Mini-Malls and Fish Sauce: Cultural Landscapes, Heritage, and Identity-Making in Philadelphia's Little Saigon
This study analyzes the relationship between Vietnamese-American identity and the built environment of Philadelphia’s Vietnamese-American neighborhood. Drawing upon cultural landscape studies approaches, this thesis looks at Vietnamese Americans’ interactions with and alterations of their physical environment in Southeast Philadelphia as ways to create a distinctly Vietnamese-American space. The created landscape provides important cultural spaces and opportunities for Vietnamese Americans to preserve their Vietnamese heritage, feel a sense of belonging, and imagine Vietnamese-American futures; at the same time, new outside developments increasingly threaten the neighborhood’s character as a Vietnamese-American cultural and economic hub. This study addresses the multiple levels of importance Philadelphia’s “Little Saigon” has in the realm of architectural history, heritage conservation, and community preservation. It also argues for a concerted effort to help preserve Little Saigon’s significance to its Vietnamese-American community – not as a static historic artifact, but as a dynamic living landscape. The study’s first section details the history of Vietnamese migration into the United States, comparable examples of other “Little Saigons” across America, and the urban history of South Philadelphia. The second section looks closely at the built forms and spatial organization of the neighborhood, identifying five main character defining elements: (1) mini-malls, (2) adapted buildings, (3) the Buddhist temple, (4) signage, and (5) commercial interiors. The third section presents findings on community perspectives on the neighborhood, largely drawn from interviews. The final section addresses the threats to Little Saigon’s survival and proposes measures to preserve the neighborhood and its significance to Vietnamese Americans.