Virginia Tech's studio class shares oral history of Vietnamese immigrants in Arlington's "Little Saigon" neighborhood

Photo by: Michael Horsley

September 25, 2017

As viewers tune-in to watch Ken Burns new documentary film about the history of the Vietnam War, graduate students and faculty at Virginia Tech's Urban Affairs and Planning Program are collecting oral histories from Vietnamese immigrants who shopped or had businesses in Arlington's "Little Saigon" neighborhood located in Clarendon's commercial center.

In collaboration with the Arlington County Historic Preservation program and Arlington Public Library Center for Local History, this project builds on a 2014 Virginia Tech graduate studio work documenting Little Saigon that resulted in a website, walking tour and community arts event.

"The oral histories describe the variety of ways, often harrowing, that Vietnamese refugees made their way to Arlington, some of the reasons they came to Northern Virginia, and the challenges that they faced once they got here," said Elizabeth Morton, associate professor of practice in urban design, who led the Echoes of Little Saigon studio.

Through happenstance, the Clarendon neighborhood provided a foothold for these displaced people. While many long time Arlington residents do remember the "Little Saigon" neighborhood for its then-exotic concentration of restaurants, the oral histories convey the myriad ways the Vietnamese entrepreneurs provided essential services and a feeling of "home," from tailors to shipping to familiar music.

Morton says that today about two-thirds of the neighborhood residents are under 35, many of whom likely are completely unaware of the role Clarendon played as an economic and social center for Vietnamese refugees during the turbulent Vietnam War era just a few decades ago.

"Today historic preservationists feel it's essential to convey more complete narratives about local history, which often will involve capturing voices and stories rather than focusing exclusively on architecture," said Morton.

As part of the studio project, Virginia Tech alumnus Judd Ullom developed a walking tour of the neighborhood, now most famous for its bars and nightlife. "The walking tour allows visitors to hear the first-hand accounts of the struggles and successes of the Vietnamese refugees that frequented those same buildings," said Ullom.

Storefront stickers for the windows of businesses that were once part of the Little Saigon community include QR codes that link to online "mini-documentaries" exploring the themes of immigration, cultural preservation, urban renewal and economic development.

Virginia Tech students and faculty are seeking to broaden the collection of oral histories, which are transcribed and housed in Arlington's Center for Local History. For more information on how to share your story or get involved with the project, please contact Elizabeth Morton at morton05@vt.edu.