Editor’s Note: Carlos de los Angeles (Instagram) is a self-described New York-born, Florida-bred, Filipino-blooded photographer. The last time we wrote about him was HERE in 2016 when we shared some of his work that documented a changing Ivanhoe Village.
This interview is his reaction to a changing Mills 50 District.
By Carlos de los Angeles
Mills50 is a rapidly changing neighborhood just outside of downtown Orlando. This interview provides insight into the Vietnamese community that has been established in the area for over 3 decades now. We discuss the neighborhood’s past, its current state, and the future with a local business owner. We also discuss the relevance of Tết (Lunar New Year) within the Vietnamese-American community and how you can partake in the festivities this February.
Who are you?
My name is Ben. I’m a third generation Vietnamese American. My grandparents came over here after the war. I’ll be the third generation taking over the market so it’s running in the family [Tien Hung Market].
Tell us about the history of Tien Hung.
So the market has been around for 30 or 35 years. We were one of the first markets that started in Orlando. My grandparents took over when it first started, then my Dad took over 20-25 years ago, and 25 years later here I am.
Around the time Tien Hung was founded, was this when the Vietnamese community started settling in Orlando?
Yeah, so there weren’t that many Asian markets around the area. Nowadays, there’s markets popping left and right. Tien Hung and Little Saigon Market, those were the first, the OG Asian markets in Orlando. The Asian community was very small back then, 25-30 years ago. As the community grew bigger, the Vietnamese church expanded too. And there’s only one in Orlando so on Sundays, my busiest day, the entire community goes to church and hops over to the market.
So Orlando has one of the highest concentration of Vietnamese-Americans in the state of Florida, correct?
Yeah, definitely one of the highest. A huge influx of Vietnamese immigration occurred following the war. There’s typically one city in every state that has a high concentration of Vietnamese-Americans. Houston’s a huge spot, Denver’s a huge spot, Orlando’s a huge spot, and so on. A lot of Vietnamese-Americans live in Orlando because of how centralized it is. Tampa’s so close, South Florida’s not too far, and you’ve got St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Also, a lot of Vietnamese Americans follow the churches. I know there’s a big one in Tampa and a big one here. If there’s a huge Vietnamese church in a city, there’s a huge Vietnamese-American community too. The majority of my Vietnamese-American customers are Catholic, people I see at church. But there’s a Buddhist temple here too so it’s not all Catholic. In fact, the Tết festival at the fairgrounds is for the whole community, but then you have individual celebrations at the church and the temple as well.
So you mentioned that you guys were one of the OGs in the area. What did this neighborhood look like when you first moved in? What were the other original Vietnamese businesses?
So it was my market, and Little Saigon Market was here too. We were just a small store, nowhere near as big as we are now. We started off as one section, and now we’re three. Next door was a stamp shop and packaging company, so we didn’t exactly hop into an Asian neighborhood. We just hopped into any location we could get to open up the market. And once we opened up, Asian restaurants slowly opened up and families started following each other.
So the community businesses just spread from that central location of Tien Hung?
Yea, exactly. Like Anh Hong on the corner is my aunt’s restaurant. And from there, it just started spreading; from Asian jewelry stores across the street, nail salons a block away, and even more restaurants.
What changes have you seen in the neighborhood since Tien Hung opened? What direction would you like to see this neighborhood evolve into in the future?
If you look at the community now, the Mills50 area is starting to become more modernized, more hip. You got Lazy Moon, you got Lineage. It’s not Asian but you’re right next to the huge Asian community. Mills all the way down to Bumby is still mainly Asian. What I see in the future is a blend of Asian businesses and modernized businesses. Nowadays, a lot of business owners are about our age, 25-30 years old, so these businesses coming up are more hip and I think Asian businesses will just be a little more spread out now. You see it when you go down Mills where there’s a bunch of American-owned bars and restaurants now.
What I’d like to see is for Tien Hung to still be central, where people can come here and still walk and support both American and Asian-owned businesses in the neighborhood. It’s going to be a blend. If you go to highly concentrated Asian communities like in California, it’s strictly Asian businesses and it’s hard to open up an American business because it’s just Asians. But in Orlando, the Asian businesses are spread out in this neighborhood so that’s how we’re able to blend in together. I’d like to see more modern businesses pop up around here because that brings business to us. When we first opened, we were just seeing Asian customers, but now we’re seeing Americans of all ethnicities come and visit our store.
With that said, what is the relationship between the different Asian communities from a business standpoint? I know you can find some of the large-scale Chinese-based markets in East and West Orlando.
The thing is, we don’t step on each other’s toes because we are all so different. Because Tien Hung is a family owned market, we can sell whatever we want and we choose to sell a blend of products from different Asian cultures. When you go to some other markets, they’re owned by corporations that are China-based or Korea-based and have to sell products from those countries. We try to serve the entire Asian community.
And finally, what would you like to share about Vietnamese culture and what does Tết mean to you?
Tết is the Vietnamese New Year and really brings the community together. We follow the Lunar New Year so it falls within the first two months every year. You really need to go to the Tết Festival at the Central Florida Fairgrounds to see how big the community really is. And you don’t even need to be Asian to go; it’s a whole bunch of food, music, etc. And every year, they do lion dances and fireworks to bring good luck to the businesses. Tết is really about spending time with family and bringing everyone together.
The Vietnamese New Year (TET) Festival will be taking place 10 a.m.-7 p.m. February 15 and 18 at the Central Florida Fairgrounds. Scroll down to see more Mills 50 photos.