Thanks to Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, readers around the world will know the way out of San Jose.
Nguyen won every award for his novel The Sympathizer, after which he published a short story collection, The Refugees, including a tale, “War Years” about his family’s grocery store at Fifth and Santa Clara in downtown San Jose. His parents built the business from the ground up after they arrived as Vietnamese refugees at the end of the 1970s. It was one of the first Viet grocery stores ever in San Jose, that is, before the city later smashed it out of existence.
In his new memoir, A Man of Two Faces, Nguyen finally spills the whole story and so much more. Among many other things, the book demonstrates the redemptive power of the writer’s life. It is gorgeously brutal and brutally gorgeous.
Whatever you think of Bellarmine—good or bad—Nguyen received a fantastic education there, before escaping San Jose in 1988. Then he became radicalized at Berkeley, found solace in critical theory and landed a faculty gig at USC.
Thanks to Nguyen’s international celebrity status, the story of how San Jose erased the Saigon Market is now understood around the world, but in textbook San Jose fashion, most of the city’s own population doesn’t even know this happened.
For those in the dark: The city of San Jose purchased the Saigon Market building by force—the Nguyens sued to get a fair price—and then the land, also in textbook San Jose fashion, became an unused parking lot for several years. All of this happened because the shiny new city hall was coming in and San Jose didn’t want any downmarket riffraff across the street.
Nguyen’s parents were already traumatized from having their own country wiped off the map. Now the pioneering business they created in a then-déclassé neighborhood was likewise erased from the landscape.
Upon the Nguyen family’s arrival, downtown San Jose was a rundown crime zone, with only Vietnamese refugees and other immigrants brave enough to open new businesses. Now they were being pushed out, just so attention-starved San Jose could instead cater to Silicon Valley hotshots.
Eventually, the posh Miro skyscrapers were built on the same land. In the book, Nguyen even includes photos—before and after. You will not see this on the Visit San Jose tourism website.
This was not an isolated incident, of course. For decades, San Jose has bulldozed buildings and replaced them with empty parking lots. It goes on and on. Historic houses get moved around like chess pieces just so developers can build high-rises for tech bros. Hotels receive millions in public money for new extensions that later go bankrupt. Skyscrapers rise from the ground, only to sit half empty for years. Neighborhoods have been wiped out in the name of urban renewal, yet nothing “urban” ever really emerges anywhere.
Since none of the politicians, planning commissioners or chamber of commerce members have ever cared about the effects of these policies on the everyday person, it was only a matter of time before the blowback happened, that is, before a young literary genius came along and achieved worldwide stardom by writing about the ways San Jose damaged him, all in a book that will certainly be translated into multiple languages around the globe, and then by framing the whole mess with that blasted Dionne Warwick song—a tune even she hated.
A Man of Two Faces opens with a chapter titled, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” The sarcasm pours off the page like an open fire hydrant.
Much more unfolds in the book besides the San Jose elements, though. Many immigrants and refugees will relate to the story. Any creative person struggling with trauma will be inspired.
But in the end, San Jose residents in particular will benefit the most. If you’re going through hell, you must write your way through it. If the trauma persists, the redemptive power of the writer’s life awaits. There is a way out.
Maybe now Dionne Warwick will finally like that song.
A Conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen
Moderated by Cathy Park Hong
6:30pm, Monday, November 6.
San Jose City Hall Rotunda.