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Rebranding Tet

Jerry Sullivan

Scenes from Egypt, Tunisia and other places in the Middle East provide a reminder of the chaos that can consume nations.

The scene on Bolsa Avenue in Little Saigon a couple of weeks ago offered evidence that chaos can be overcome.

Don’t get me wrong—chaos had a place along Bolsa as streams of drivers sought rare parking spaces, crowds gathered around impromptu fireworks displays and shoppers elbowed their way among dozens of flower merchants who set up shop in parking lots.

The buzz came in advance of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration earlier this month. Flowers are a big part of the tradition, and peddlers offered their best orchids and other selections.

The jumble of commerce, tradition and celebration was a relatively nice sort of problem for all involved. It certainly was nicer than the American experience in the Vietnam War, which ended in utter chaos.

Many historians say the end started with the Tet Offensive in 1968. Vietcong forces picked the New Year holiday to unleash a campaign of attacks that sowed chaos throughout South Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive failed to score any military victories by standard measures. Yet it succeeded in fostering a perception of chaos that struck a significant blow against the South Vietnamese government.

The chaos that started with the Tet Offensive and ended with crammed refugee boats fleeing Vietnam also led to the creation of Little Saigon. It’s a sprawling area that takes in parts of five cities in North Orange County—the largest concentration of ethnic Vietnamese outside of Vietnam itself.

Little Saigon is where the refugees staked a claim to something better than the chaos they faced as their native country crumbled.

What better place to rebrand Tet?

There are no doubt many who continue think of the Vietnam War when they hear the word Tet.

Little Saigon’s recent hustle and bustle built around flower peddlers indicates another view, though. It shows that many others have remembered that the holiday existed before the war and survived combat.

Jim Schlusemeyer, owner of Tuyet’s Orchids, is an example. He sells his flowers to retailers and the general public and is a regular at the weekly swap meet at the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

Schlusemeyer was born in Vietnam and came here as a refugee, eventually taking the last name of his stepfather. He’s a competitive businessman and breeds his own orchids.

Schlusemeyer was among the flower merchants who enjoyed the big crowd in Little Saigon in the days leading up to Tet. His business has taken hits along with most others the past few years. The holiday and its call for flowers brought a nice spike.

Not bad for a holiday that bears a name once firmly associated with one of the most frustrating and fractious periods in American history.

Rather impressive for a community of refugees who only recently carved a new life for themselves as Americans.

Any doubts about the rebranding of Tet were answered by a small booth set up amid the flower peddlers on Bolsa. It was sponsored by Sam’s Club—part of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. A salesperson pitched the crowd on home improvements.

You’d be hard pressed to come up with a better example of putting the hyphen in Vietnamese-American.

Sullivan is managing editor of the Business Journal.

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