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Newcomer Nguyen

An immigrant from Vietnam, Garden Grove resident hopes to win Assembly seat and give a voice to the people.

September 04, 2010|By Mike Reicher, mike.reicher@latimes.com
  • Political newcomer Phu Nguyen with his family including wife Yen Khanh Vu, and thier boys Christopher, left, and Michael in thier Garden Grove home. Nguyen is running for 68th assembly seat.
Political newcomer Phu Nguyen with his family including… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

Drawing blood from his own arm, the father resolved to save his children from starvation and dehydration at sea. He dribbled it into their mouths, all to deliver them from a bleak promise of poverty and repression.

That's how Phu Nguyen describes his and his sister's escape from Vietnam. It was 1981, and Nguyen, only 3 at the time, had set sail with his family.

After one month at sea, the death of nine children aboard their boat, and eight months in a Hong Kong refugee camp, the Nguyens finally arrived in America. His parents had only $2 in their pockets when they came to Orange County, Nguyen says, and today they have a multi-state corporation and one of the nicest homes in Huntington Beach.

That quintessential immigrant story inspired Nguyen, now 33, to improve the lives of people in Vietnam and in America, he says. He's running as a Democrat for the California State Assembly seat representing Costa Mesa, Westminster, Garden Grove and surrounding areas.

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"This is my way of giving back to this land and this community," he says.

A political newcomer, Nguyen has held leadership positions in Vietnamese American groups and has vastly expanded his family's overseas remittance business, he says.

But many of his accomplishments are from his time as a student, and he's been criticized for his lack of experience.

"He has no track record, zero background," says his Republican opponent, Allan Mansoor, the mayor of Costa Mesa.

TRAINING IN LITTLE SAIGON

Nguyen was president of the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns., which organizes the annual Tet Festival, the Vietnamese New Year celebration in Garden Grove. It's the largest such festival in the U.S. and has netted hundreds of thousands of dollars for community organizations.

Under his tenure, the group increased annual festival revenues from $30,000 to more than $300,000, Nguyen says, and established a grant program to aid nonprofits.

As many of the festival's beneficiaries are from Little Saigon, Nguyen is cognizant of the broader electorate and points out that some are not specifically Vietnamese, such as the Kiwanis Club and Boys and Girls Club, among others.

During a recent visit, Nguyen illustrates how easily he moves between two cultures. He orders lunch smoothly in Vietnamese at Xanh Bistro in Garden Grove, and then explains how his background has shaped his outlook.

"The Vietnamese people are extremely grateful and appreciative," he says, "and when we are given the opportunity to give back we take it."

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