Kensington-Cedar Cottage: Rebranding of Kingsway area to ‘Little Saigon’ attracting tourists

Drive along Kingsway Street towards New Westminster, blink and you’ll probably miss Vancouver’s Little Saigon, which encompasses the area between Fraser and Knight streets.

Made up of myriad shops and eateries, the strip officially became Little Saigon in May to little mainstream media fanfare but much local ceremony after a neighbourhood campaign that included a petition signed by 3,000 in support of recognizing the contribution made to the area by Vietnamese residents.

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The May 12 event was marked by speeches and a parade attended by Mayor Gregor Robertson and several fellow council members, including Vision Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang, who in 2011 put forward the motion to council to brand the area.

Three months after the area’s official rebranding, Jang said so far the response from Vancouverites “has been great.”

As in similar officially sanctioned Vietnamese communities across North America, a Little Saigon street sign and branded banners run the length of the strip. 

Chris Lien, owner of the popular Tung Hing Bakery on Kingsway for more than 10 years, said he has seen a lot of changes in the make up of his neighbourhood over the last decade and is “ambivalent” about the designation.

“I have seen quite a lot more tourists because it has been called Little Saigon,” he said, but with the increase in tourists he has also seen more problems with garbage and parking.

Singling out the Vietnamese community for recognition aroused more decided opposition. A “Stop Little Saigon” petition signed by 100 local residents circulated and some residents continue to question the attention given to one group over others. Ambrose Oba-Underwood, who has lived in Kensington-Cedar Cottage for more than 12 years, has no qualms with the Vietnamese who live and work in the area, but feels the special designation could be “discouraging to non-Vietnamese businesses.”

He would have preferred no branding at all as a more inclusive option for his community, he told the Courier by email.

Oba-Underwood said it has been a sensitive issue for him to speak publicly about and the reaction from some has been “ironic.”

“[With] a few people branding me a racist due to the fact that I don’t support branding an area racially,” he said.

According to Jang, the Little Saigon christening was an entirely grassroots movement spearheaded and sustained by the people of Vietnamese heritage who live or own businesses in the area. And it “didn’t cost the city a penny” because the Little Saigon supporters raised all the money themselves for everything from the May party to steel clamps holding the street banners to the poles, said Jang.

Jang said there are also plans for a monument in the community to recognize the sacrifices made by the refugees from Vietnam who came to Vancouver in the 1970s with very little and went on to make a life for themselves and for the next generation.

Vietnam’s Saigon, known as Ho Chi Minh City since the close of the Vietnam War, is the country’s largest city. The city has gone by various names over time. From the French conquest in the 1860s, to 1975 and the communist takeover after the war it was officially known as Saigon, which is a Westernized version of a previous name. Other official Little Saigons can be found in California, Texas and Melbourne, Australia.

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