Friends of Little Saigon, a local Seattle organization with a mission to preserve and enhance Little Saigon’s cultural, economic and historic vitality, recently opened an important new feature in Chinatown’s Little Saigon district: a community space called the Little Saigon Creative.
The Little Saigon Creative is a unique and important new landmark located at 1227 S. Weller Street, near the Chinatown Goodwill. It is a physical space where community members representing Seattle’s rich Vietnamese history and culture can congregate and freely express themselves. It represents a supportive, empowering environment, where everything from new business ideas to family recipes can be shared and celebrated.
“This creative space helps prop up other goals that we have,” said Nam Huynh, vice president of the Friends of Little Saigon board of directors. “For example, business leaders can use the space to help each other and to share ideas. Community groups can host performances where we showcase our culture.”
Valerie Tran, operations director for Friends of Little Saigon, explained that in addition to offering a 2,000-square-foot, open-concept space, Little Saigon Creative provides a testing ground for future programs and pilot projects within the community. “Even without a site, we were expanding programs and projects in the neighborhood.”
Included is Hello Em Viet Coffee and Bakery, a Vietnamese small business. Co-owner Yevny Pham said she made the decision to operate out of the new space after asking, “What would make people want to come here? What can we give them, what can we produce?”
“We want to make money, but we also want to help the community,” said Nhgia Bui, the other co-owner.
Local Seattleites can currently tour the Little Saigon Creative via a virtual 360-degree walk-around on the Friends of Little Saigon website. Although not open to the public due to COVID-19 concerns, the Friends of Little Saigon team is working to further improve the building for its eventual grand opening. The timing of the pandemic draws parallels with the strength and resilience of the Vietnamese community.
“When I see the creative space, I see that it is a reflection of strength,” said Dr. Tam Dinh, Friends of Little Saigon board member. “I see that it is a reflection of our willpower to fight to survive and overcome all odds. So, it’s really inspiring and empowering to be in this moment with all the folks around us, while still remembering all the things we have done is built on the backs of those who came before us, who haven’t been able to see the incremental growth. Now we have this beautiful space, but it began with the immigrants who brought us to America in the first place.”
Tran recently shared some thoughts in an interview. Following are excerpts.
IE: What were your goals in creating this space? How will the space be used?
VT: We, Little Saigon, as a neighborhood and Friends of Little Saigon as an organization, want to feel visible and heard. This physical space is a way for us to demonstrate what we can offer the community, as well as establish Little Saigon as a valuable asset in the city.
Being in the neighborhood also allows us to be a stronger stakeholder in changes thathappen. Although we are advocates for the small businesses, residents and community members who call this place their home, without being in the neighborhood, Friends of Little Saigon didn’t have a physical stake until now.
IE: How is the Little Saigon Creative functioning during the age of COVID-19? Is it open right now?
VT: It is not open to the public, but we are doing some work out of the space. We’re taking this time to prepare our space so that it is ready for the community at different phases. Within the phases of COVID-19, we’re putting in place health and safety protocols, spending more time establishing uses, and focusing on addressing the immediate needs around economic recovery for the small businesses in the neighborhood.
IE: What challenges did you face?
VT: The process to find the right space was a challenge because we needed something large enough for our office, as well as space for community programming. Budget was also a constraint because we really wanted to go into an older building, but the cost of repair and agreements amongst ownership got very complicated.
IE: Anything to share on the future and what’s next?
VT: FLS does not own the building, we are just leasing one of the spaces. Our long-term goal is to acquire a property in the neighborhood, which is part of our Little Saigon Landmark vision. We, along with our development partner SCIDpda, have been looking for land in Little Saigon to purchase since 2016. But due to rising land prices and competition f:rom other private/public developers, we have not been able to secure a site.