‘Pomona A to Z’: V is for Vietnamese

[After a monthlong break for reasons I can’t recall — vacation? deadline problems? other news crowding to get into my column? — “A to Z” returned to print with the letter V.

I was happy to write about the Vietnamese community, fulfilling my goal of writing about the main ethnic groups in the city. There is still a vital Vietnamese presence in Pomona, and Pho Vi, a new restaurant, opened last month at Third and Thomas streets downtown. The only update to this piece is that the Vault nightclub, one of the runnerups, is gone.

This column was published March 27, 2005.]

‘A to Z’ veers toward topic you won’t pho-get

Filling a vacuum, my virtuous venture “Pomona A to Z” returns today to venerate that village’s virtues (while avoiding its vices).

Yes, we’re visiting the letter V, or vice versa. Which V best reflects the voodoo that Pomona does so well?

After vigorously vetting or vetoing a vast variety of V’s, I’ve voted for these vignettes, all vis-a-vis V:

* Veterinary school at the Western University of Health Sciences. Amazingly, it’s the only one in Southern California, as well as the only one in the nation headed by a woman.

* Vintage clothing from La Bomba, which dresses visiting rock stars and various locals.

* The Vault nightclub, housed in the 1925 First National Bank building, hence the name.

* Pioneering landowner Ricardo Vejar, who in 1837 co-owned the entire Pomona Valley. A footnote: The city bought 22 acres from his estate in 1922 to launch the L.A. County Fair.

Va-va-voom! Why, these V’s practically give me vertigo.

Yet I hope it won’t vex you to learn that our V is a different indicator of Pomona’s vitality. Our V gives voice to a community that’s very valuable: the Vietnamese.

After the April 30, 1975 fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese — 30 years ago next month — many Vietnamese fled communism and misery by cramming themselves valiantly into rickety wooden boats for the vagaries of a sea voyage to neighboring countries for repatriation.

Some 125,000 were accepted as refugees by the United States that year, the vanguard of more than 270,000 that followed by 1982, gaining the world’s sympathy.

Many settled in Orange County, but impressive numbers ended up in the Inland Valley. They’re concentrated in Pomona, where an estimated 10,000 live.

You may not even know they’re there, as the community is less visible than Pomona’s majority Latino population.

But a stretch of East Holt Avenue shows their presence. Hoa Binh is a market with Asian food and produce, as well as an eye-opening array of fresh fish. Asian characters can be seen on numerous storefronts.

Rather than experience this vicariously, I invited Diep Fintland to lunch. A real estate broker, she is a leader among local Vietnamese. We met at a popular restaurant, Pho Express, for my inaugural Vietnamese meal.

A type of soup, pho is pronounced “fuh.” (Now that you’re familiar with pho, no one can call you a fuddy-duddy.)

“Pho, it’s like pancakes for Americans. Usually it’s for breakfast, but you can eat it 24 hours,” Fintland said.

My bowl of Pho Tai — broth, rice noodles and rare steak — was delicious, albeit virtually impossible to eat.

The long, pasta-like noodles are meant to be eaten with chopsticks. I’m sure I could have done this if I’d had two hours — or the 24 hours Fintland mentioned — but after I fumbled around a while, owner Hoa Phan brought me a fork.

She and Fintland exchanged amused comments in Vietnamese about my struggle, some of which Fintland translated.

“You’re eating it like spaghetti!” Fintland joked as I twirled the noodles against my soup spoon with my fork.

Fintland, meanwhile, plucked the thin slices of beef from her pho and expertly rolled them into tubes, all with her chopsticks, for dipping into a saucer of spicy liquid. I shakily carried mine over flat with chopsticks or my fork.

I ate one-third of my pho before deciding to phogeddaboudit.

Much easier to eat, and just as tasty, were Cha Gio, a meaty eggroll wrapped in lettuce, and Phan Tau Hu Ky, crispy cubes of deep-fried tofu around shrimp paste. Now that’s eatin’!

The restaurant had a bustling lunch crowd of Vietnamese, Latinos and Caucasians. It re-opened in fall 2004 after several years as Pho 54 under different hands.

Phan’s son, Timmy Nguyen, who runs the restaurant, says his family had a hard life in Vietnam before coming here as refugees in 1983.

“That’s what has made me successful in the U.S. I don’t take anything for granted,” said Nguyen, 35, who sold cars for 11 years before helping his mother open the restaurant. He added later: “I adore America.”

Fintland came here in 1967 — by commercial plane — after high school to join a sister who’d married a serviceman. Their father was killed by the Communists when Fintland was 2.

She and her husband, whom she met in Bakersfield, have lived in Pomona since 1977.

Madelenna Lai and Fintland founded the Pomona organization Vietnamese Cultural House in 1997 to help preserve their roots. In 2002 they sponsored a Rose Parade float, in the shape of a boat, as a way to thank Americans for taking their people in.

“Freedom. A lot of people take it for granted,” Fintland observed.

There’s a lot of veracity in that.

(David Allen, who’s no virtuoso, writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.)

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