In South Philly, Subtly Staking Territory
Philadelphia boasts one of the largest Vietnamese populations on the east coast.[i]
Indeed, until the widespread Mexican immigration that began in 2003, the Vietnamese were the largest foreign-born group in South Philly east of Broad Street.
Yet the history of the Vietnamese community, a large concentration of which is in South Philadelphia, is essentially untold and understudied. And unlike other Vietnamese enclaves in the US, there’s no gaudy, generically “Asian” archway entreating the passersby to explore, just a string of unannounced shopping malls and a smattering of nearby businesses integrated into the ever-evolving immigrant territory of the Italian Market and the building materials bazaar along Washington Avenue.
Beginning in the late 1970s, refugees from Vietnam–many of them from the anti-communist South–concentrated in poor urban and rural areas of the US. There they established businesses and a community life anew–before then, there had been little Vietnamese immigration to America. Karin Aguilar-San Juan calls this process “territorialization”, defined as the act of not only creating a space for Vietnamese social life and enterprise, but also forming an identity strong enough to go beyond community cohesion to generate political leverage (2008:10).
Vietnamese American enclaves are driven by the dual goals of reconstituting the former Saigon overseas and defying communism through successful capitalist enterprise (Lieu 2011:27). Their entrepreneurship took the form of small family businesses, as factory jobs were on the decline or they were otherwise unable to find work corresponding to their skills (2011:33). Some of these businesses took up shop in Vietnamese strip malls. Perhaps the horizontal format of these strip malls allowed minimal initial development to be followed by successive expansions as the community accumulated capital.