New Development Changes Face of Orlando’s Little Vietnam
The smell of spices lingers outside of Dong A Oriental Supermarket on Mills Avenue. Inside the brick building, customers weave between long aisles stocked with candies and teas and imported fruits.
On most days, Kim Chau is behind the register ringing up popular products like ginseng, tapioca, and live crab.
Chau came to Orlando from Vietnam as a refugee in 1978. The war stripped her father of his business and her family of its property. With a few bags and some help from the Catholic Church, she came to the United States at 18.
“When I stay on in the airplane, I think, ‘Oh, I come to the United States,’ I may not have rice to eat,” she laughs.
Chau found rice in Orlando—on Colonial Drive. She also saw something she wasn’t expecting: Vietnamese restaurants sprinkled throughout the neighborhood.
“I am impressed because I see some of my own, so I’m very impressed and I say ‘Oh, we can survive here,’” she remembers.
With a loan from a family friend, Chau’s father started Dong A–or East Asia– Market in 1982. He leased a small space on Orange Avenue for three years, then they moved to Mills Avenue.
The area was quiet back then. It did not have the murals and arts shops and cafes it’s now known for.
“We don’t have much Oriental population. We’re not talking about Vietnamese, Oriental in Orlando. In that moment, it’s very small,” Chau thinks back.
But an oil spill in Texas triggered a flow of Asian Americans to Florida. They came with an appetite for better opportunities—and nostalgia for food from home. Chau’s family responded to that need.
“A lot of people from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, when they come to the store—even Japanese and Korean, they can find their food, so year by year, you have more people who know you,” she says.
More than thirty years later, the small building is one of the oldest markets in the area. And it’s become an informal anchor for Orlando’s Asian community.
“When they come to Orlando sometimes they ask, they say where can I get Oriental, they say Dong A,” Chau smiles.
When Kathryn Llamas received a call from Disney a few years ago asking her to give a tour of the area to their development team, she made sure to point Dong A out.
“I stood in front of the bus just like a tour guide would do. It was a huge tourist bus of Disney Imagineers. And the bus went slowly down Mills and 50,” she remembers.
It was the first time Disney had organized a tour of its kind, hoping to get ideas for new designs for its theme parks. And for Llamas, past president of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, it was an indication that Little Vietnam was not so little.
For all its flourishing, Llamas says Little Vietnam’s businesses have mainly thrived out of necessity.
“It wasn’t really so they can introduce the culture to the American consumer. No, it was really to really service their own community, but in the process, drew attention from non-Asians who wanted to sample some of that slice of home.”
In the last decade, she’s seen Little Vietnam’s businesses develop a more non-Asian clientele due in large part to a rebranding known as Mills 50.
Joanne Grant is executive director of Mills 50. It’s a mainstreet initiative that’s sprung up in the past nine years to rebrand and revitalize the area. The project expands 4 neighborhoods around Mills Park, including Colonial Town, Lake Highland and Lake Eola Heights.
“You know, this area used to be called ViMi—which actually didn’t stand for Vietnam and Mills?” Grant thinks back. “It stood for Virginia and Mills.”
Grant spends most of her time helping businesses owners who want to move into Mills 50. The area has a reputation for being artsy. Chinese palms line its streets, with murals, and small, independent businesses ranging from tattoo shops to acupuncturists. But Grant remembers the area differently when she first moved in thirty years ago.
“This was not a part of Orlando that anyone would think of coming to shop. People didn’t say, ‘Oh I want to live in Colonialtown. The one thing that did draw people, many many people into this area was the huge number of Asian restaurants.”
So much so that Mills 50’s tagline is “The intersection of creativity and culture,” to pay homage to the culture that was already there.’
But even though Mills 50’s focus is development, bridging the gap between creativity and culture has been a hurdle—mainly because of what Grant calls a disconnect among some Asian business owners.
“There is resistance on the part of some Asian businesses as to ‘I’m doing fine here by myself. I don’t need the city here…almost like a hands off. I’m fine. I don’t need your help,'” Grant reflects.
And although she is working with the Asian American Chamber of Commerce and the Vietnamese Business Association to engage the community, it’s a slow process. Kathryn Llamas blames it on what she calls an identity crisis.
“Well, the [Asian] community in general is not going through an identity crisis, I mean the Asian community knows who they are. Even before Asian businesses had moved into this area, there was still a mills 50 area composed of businesses that were not Asian,” she remembers.
There were talks in the past about turning part of Mills 50 into a Chinatown, with grand arches like in San Francisco and New York. But other businesses were opposed.
“They felt that they were going to be lumped into what was an Asian town or Asian district and that would take away their own identity,” Llamas says of certain businesses. For others, the fact that calling an area China Town when it was really Little Vietnam, then calling it Little Vietnam when it was a Little Asian didn’t set well, either.
“Mills 50 seemed like the perfect solution. Just call it whatever the street names are called, so there’s less conflict. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Hey, why are you calling it Mills 50?’ ‘We’re calling it Mills 50 because it’s Mills and 50.”
But Llamas and other members of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce would like to see more money go toward highlighting the area’s Asian flair.
“It’s like a best kept secret for the locals here, but I’d like to see it hyped up in the international market or even the national tourist market,” she says.
Joanne Grant, executive director of Mills 50, agrees its greatest advantage is its diversity.
“We have very very few empty storefronts now. I have business owners calling, emailing saying we’d love to relocate our business in Mills 50, can you help us find a place?” Grant says.
As condos and chain stores form a ring around the neighborhood, Grant’s confident that small businesses will continue to give Mills 50 its own charm.
And so is Kim Chau, who’s prepared to bloom where she’s planted—something she got used to when she first came to Orlando forty years ago.
Development for her means more tourists and new clientele.
“We know there’s a lot of competition around with the big store. Big stores like Walmart, Whole Foods, Publix, but we just try. Our merchandise is different,” she says.
And that’s the very thing that keeps Chau’s customers coming—from Indonesia, and Vietnam, from down the street and beyond.