Seattle's Little Saigon gets a fresh makeover with public art projects

By Kelly Guava Jelly and Bao Nguyen
February 13, 2018

Crosswalk at 12th & Jackson depicting a Vietnamese folk tale. Photo by Kelly Guava Jelly.

Walking around Seattle’s Little Saigon now is like visiting an open air exhibit dedicated to the people and culture that built this neighborhood. On prominent display around the neighborhood are charming visual accounts of the folk tales, language, and history that are, to those who pay attention, unmistakably Vietnamese.

The neighborhood, which is part of Chinatown / International District, began its transformation into a distinct community in the early 1980s when Vietnamese businesses started sprouting up around the intersection of S Jackson Street and 12th Avenue S in Seattle. As the number of incoming refugees following the war in Vietnam climbed with each passing month so too did the number of restaurants, delis, and retail shops offering everything from DVDs – VHS for those from a certain era – to jewelry. By the late 90s, like many major cities around the world where Vietnamese refugees and immigrants settled, Seattle had its own Little Saigon.

Although Little Saigon has been here for over four decades, this exhibit of cultural artifacts, representing the community’s most assertive announcement of its presence, was only curated recently. In fact, it is still incomplete with more pieces to come. Up until a few years ago, there was little indication of this neighborhood’s ethnic identity besides the names on storefronts and a small sign hanging on a light pole that quietly announced “Little Saigon Welcomes You”.

At that same intersection today, a blue and white turtle calmly swims across the pavement, among lotus flowers, recounting to pedestrians the mythical story of a general who received from a golden turtle one magical sword, which he used to defeat invading armies. The story is enshrined at a lake in Hanoi, Vietnam called Lake of the Returned Sword.

Overhead, street signs translated into Vietnamese hang like branches reaching out over the lake. A short distance east at a designated crosswalk stands a sculpture with shapes hinting at an áo dài and a conical hat. A South Vietnam flag flutters just a few feet away.

An installation depicting ao dai, cone hat, and the South Vietnam flag. Photo by Kelly Guava Jelly.

“Physical and visual projects like these focus on cultural placemaking and identity for Little Saigon,” Quynh Pham explains. “We want to bring awareness that this community and neighborhood exist.”

The “we” Quynh refers to is Friends of Little Saigon (FLS), an organization whose mission is to preserve and enhance Little Saigon’s cultural, economic, and historic vitality. Quynh is serving as its Executive Director.

In 2011, at the tail end of the Great Recession that caused Little Saigon to lose some of its businesses, those still around feared further displacement from development pressure and rising rents. Lacking an internal institution for community building and advocacy, community members, with support from the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, came together to form FLS. Among many other undertakings, like the annual Celebrate Little Saigon Festival, the organization has overseen various public art projects that now adorn the neighborhood.

Coming from a family of Vietnamese immigrants who operate a small business in Kent, Quynh feels a close connection between the work she does and her personal life and passion.

“It’s amazing to see the physical changes,” she says proudly. “With these art projects, you can see your work right away.”

The projects, completed with support from the National Endowment of the Arts and the City of Seattle, help ground Quynh in her organizing work. They represent the fruition of the community’s efforts.

According to Quynh, FLS’s vision is to be a hub for a Vietnamese American community where all families and businesses are thriving. A long-term project the organization is hard at work on is a Landmark project that would be home to a cultural center, a night market, and affordable housing.

A portion of Pho Bac’s parking lot transformed into a public parklet. Photo by Kelly Guava Jelly.

Further up Jackson street, Pho Bac, a local business since 1982, partnered with the Seattle Department of Transportation Pavement to Park program to convert a portion of their parking lot into a vibrant public space. The ground mural depicts an old folk tale explaining how tigers got the black stripes on their fur. On nearby signposts, the story is written in both Vietnamese and English for the curious.

One future project near completion is an iconic bronze drum modeled after ancient Vietnamese artifacts dating back to 600 BCE. And yet another that FLS hopes to realize is a large neon sign that brings together the past and the present of the Vietnamese diaspora.

It, too, will say “Welcome to Little Saigon”.

But this time, the message will be much bigger, brighter, and louder, a fitting statement to how far Seattle’s Vietnamese community has come.