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March 06, 2009


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I've never heard a name for Chicago's Vietnamese zone. From the Wikipedia article on "Little Saigon":

Argyle Street in the city of Chicago contains a Little Saigon district, and it has become the hub of vibrant Vietnamese culture in the city. It is referred to by Chicagoans as the "New Chinatown." "New Chinatown" is easily accessible from the CTA's Red Line Argyle stop.

To me, "Little Saigon" sounds mildly condescending. WHY?

Gimme a break!

There's "Little Italy" in Boston, it's like saying Chinatown or something. Little Saigon was the perfect word. Madison missed the boat on this one. I think you did too.

The "Little" is a convention here in Toronto: Little India, Little Italy, Little Malta. (Toronto is the most multicultural city on earth.) "Little" connotes the wish to replicate a slice of home. To me, the "town" suffix is more condescending, as in "Chinatown". It's also what works, "Saigontown" does not.

Business District is an unappealing and leaden term; it doesn't attract people. Can you imaging someone saying, "Let's have fun today and shop in the Saigon Business District?"

@Emilia and @Duchesse: "Little X" is a convention in many cities. It's my understanding that "Little Italy," in particular, originated as a perjorative term applied by non-residents to a part of town they considered "foreign." (Remember, there was a time when Italians and Jews were considered "non-white" and subject to terrible discrimination.) It was appropriated by residents, and became a term of pride, only with the passage of time.

My point in this post was not that "Saigon Business District" is worthier than "Little Saigon"--I think it's a bland choice at best--but that *any* name is capable of inflaming such intense passions. (A 29-day hunger strike?!) I also wanted to point out the importance of understanding cultural constructs and signifiers before undertaking a naming exercise.

Keep in mind, too, that in cities like Toronto and New York "Little Italy" is or was a residential neighborhood. That's not true of San Jose's Story Road commercial strip: Vietnamese-Americans live in neighborhoods throughout the city; this one-mile strip is a business district only, lacking the heart-and-home resonance of a true "Little ___."

The controversy also strikes me as a bit anachronistic. The current trend in neighborhood naming is compressed forms: SoMa and NoPa in San Francisco, TriBeCa and NoLiTa (North of Little Italy) in New York. Maybe San Jose will eventually come up with a similar solution that appeals to young, hip residents of Vietnamese descent: LaVie? SaiJo? Or maybe the city will capitalize on the possibilities inherent in "Story Road": "Saigon Story," anyone?

It is not a pejorative here, and I'd say let's ask my dearly departed friend Jane Jacobs, but we're too late. Few customers are going to be attracted to a "business district" name for a neighbourhood, so I agree a SaiJo type name might be better.

@Duchesse--I sent an inquiry to Barry Popik, whose Big Apple website (www.barrypopik.com) is an excellent resource for all things New Yorkish. He has an entry on Little Italy, but it doesn't include the term's origin and whether it was considered pejorative at the outset. Here's the relevant part of his response to my email:

>>I reviewed several 1880s citations. It's difficult to tell; perhaps I'd have to look at Italian newspapers to get the full story. However, I don't see a pejorative use.
>>"Chinatown" was used since the 1860s, used first in San Francisco.
>>"Kleindeutschland" (Little Germany) was used in New York City, also in the 1880s. This is a German term used by the Germans themselves; it was not pejorative.
>>Keep in mind that New York City had several Little Italys; the one in Harlem was just as well known as the one on Mulberry Street is today.
>>It cannot be known who the first person was who came up with "Little Italy," and what his or her intent was. As with Kleindeutschland, Little Italy appears to be a term that was used by both insiders and outsiders, and was never an insult.

So I stand corrected, at least for now. But I'd love to know whether anyone has additional information on the subject of possibly demeaning ethnic toponyms.

Not to keep flogging this, but I keep thinking about the "anti-Communist" argument. If you want to present yourself as a proud capitalist, doesn't "business district" do the job better than "Little Saigon"?

Baltimore's "Little Italy" has, to my knowledge, always been known by that name, and not as a pejorative. It is both the heart of the Italian business district and a stable residential neighborhood. BTW, the Speaker of the House grew up there; her father and then her brother were extremely popular Mayors.

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