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Family Business

In Vietnam they had servants, chauffeurs, nannies. Here they wait tables and sleep like sardines.

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It was Tuan Nguyen's first day of business with his new restaurant and the Vietnamese community, ever supportive of one of its own, had turned out to greet him.

Although Tuan's sister Kim laughs about it now, the day was probably the worst she ever experienced. "We knew we had a problem when we saw customers lining up outside before nine in the morning."

Kim Nguyen, who had never waitressed a day in her life, remembers it this way: "Everybody who came in here ordered pho [beef noodle soup]. All day long, they yelled and screamed for pho. I'd walk by tables with a tray of bowls and people would just grab the soup right off the tray. I'd say, 'Wait, that's not for you!' and they'd say, 'That's OK, we'll take it anyway.' It got so bad that the rest of the staff hid in the kitchen and wouldn't come out. Finally, Tuan came out and started to apologize but that just made them angrier. He tried sending out his partner, who was a well-known Vietnamese singer, but even that didn't work. They shouted at her until she ran back into the kitchen, too."

When they closed at three the next morning, Kim remembers that "none of us could even walk anymore."

Tuan Nguyen insists that the neighborhood showed up in record numbers because the "Vietnamese community always supports a new business." His sister thinks they came because nobody believed that a former show promoter, a singer from a rock band, and a model knew anything about owning a restaurant.

They didn't.

In October 1985, after thinking about it for 48 hours, Tuan Nguyen and his partner, Khanh Ha, the lead singer from a band called the Uptight, bought a failing Vietnamese restaurant at the corner of Lawrence and Sheridan. They renamed it Pasteur after a street in Saigon.

He had been in Chicago twice before--once on tour with his wife, a folksinger whom he describes as the Joan Baez of Vietnam, and the second time as manager of the Uptight. By 1985, when the marriage to the Joan Baez of Vietnam was over, he wanted out of show business and a place to settle.

Of all the cities he had toured, Tuan Nguyen chose Chicago. "It's a quiet place where people are friendly," he says with a straight face. By quiet, he means that the Vietnamese community in Uptown hasn't been run over yet by Chinese gangs, which has happened in other large U.S. cities. It's also a town where "the cops aren't prejudiced against Asians like they are in California."

When it comes to happiness, Tuan Nguyen says he thinks of the balloon in Saint-Exupery's Le petit prince. "I don't know how to hang onto it," he shrugs, his accent a polyglot of English, French, and Vietnamese. This dark cloud over his usually frenetic cheerfulness quickly dissipates, and he jumps up to bark an order at one of the kitchen help.

"Sometimes we call him 'Doberman' or 'slave driver,'" confides Kim, who along with her sister Mai speaks English that's closer to valley girl. Before Tuan talked her into joining him, Kim modeled part-time. She had planned to stay in Chicago a month. Now, nearly two years later, at almost 20, she bemoans the state of her hands.

"Will you look at these?" She fans long, delicate fingers over the glass-topped table. "I used to do a lot of hand modeling. But now I've got burns, I've got knuckles. I never had knuckles like this . . . there's no way." She draws them back. "But you know, that's just memories," she whispers, leaning across the table. "My future is really in this restaurant." And she means it.

They were wealthy once. Before 1975, that is. Servants, chauffeurs, nannies for the ten children. Law school for Tuan. His father-in-law was chief of police in Saigon. His father a police captain. His mother a dealer in diamonds and gold.

Shortly after Saigon fell in April 1975, 32 family members--parents, children, in-laws, grandparents--slipped away by boat in the middle of the night and headed for Thailand. They were among the lucky ones who made it, who found a U.S. sponsor and arrived at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas six weeks later.

But it was on the bus trip to Washington, D.C. that they experienced the apotheosis of American culture. The bus driver stopped to buy lunch. "I saw this thing--this thing called a Big Mac," Tuan recalls. "It looked so awful . . . I couldn't believe it. But I was very hungry."

Tuan, the law student who spoke only French and Vietnamese, who was married and with an infant daughter, got a job washing dishes at a Holiday Inn in Springfield, Virginia, outside Washington. The whole family worked for the Holiday Inn. His wife, Nguyet Anh, cleaned rooms.

He worked 72 hours a week, and after several promotions was sent to restaurant management school, which he attended full-time during the day. "My wife and I would only see each other in the street between shifts. It was a terrible time. We had been university students and now I was a dishwasher and she was mad because she had to clean. We were like the sun and the moon. When one was up, the other was down."

After three years of toiling at miserable, low-paying jobs, Tuan and Nguyet Anh decided to revive her singing career and tour the many Vietnamese communities that had sprung up in the U.S. and around the world after 1975.

She wrote songs for all the displaced Vietnamese--songs about love and nostalgia but mostly "about anticommunism," says Tuan. ("Sing--sing a song for a happy ending," one of them goes. "No more fighting / no killing / no scaring / no horrible jails / no deadly tales . . .") Nguyet Anh received no salary, but the communities in which she performed picked up the tab for lodging and airfare. When she began making money from albums--to date she's recorded 12--Nguyet Anh used it to pay for trips to refugee camps. She continues to perform worldwide.

But in 1978 there was no money to be made from promoting a globe-trotting Vietnamese folksinger. Tuan looked around for another group and located the Uptight--a family rock group popular in Saigon since the late 60s that had relocated in California.

In 1978, with Tuan as manager, they began to tour the Vietnamese communities. Tuan booked performances for his wife in the same places the band performed and for the next seven years they played in some 130 cities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

They made money--a lot, according to Tuan. But when asked where it all went, he holds up his right hand. "You see the spaces between my fingers? I can make money but I can't keep it. Even with this restaurant, I have my brother handle the finances."

By 1985, Tuan had burned out. "I was tired of flying everywhere. I needed fresh air, a new place to start over. I'd lived in the U.S. ten years and I saw I really hadn't done anything for myself and my family. I was famous but I didn't have much to show for it."

"My parents are very loving but they're not used to American values like independence. Especially for girls. Would you believe my mother sometimes calls five times a day from Washington? She wants to know what I'm doing every minute. I think she's afraid I might run off or fall in love with someone."

In her jeans and T-shirt and consummate cheerleader sunniness, Kim Nguyen straddles two cultures. Despite being thoroughly Americanized, she says she is 100 percent Vietnamese, firmly embracing the traditional values of her heritage--the respect for family honor, the young always deferring to the old. But when she attended high school in Santa Clara--she lived there with another brother--she says she never became close to other Vietnamese. "They accused me of being too American.

"I've picked up on good American values like aggressiveness. Vietnamese girls aren't taught to be outspoken. When they turn 18, they go off and get married. I've seen a lot of unhappiness. They know nothing about life or working."

But Kim has had a taste of independence. After high school she lived with her sister, Mai, working as a model. Sometimes, she says, photographers would approach her offering large amounts of money for jobs involving far more than just modeling her hands. "They'd get very angry at me when I refused. They'd say that American girls would give anything for this kind of job, that it was my last big chance to make it big as a model. I'd say, "But I'm not American, I'm Vietnamese, and it's my family name that's going on this.'"

But Kim and Mai Nguyen have never been too far from the watchful eye of either their parents or Tuan, who at 34 is the oldest son. Now that she has stayed on to help with the restaurant, Kim shares a one-bedroom apartment with Tuan, Mai, another brother Dan, and three other staff from the restaurant.

"You don't get a lot of privacy in this life. I dream a lot. I dream about bringing my parents here where we can all live together in a big house with lots of rooms. I dream about having my own French-style cafe. About having three Doberman puppies. About having a Porsche."

Neither Kim nor Mai has had boyfriends. "Everybody can't believe the way we are," says Kim. "But I saw the problems with my friends' boyfriends and it scares me." When they socialize, they go out with their brothers. Tuan, she says, "watches over us like a hawk."

"We keep an eye on each other," he says. "We want to keep our old values. Asians, you know, are very conservative. In my country, a woman could not touch a man in public. Of course, we had to drop that here. But if we are too Americanized--smoking and drinking all night--then we aren't Vietnamese anymore. We want to influence people but we don't want people to influence us."

At night, after working 12, 13 hours, all of them return to their one-bedroom apartment together. Kim says she unwinds by doing aerobics for an hour with her sister. She weighs 97 pounds and Tuan says she is shrinking like a squid. "I'm so tired sometimes, I can't eat."

Tuan unwinds watching Chinese soap-opera videos dubbed in Vietnamese. "Hours of them," Kim teases.

Last summer, it seems, Chicago wasn't quite as friendly and quiet as Tuan had hoped. He began to have some trouble.

On different nights, neighborhood juveniles smashed the windows of the restaurant and his car. During the week, a small group of troublemakers would appear at the restaurant where they would order coffee and sit for six hours, intimidating both the staff and the customers. At this point, Tuan decided to send Kim and Mai back to Washington to their parents.

"Everyone was really afraid and I thought I would lose the restaurant. It was a very complicated problem. Some Vietnamese people are used to revenge so nobody ever wants to file complaints. If I file a complaint who will protect me?"

By the end of the summer, the juveniles had moved elsewhere and the problem disappeared. Kim and Mai returned and the restaurant began to revive.

Knowing that the Vietnamese community alone was too small to support him, Tuan decided to cater to the demands of the American market. He began advertising and hanging out in restaurants like Leona's and Ed Debevic's in order to pick up new ideas. He had Kim and Mai carefully explain the dishes to the uninitiated in their flawless American accents. "I began to see every American customer as a sponsor and a food critic."

Tuan also needed more help. He had bought out his partner, the former singer from the Uptight, who wanted to leave Chicago, complaining it was too dull and too cold.

"In Vietnamese families, the young obey the old, " says Tuan. "So I called my mother and she gave orders for Dan to come here from Houston."

On orders from "the Supreme Court," as Kim describes her mother, Dan Nguyen, 28, turned his thriving hair salon business over to his sister-in-law and headed north to become partners with his brother. Neither Kim nor Mai is a partner yet. Tuan says it is because they are both under 21. Kim says it's to protect them should the business ever fail.

He was raised a Roman Catholic but each morning, as an offering, he sets a cup of tea in front of a fat porcelain Buddha that sits near the cash register. "It's like our guardian angel. It keeps the devil away," he explains.

Fortunately, it hasn't kept the customers away. Among them, a Vietnam vet named Jerry. It is one of Tuan's favorite stories. "This man came in here one night. He didn't say much, he didn't smile, and he just ate and left. The next day he came back. I have a good memory and I said, 'Oh, sir, you had the chicken curry over rice last time. What do you want today?' He smiled for the first time.

"I found out he was a former Green Beret who saw a lot of his friends killed. He told me he wanted to wash his brain of Vietnamese people and he said he drove by this restaurant many times before coming in here. Finally, he said, 'Tuan, I don't know what pushed me to stop, to come in. I didn't want to bring back any memories.' Now he comes in at least once a week and we talk about the old days."

Tuan, Dan, Kim, and Mai Nguyen have a new problem now. Their corner restaurant, no longer a well-guarded secret, is filled to capacity on weekends. They think about moving, perhaps across the street where they could get a liquor license. It's impossible at their current location because Pasteur sits next to a church and state law prohibits issuing a license to any establishment within 100 feet of a church or school.

Reviews line the wall now, along with the old photographs of Saigon. Tuan says he likes the fact that among his customers are several journalists who once covered the war.

As for any monetary success, he dismisses the notion with a wave of his hand.

"The Vietnamese community thinks we're rich. But if we were rich now, would we still be sleeping like sardines?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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