ST. PETERSBURG — In 1995, Minh Bui watched his parents fashion a new life in America. That year, they bought a storefront with neon orange awning to call their own. They named it Dong-A Oriental Market — or Asian market.
It took hard work to get here, his parents like to say. Yes, the son adds, but also a miracle.
Here he is, almost 30 years later, carried by the tides of hard work or a miracle, or both, standing behind the market’s register on an August afternoon.
The rain is coming down.
“People still need to buy their groceries,” Minh, 37, said, whipping out a plastic bag.
For one woman, it’s six packets of noodles, which she pays for with cash from a sandwich bag. She places them atop a crate of Thai eggplants — shiny green spheres the size of brussels sprouts. A few more days and they’ll be spoiled. Those, then, are a gift. She’ll take them back to her Vietnamese restaurant, Cafe Bich Nga, in Pinellas Park.
For another customer, 12 fried egg rolls, sticky rice and a beer. He had a little free time and decided to drive across the bay, returning to a place he’s known since he was 12.
“This is my store,” he says, casting a glance around before he leaves.
By the entrance, the air smells of jackfruit and frying oil. One employee sits on a stool and weighs sprigs of Thai basil to bag and tie off. Further in, the scent turns pungent where gleaming fish lie in ice.
For nearly three decades, Dong-A Market has served as a fixture for St. Petersburg’s Asian immigrants and Asian-American population. Here, between the narrow aisles where items are stacked in cardboard boxes, they find emblems of home — herbs Publix doesn’t carry, fresh shrimp summer rolls and a dozen brands of white rice, slumped atop one another.
Minh has yet to call this shop his own, though you can find him more often here than home.
My and Vien Bui came to America in 1986, when Minh was a baby. Months waiting in the Bataan Refugee Camp in the Philippines culminated in a sponsorship in St. Petersburg where an elderly woman looked to help a family.
This, Minh said, was a miracle — the right place, right time, right lady. Then came the hard work.
His father took a job at Saigon Market, a now-shuttered Asian grocery store that Minh said was the first of its kind in the city. He found community, but also a growing customer base: St. Petersburg residents searching for diverse foods. Vien worked nights at a cable company. Minh remembers barely seeing her at home.
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Meanwhile, Vien gave birth to a second son, Kenneth. My was injured in a car accident. And the couple kept dreaming of opening their own Asian market.
With My’s insurance payout, they bought a small unit in a plaza on 16th Street and 30th Avenue North, no bigger than a 7-Eleven. They sold the basics: rice, produce, seafood, meat. In 1995, they moved down the street to a 5,000-square-foot storefront on 26th Street North, where they’ve been ever since.
“Everybody knows where that place is,” said Ginger Le, a longtime regular. “It was one of the few grocery stores that sold everything that we needed.”
Dong-A didn’t need advertisements, just word of mouth. Le, who immigrated in 1981, met her friends there on the weekends. Grocery shopping turned into a gathering as they bought favorite foods they easily could find in Vietnam but had trouble making in their new home — mooncakes or sticky rice squares wrapped in banana leaves.
“A lot of these old grocery stores aren’t in upscale neighborhoods,” she said. “But people still find them and go there.”
There were a small handful of Vietnamese immigrants in Tampa Bay then, Le said. Everyone became friends because they had to.
Over the years, St. Petersburg’s Vietnamese population has grown into the thousands. Nearby neighborhoods Lealman and Pinellas Park have the highest percentage of residents of Vietnamese ancestry in the state.
As My and Vien ran the store, Minh watched. As a toddler, he sat behind the register with his mother. When school dismissed, he returned to Dong-A, not home. And when he turned 18, he decided he would started working there to make a little money.
“The parents started it,” Le said. “Now, it’s the children’s turn.”
Then she wonders: Are the sons — who grew up in America, who are living the better life their parents fashioned — willing to stick around and keep their parents’ dream going?
Behind the meat display case, My stands with a mountain of slabs of fatty pork butt in front of him. It’s Tuesday, but prepping the weekend’s roast pork starts early.
He takes one piece and slaps it down on the cutting board. It takes two perpendicular slashes for the bone to fall off. Then he drags the knife down the middle, stopping just before the end, so it unravels into one long strip.
He tosses the strip into a plastic storage bin precariously positioned in an old shopping cart. Onto the next. My doesn’t look down as he slices — after traveling back to Vietnam years ago to learn the recipe, it’s become familiar.
He pauses to rub the arm holding the knife. At 61, he knows he has to stop working soon. Four, maybe five more years.
“I’m getting weak,” he says sheepishly.
The bin grows full and he runs into a closet, emerging with a tub of garlic powder larger than his head. He dumps two ladles of it atop the meat.
Once full of so many wants — a family, a house, a business — he struggles to articulate one now.
“So far, everything’s good,” he says. “I don’t want anything.”
He pauses, then amends his thoughts. He wants to retire soon and hand off the business to his sons. He just doesn’t know if they can carry the load.
He cracks open a jug of sesame oil. He wants to take care of his grandchildren.
Two spoonfuls of salt. Well, first, he wants his sons to get married and have grandchildren.
Drizzling the oil over the meat, he then leaves it to marinate, pork butt glistening under fluorescent lights.
A lull falls over the store. Minh leans against the wall behind the register, brings his mask down to his chin, and sips a canned coffee. He stares blankly through the plastic sneeze guard shield on the counter, waiting.
At first, working at the store was thrilling — to be able to make his own money to buy clothes or go out with friends. He spent a few years at St. Petersburg College before dropping out. He figured he’d just work at Dong-A instead.
He was quiet then. He still is.
He loved painting and drawing as a kid — a hobby, he thought, not a career. He would have loved to do it as a career. He and his friends visited the new Salvador Dalí museum just a few days after it opened in 2011. The beauty, he said, was that Dalí's work has nothing to do with reality.
He doesn’t sketch now. His mind’s never quite relaxed and besides, there’s not enough time. Mondays are his days off, when he gets to stay at home and do nothing.
Still, he’s known the store all his life. His brother and uncle work here, and at one point, his aunt and cousin did, too. He knows the champagne mangoes sell fast and the bean sprouts need to be restocked daily. He can name nearly three dozen regulars.
If his parents asked him to inherit the store, he would do it.
“You ready, brother?” Minh says as a familiar face approaches the register holding two brands of seaweed sheets.
“What’s the difference in price?” Jason Reuter asks. He and his wife, Melissa, live a few miles away. They stumbled across Dong-A four years ago and return multiple times a month for kimchi, spring rolls and cheap vegetables.
“You could spend $10 in produce here and leave with a whole bag — bean sprouts, limes, anything,” Melissa said.
The seaweed, though, is for their pet fish.
Meanwhile, Vien, 60, has placed a bowl of soup noodles atop a plastic case of banh mi baguettes. She lets Minh slip out the back door with the bowl and takes his place at the register, calling up the next customer in a shrill voice.
“In some ways, I feel like (my parents) love to work,” Minh said. “That’s part of our culture — you live to work, not work to live.”
The man asks when they’ll have more steamed buns. Come back tomorrow, Vien says.
Another checks that his groceries are covered in their plastic bags before wheeling out the cart, filled to the brim, into the rain.
A woman lingers at the register after Vien rings her up, speaking in Vietnamese.
“Remember it, I love you,” she tells Vien in English.
“Okay, okay,” Vien says, gesturing at the line. With a soft smile, she shoos her out the door.
Soon, the rain will stop. Customers returning home from work will drop by for dinner ingredients — a pouch of Thai basil, a bag of rice. And Minh will return behind the register, bowl empty, to greet them as afternoon passes into evening, another day, another closing.