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Chi Lives: the consummate host

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"Welcome, welcome!" says Truong Anh-Tuan as customers enter New Saigon, the Vietnamese restaurant he owns at Argyle and Broadway. "Please!" Anh-Tuan gestures for them to sit down. Then he moves from table to table, making sure everyone is happy. Today he's even more animated than usual, as his thoughts are focused on the upcoming celebration of Tet, the first day of the Vietnamese New Year. It's weeks before the February 19 date, but Anh-Tuan is already making plans.

"I have to buy the decorations. I have to contact the lion dancer. They come and dance here and that means we'll have good luck. That's what we believe. And I have to buy firecrackers, a lot of them." His smile suddenly turns into a scowl. "Firecrackers illegal now in Saigon. The people don't like it because this is tradition for hundreds of years, but the communists don't care about the people."

Anh-Tuan carries a bowl of soup over to an empty table and sits down. Though it's late in the afternoon, it's the first time he's eaten all day. Over pho--a traditional beef noodle soup--he talks about his past. "My family had a good life," he says, explaining how both of his parents worked for the South Vietnamese government (his father was a high-ranking bureaucrat). In 1967 Anh-Tuan joined the air force, and was assigned to a relatively safe base in Saigon, because "my mother wanted it--it was better than the army."

Though connections allowed him to escape serving on the war's front lines, after 1975 life wasn't so easy. Top military men and other professionals found themselves driving cyclos, small pedal-operated taxis. Many had been released from prison camps and were forbidden to reenter their former careers. Anh-Tuan was unable to find a job, and in 1986 he and his son escaped from Vietnam by boat. "My wife stayed over there because if you get caught you need someone with money to get you out. Otherwise you lose everything, your house--everything."

He sailed to Malaysia and reported to the American delegation. Because he was a former serviceman he was given political refugee status and was sent to the Philippines. Exactly one year after he left Vietnam he arrived in the U.S., and his wife joined him here four years later. Out of his nine siblings, five have left Vietnam. One brother lives in Oklahoma City. Three sisters and a brother live in France.

"When I first come here I work my first job in a factory. I make five dollars an hour. The factory make drill for the computer, to make electrical board. I have that job for five years. Then I work at O'Hare Airport. I was the only Vietnamese there." In 1991 he and his wife opened the New Saigon. "I am very lucky. A lot of people die in Vietnam war, but not me. Nothing bad happen to me. In U.S. it's easy to live if you don't have bad character."

The restaurant starts to fill up with more people. Anh-Tuan knows many of his customers, and he invites some to celebrate Tet with him. "We clean all the house before the New Year's time of 12 midnight. Clean everything and wait for ancestors to come back and spend the New Year with you. That's what we believe. Everybody will wear new clothes. Everybody hopes to be wealthy in the New Year. If something happens to your family in the first three days, especially in the first day of the New Year, it's very bad.

"We try to make it like home, so we don't miss home so much. Still, over here everything's different. We already American. We do what's easier," he says. "Next year my wife wants to go to Vietnam for Tet. I think I have to stay here and take care of restaurant and house, but we'll see, we'll see."

New Saigon is located on the corner of Argyle and Broadway. It's open Monday through Sunday, 10 to 10. Call 334-3322 for information.

--Zoe Zolbrod

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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