Every family’s immigration story should, ipso facto, have a happy ending. Hey, they made it from some war-torn disaster area to the promised land of Minnesota — what else is there? They should all live happily ever after.
Last week, restaurateur Mai Nguyen told me about her trajectory from Vietnam to Minnesota: she escaped from Vietnam during the war, settled in St. Paul, built a life with her family, and became a successful businesswoman. I was waiting for the hopeful ending when suddenly the story took a disappointing turn. Mai Village, the gorgeous, elaborately decorated restaurant she’s owned for over twenty years, is on the brink of foreclosure.
“I believe in miracles,” Mai told me. “Maybe someone will believe in me and give me another chance. But right now I owe the bank a lot of money.” She’s a cheerful and indefatigable woman; it’s hard to believe that after all the tragedies and accomplishments in her life, the economy is going to take her down at last.
Mai’s life story contains a lot of curiosities. I didn’t want to seem like I was interrogating her, so I left some questions unasked — probably the same questions you’ll have when you read this. But it’s an amazing story, and it’s dispiriting to think that it may be going in this direction.
Mai was born in Nha Trang, a village in the southern part of Vietnam. Her family moved to Saigon when she was eight years old. They were prosperous; her father was a colonel in the South Vietnamese army who spent time at Fort Benning and traveled around the U.S. in the 1950’s. (Here’s where I didn’t ask about the CIA, for example.) He told his family that they should all live in Minnesota someday: the people were friendly, he liked the four-season climate, and there were lots of places to get good jobs, like Honeywell and 3M. It wasn’t until Mai was around ten that she became aware of the political situation around her.
“They told us we couldn’t see my grandma and aunts and uncles on my dad’s side anymore,” she said. “They lived in the north, and the Communists took away their rights because of my dad’s rank in the army.”
By the time the Communists came to Saigon, things were getting scary. “I only knew they were fighting because of what I saw on TV,” she recalled. “I saw tanks and heard sirens, and there was a curfew, but it still didn’t seem real.” Mai carried on with her life; she got married and had four children. She had a nanny to help care for the kids.
And then, suddenly, it was frighteningly real. One of her brothers was killed in the war. Her parents, along with Mai’s young son, were evacuated to Camp Pendleton in California. In February of 1975, Mai and her three little daughters escaped by boat to a refugee camp in Manila; her husband stayed in Saigon to try to hold onto his job. While she was on the boat to the Philippines, she heard on the radio that the Communists had taken over the south. Then all communication with her family in Vietnam was cut off.
And then, shortly after arriving at the refugee camp, she found out she was pregnant.
There were no nannies in the refugee camp. Mai was on her own for the first time in her life.
Nine months later, through the sponsorship of Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church in St. Paul, Mai and her daughters began their journey to Minnesota. They boarded the plane…and Mai went into labor.
And then, thirty minutes before the plane landed for refueling in Honolulu, Mai gave birth to her fifth child.
“I tell my children that if they ever get to Honolulu, they should go to the library and look up the article about it,” Mai said. “It was in the newspaper.” A Vietnamese doctor who happened to be on the plane helped deliver the baby, but most of the help came from two flight attendants, one named Katherine and one named Kristen. Mai named her daughter Katherine Kristen.
“People always tell me I should write a book about my life,” said Mai. “But I don’t want to spend too much time revisiting the past. I never saw my first husband again. He never knew that we had another child. I don’t know what happened to him.”
She and her daughters were reunited with her parents and son in Minnesota. Her mom started work at Control Data, her dad at 3M, just as he had recommended two decades before. Some of her mother’s friends were of the opinion that Mai shouldn’t remarry, in case she was ever able to find her husband. Mai disagreed.
“Like a river, life keeps on flowing,” said Mai. “Fate brought me together with my second husband, Ngoan.”
Ngoan Dang had escaped from Vietnam during a time of panic and chaos. He got separated from his family as they were on their way to a refugee boat, and as he was looking desperately for them, he saw a friend hailing him from another boat. He leapt aboard just as they were pulling away from shore, not knowing what happened to his family. After he made it out of the refugee camps, he was sent to Ohio, where he learned that his sister was in Wisconsin. He eventually settled in Minnesota and enrolled in a vocational program in manufacturing technology.
“We were like two broken pieces of pottery, and we came together to make a family,” Mai said.
She stayed home with her children after she and Ngoan married. “I thought that was what the woman was supposed to do, stay home and care for the family,” she said. “It was the Oriental way. I didn’t even think about getting an education or a job. I didn’t realize my mistake for a long time.”
And then, her 13-year-old son committed suicide.
In her grief and shock, she knew she needed to get out of the house, to move on with her life. She found a manufacturing job at Honeywell in 1987, but she got laid off in 1989. At that point, her husband said to her, “You’re a good cook. Why not open a restaurant?”
Mai’s mother had run a little restaurant in New Brighton for a few years, called Mimosa, and Mai had helped out. She went to other Vietnamese restaurants in the area to get more ideas; she’d taste things at Chinese restaurants and try to reinterpret them at home. She and Ngoan rented a space near University and Western in St. Paul and opened Mai Village in 1990.
“At the opening, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Mai admitted. “I knew how to cook, but not in restaurant quantities. When I was stirring the noodles in the wok, I stirred too hard and everything flew out onto the floor. And when I tried to roll up the spring rolls, they kept unrolling themselves!” It sounds like a disaster, but Mai thought it was funny. She says that when she gets together with other restaurant owners, they laugh themselves silly over their early restaurant memories.
“Now, I have to say, I make the best spring rolls in town,” Mai bragged. “I use red leaf lettuce. No barbecued pork, just cooked pork. My special homemade sauce. And I was the first one around here to make noodle salad the ‘right’ way.” She acknowledges, though, that chefs from each region of Vietnam have different approaches. “Everyone has to use their skill and imagination,” she said. “Cooking is like painting. You use some red here, yellow here, blue there. If you put your heart into it, the food will be good.”
Around ten years ago, business was so good that she and Ngoan decided to expand the restaurant. They had ideas beyond the cuisine: they wanted to bring the art and culture of Vietnam to America.
“American people don’t know much about Vietnamese ’high culture,’” said Mai. “People look down on us here. All they know of Vietnam is the ‘low culture’ they saw on TV during the war — farmers and peasants in those hats. Ngoan and I wanted to bring in the beautiful art of Vietnam, first to satisfy our own homesickness, and second to show it proudly to Americans.”
If you haven’t been to Mai Village — and you’d better go soon, just in case — this is what it’s like: you walk into a sanctuary of wood carving and flowers. You cross a wooden bridge over a pond filled with orange and white koi. Each table is inlaid with intricate designs. The bar is a masterpiece, with china tiles embedded in carved wood. It’s an extravagance of beauty that you don’t usually see around here, except in a museum.
“My husband has very high standards about art,” said Mai. “We spent two years going back and forth to Vietnam, picking out just the right stuff. He knows a lot about art because of where he grew up.”
Ngoan grew up in a palace. He’s the grandnephew of a queen.
Ngoan’s grandmother’s sister was a concubine of the king Khai Dinh. When she gave birth to Khai Dinh’s son, he married her and she became queen. In addition to that royal connection, Ngoan’s grandfather was an officer in the palace of Khai Dinh. So although Ngoan doesn’t have royal lineage himself, he spent his childhood in the palace at Huế. This is where he developed his particular taste in art and furniture.
“We’re the only ones in Minnesota with this kind of decor,” Mai claims. The outside of the restaurant is very plain, which was part of the plan. “I wanted people to be surprised when they walk in. I want them to say, ‘Oh my God! Where am I?’” That is, in fact, exactly what I said when I first walked into Mai Village.
At this point in our conversation, I was hoping that Mai’s story would conclude with, “…and the newly expanded restaurant was a great success, and we lived happily ever after.” But just then two men walked in to meet with Mai: Va-Megn Thoj from the Asian Economic Development Association, and Kevin Riba of the Community Reinvestment Fund.
“They’re here to see if they can help me survive,” said Mai matter-of-factly. “But I don’t know what they can do. I’m in debt, my credit is bad, I’m delinquent on this and that. If I lose the restaurant, I’ll lose my house, too. I used all my home equity in the restaurant. We’ll be homeless.”
The gates to the palace where Ngoan grew up
Mai Village recently hosted a festive ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new initiative that re-brands the eastern end of University Avenue as “Little Mekong.” The hope of the AEDA and others is that once the light rail is complete, the area will become a bustling “Eat Street.” It seems ironic that only a few weeks after that forward-looking event, the restaurant itself may be facing extinction. No doubt, Mai’s visitors from the economic development agencies were aware of that irony.
Mai’s difficulties have been going on for some time. When the economy started to falter in 2007, Mai Village faltered too. “We were already in trouble by then,” says Mai. “Customers told me that they couldn’t eat out anymore the way they used to. We’re very lucky in many ways, but we’re struggling. I can’t ask any of my relatives for help because they’re all struggling, too. Soon the Central Corridor light rail construction is going to start on our block, and that’s going to make things even harder.”
I left her to her meeting with Va-Megn Thoj and Kevin Riba. Later, I called her to see if they’d come up with any solutions. She wasn’t despondent, but she wasn’t too sanguine, either. Nothing had changed.
“The only thing that can help me is if more customers come and sales go up. Then I have nothing to fear,” she said. “I’ll be very sad and disappointed if I lose everything, after more than twenty years in this business, after coming here in 1975 and working so hard to build up my life and my family. It’s like a tsunami; everything will be gone, washed away.
“But I believe in God, and if God doesn’t want me to have this, what can I say? I just hope that someone, somehow will reach out and give me a helping hand, one more time.”
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.