chinese or Vietnamese?" I asked, and he explained that most of the post-war Vietnamese refugees during the late 1970s and 1980s were ethnic Chinese, who had essentially filled the role of the mercantile class over the centuries in Vietnam and who bore the brunt of confiscation and "re-education camps" when communist North Vietnam won the war with the South.

The ethnic Chinese minority in Vietnam are called Hoa. According to an interesting and extensive article at Wikipedia, "The Hoa are descended from early settlers from the Guangdong province who arrived in Vietnam from the 18th to 20th centuries. The final group of mainland China migrants came during the 1940s. A large proportion of Hoa who are living outside of Vietnam speak Cantonese as their mother tongue, albeit in a Vietnamese accent."

In other words, the Boat People of the late 1970s and 1980s, whose survival rate was not much better than 50% on the high seas, were essentially the Jews of Vietnam. No wonder the survivors of that time are so unyielding in their hatred for the government of Vietnam to this day.

Most of them emigrated to urban centers around the world, and in the case of San Francisco, ended up in one of the roughest neighborhoods imaginable: The Tenderloin.

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