The surge of Vietnamese Americans running for office — often with the same last name

Asian Garden Mall on Bolsa Ave. Courtesy of Orange County Archives.


In Orange County’s Little Saigon, you’ll see lots of political posters with the same last name on them: “Nguyen.” Thirteen people with that last name are running for office in Orange County. It’s funny, but it’s not causing too much confusion, suggests Phu Do Nguyen, co-founder of the 24-hour TV channel SBTN (Saigon Broadcasting Television Network).

He’s not related to any of the Nguyens running for office, and “Nguyen” in Vietnam is like “Smith” in America.

“Nguyen” was the last dynasty before Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces took over.

“I guess a lot of people changed their last name to Nguyen, trying to receive favorable…accommodations from the king,” he says.

Vietnamese American voters are used to this last name, so there’s not much confusion come election time. The campaign signs always include the first name — usually in larger print — than the last name. The first name is what Vietnamese people are known by (This author, for example, would be Ms. Amy, instead of Ms. Ta).

Why there’s a high number of Vietnamese American political candidates, and high voter turnout

Nguyen explains that voting and democracy is important to Vietnamese Americans because of their native country’s communist history.

“Vietnamese Americans escaped from a country where there was no political freedom. Communists. The dissent in Vietnam — if you spoke out against the government, you’ll be arrested,” he says. “So they think it’s an opportunity in America to cast their vote, have their vote be heard.”

He says during every single election, the Vietnamese American voter turnout is high. “The elderly in family vote. And sometimes they ask the young people to register, and then the elderly will direct the young person how to vote.”

Political leanings of younger v. older generations, and whether communism still animates Vietnamese American voters

Nguyen says generally, the elderly are more conservative than the younger generation. But it’s been shifting over the past few years.

He observes, “Vietnamese-wise in Orange County now… pretty much, you can say that it’s an equal split between Democrat and Republican. So the elderly — not necessarily Republican anymore. But they are changing. Because they listen to the younger one.”

He points out that many Democratic candidates support human rights in Vietnam, where the local government is blatantly violating those rights.

But he says “communism doesn’t sell anymore” among voters. What they’re really against is one-party rule — dictatorship.

How Vietnamese American voters in OC feel about Trump

Nguyen says there’s a split among party lines. Republicans think Trump is doing well by attacking China. “They believe the Vietnamese government are being bought by China, and China controls everything…They feel that if the U.S. (is) attacking China and making China a weaker country, the people may have a better chance of turning around this dictatorship government (in Vietnam) to be a democracy.”

On the other hand, Nguyen explains, Democrats feel that Trump isn’t doing enough to promote human rights in Vietnam, and is entrenching the communist government for business interests.

Why immigration isn’t a top issue

Nguyen says surprisingly, Vietnamese Americans don’t care much about the immigration issue — because it doesn’t affect them right now, and they already paid the price for it by risking their lives when escaping Vietnam, often by boat.

“They came over here. They feel like they are political refugees. And they got accepted into the country… And they think that the immigration issue — they don’t have a lot of sympathy with that. They see that the people from South America (who) are trying to get over, or other people (are) coming to America too easy,” he says. “They paid a much higher price with their life for political escape from Vietnam.”

More: Why Orange County politicians are vying for the Asian American vote