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Vietnamese in Chicago give Chinatown a run for the money

On a Saturday afternoon, it's like cosmopolitan, prewar Saigon. Fashionably dressed Vietnamese teen-agers sip noodle soup in restaurants. Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Burmese, Asian-Indian, and Chinese shoppers patter through stores, laden with weighty sacks of fresh lemongrass, ginger root, and rice. A Hmong child, beside a freshly painted store, shyly clings to his mother's gaily patterned sarong. The exotic Indo-Chinese flavor is unmistakable, yet the place is a hemisphere away from Saigon. Instead, it's a bustling six-block stretch of shops and restaurants along Chicago's Argyle Street in Uptown, a lower-class, mixed-ethnic community on the North Side where many of the city's 10,000 Vietnamese refugees live.

Until the ``boat people'' were resettled here after they fled Vietnam in the years following the 1975 fall of Saigon, Argyle Street was a dilapidated shopping avenue with a rough edge. Graffiti were smeared on store fronts with boarded-up windows. Pimps, prostitutes, and drug-pushers plied their trades on unlit, crumbling sidewalks.

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But the Asian entrepreneurs, the majority of them from Vietnam, scrubbed down the sidewalks, repaired aging fa,cades, and got the city to install new street lights.

``The change has been astronomical,'' says former Chicago Alderman Marion Volini, who lives near Argyle. ``No one used to dare to go in there after 5 p.m., and now there is a real night life.''

As a result, what began as a handful of tiny, tenuous food markets in 1978 has blossomed into a 60-shop business district where fortunes are made and tourists venture after dark to sample Southeast Asian cuisine. The area also draws many Asian visitors from all over the Midwest.

``Business flow seems to get better all the time,'' says Ngoan Le, executive director of the Vietnamese Community Center, a staunch supporter of the young business strip. And, Miss Le says, shops with Chinese pictographs on their signs are now spilling over to adjacent streets.

Some say that the Argyle Street area may be fast outpacing Chicago's traditional Chinatown on the South Side. ``I think Chinatown is dying,'' says Sam Kam, a dapper, former Burmese member of Parliament living in Addison, Ill., toting his shopping bag along Argyle. ``The restaurants here are more fashionable and the stores are cheaper.''

Despite Argyle's growing success, many of its businesses are still struggling and sections of the street remain rundown. Because of the new influx of shoppers, traffic is seriously congested, although plans are under way to build a parking lot to ease traffic problems, says Edwin Silverman, director of the Illinois Refugee Resettlement Program.

Economic assimilation has not been easy for the refugees, who braved the frigid cold to settle in Chicago, Le says. Like an estimated half-million Vietnamese living in the United States today, most of them in the warmer climes of California, they arrived penniless.

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``At first it was a very hard struggle, but we managed to survive,'' says Lam Ton, once a translator for the US State Department in Saigon. Today Mr. Ton is a successful Argyle Street restaurateur who recently opened a second restaurant in downtown Chicago and is setting up a Vietnamese frozen-food venture.

To raise capital, explains Le, families from the same neighborhood in Vietnam live together in cramped quarters in low-rent areas so they can pool their resources and live more cheaply. Many people work two full-time jobs to save.

But language and cultural barriers have been the hardest to overcome. Once the refugees master English, they still must learn to do business the American way. In Chicago, the Vietnamese Business Development Project helps them establish credit, learn about the US banking system, and obtain loans, according to Le.

``Argyle Street is a real example of the bootstrap ethic by new arrivals,'' says former Alderman Volini. ``It's exciting to see the people of Uptown reliving the American dream before our eyes.''

``The Vietnamese have probably settled more rapidly than any of the other refugee groups that have come to Chicago,'' Mr. Silverman says.

Their success, he says, is due in part to the high priority that has been placed on education. On top of that, he adds: ``The Vietnamese are very competitive.''

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