A Global University

Preserving Seattle’s Little Saigon

Becky Tran is a graduate student in the UW Jackson School of International Studies – Southeast Asian Studies program. She is a community researcher for Friends of Little Sàigòn, an organization supporting the vibrant business, cultural, and social community in the Little Saigon area of Seattle’s International District. Together with community members and fellow students, Becky is preserving Seattle’s history and helping to make a brighter future for our community. 

Could you share a little about yourself and your academic interests? 

I am a first generation Vietnamese American. I was born and raised in San Diego, where I also stayed for my undergraduate and postgrad work. So, moving to Seattle for graduate school was the first time I’ve left my hometown. During my undergraduate career, I studied religion and focused on Judeo-Christian religions. I got to be involved with UCSD’s Holocaust Living History Workshop where I researched and interviewed Holocaust survivors and their families. 

Yet, through working with these WWII war witnesses, I oftentimes reflected to my own family’s war experiences. It wasn’t until Spring 2015 when I took an advance Vietnamese language course where one of the topics of the quarter covered indigenous Vietnamese religions that I became interested in Cao Dai and Hoa Hao – two Vietnamese religious/political religions that had a part in the war. I originally got involved in a Cao Dai Holy See down the street from my house and was interested in how the religion has endured in the diaspora. However, as of late, I’ve been looking at its origins and have been immersed in the complex history there.

How did you connect with Friends of Little Sàigòn? 

In July of this year, Shannon Bush, the Managing Director of UW’s Southeast Asia Center, forwarded an email from Friends of Little Saigon calling for community researchers. With it being my second, and potentially, last year in Seattle, I wanted to connect more with the Vietnamese community in Seattle. I grew up very involved in my Vietnamese community in San Diego and wanted to experience that feeling again in Seattle. 

You’re part of the Little Sàigòn Cultural History Project research team. Can you tell us about the project, your contributions, and how it relates to your studies at the UW? 

I work with Cara Nguyen, another community researcher, on this project. She is a student at Seattle University. Our goal is to gather, categorize, and analyze materials from different sources to develop a foundational history of the Vietnamese community in Seattle since 1975. Specifically, we are looking at the physical Little Saigon area which is located towards the east side of the International District.

One of the major factors I considered when choosing a graduate program was its proximity to a Vietnamese community (and Cao Dai Holy See). The University of Washington fit the bill. In terms of my research, I am really interested in seeing how these religious groups, and the Vietnamese community at large, has prevailed outside of Vietnam. 

Why is this project important to you? 

This project is important to me because my maternal grandfather was a Vietnamese refugee. His experiences and many others who were in the same boat as him, of being temporarily displaced in different pockets across America before fully settling down, has shaped the collective Vietnamese-American community at large. I have heard so many Vietnamese immigrants share their initial experiences of being in a foreign country and not seeing anything recognizable of their culture. Working in and with the Vietnamese diasporic community helps me appreciate how far the presence of the Vietnamese culture has grown in the past 45, or even 25, years ̣(take food for example: from phở to bánh mì to even Sriracha). 

Due to the high rate of growth and development in Seattle, many initial residents in the Little Saigon area have been displaced to the greater Seattle area – but so many individuals return back on weekends to shop, eat, and socialize. To me, this shows that there’s a major need to preserve the Little Saigon neighborhood as a central hub for Vietnamese-Seattleites.

Can you share a favorite discovery from your work on this project? 

I love reading stories about all the firsts in the Vietnamese-Seattleite community. About the first Vietnamese restaurant that opened at Pike Place in 1977 or the first Vietnamese business that opened east of the I5, where Little Saigon physically stands today. These people were merely making their living in a new country, unbeknownst that they were making history and spearheading a new cultural identity.

Has working with Friends of Little Saigon helped you find community in Seattle?

Being from San Diego and southern California in general, I grew up in a large Vietnamese-American community. While Seattle also has a decent Vietnamese-American population, it seems to be more dispersed here. But that is not a bad thing, in fact, I find it refreshing because any community building experiences here seem more intentional.