Builders of Asian plaza want state to get it straight: They’re Vietnamese, not Chinese

The backdrop for the conflict is “Little Saigon” in Largo, envisioned as a regional center anchored by a soon-to-open tea lounge.
A Facebook page shows the developer's hopes for Little Saigon Plaza, envisioned as a regional Asian cultural center on U.S. 19 in Clearwater.
A Facebook page shows the developer's hopes for Little Saigon Plaza, envisioned as a regional Asian cultural center on U.S. 19 in Clearwater. [ Facebook ]
Published Sep. 3, 2019|Updated Sep. 3, 2019

LARGO — Hau Nguyen and Minh Son Nguyen were trying to pay fines and lift a stop-work order so they could continue building a new tea lounge envisioned as the start of a regional Asian cultural center.

The two men were stopped cold when they heard a comment from the speaker phone in front of them, something they weren’t meant to hear.

“Who? Oh, those Chinese guys,” said James Acaba, the man who had issued them the citations the day before over worker’s compensation compliance. Acaba thought he was only speaking to the person calling him about the paperwork.

But Hau and Minh Son are Vietnamese — a fact they had stressed with him earlier.

“He’s like a bully to us,” said Hau, who is not related to Minh Son.

“You don’t have to group them all together like that,” added James Morris, Minh Son’s son-in-law. “You don’t have to say everyone’s Chinese."

The three men soon confronted Acaba about the comment, but he brushed it off, they said, telling them he often gets called Mexican.

The encounter led Hau to send a complaint about Acaba to the inspector’s employer, the Florida Department of Financial Services. It has also made them question the merit of the original citation.

The complaint has been referred to the department’s human resources office, said spokeswoman Alecia Collins. The office will decide whether to recommend administrative action.

The department does not tolerate the kind of behavior Hau Nguyen described, Collins said.

Since sending the complaint, Hau Nguyen said, he has not heard back or had phone calls returned.

Acaba did not respond to requests for an interview.

The backdrop for the conflict is a planned “Little Saigon” plaza at 14100 U.S. 19 N, in a business center that now is mostly empty. The tea lounge is set to open in September as an anchor, to be followed by a nail salon, a Korean barbecue buffet and an Asian-owned tax and insurance company.

Developer Viktor Pham sees the plaza as a destination for Asian people from Brandon to New Port Richey, a place they can socialize and shop.

He is inspired by the success of a similar effort in Kansas City spearheaded by California real estate investor Eric Phan, who also is a stakeholder in the Clearwater project.

Phan, a South Vietnamese refugee, points with pride to the South Vietnamese flag flying in the Clearwater plaza — a reminder of the days before Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975 and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

“People forget the Vietnamese south side," Phan said. “Lots of people here don’t understand this.”

Pham hopes the plaza can be the home of karaoke nights, performances and celebrations of holidays like the Lunar New Year. He hopes to turn the exterior into a pagoda and envisions a rooftop bar in the center.

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Still, his enthusiasm is tempered by his contractors’ encounter with the state inspector.

“I hate people picking on us because of our race,” Pham said.

Hau Nguyen said he was wrongly lumped in with another company when he was fined $1,000 over his worker’s compensation compliance.

A company run by Minh Son Nguyen and James Morris, called Morrison and Son Construction, had incorrectly filed their worker’s compensation papers but Hau isn’t connected with them, he said.

He said he had no luck trying to explain this to the inspector. But it was the comment about the “Chinese guys” that helped drive him to lodge the complaint.

“We want to bring awareness to the state," he said, "on what type of people they hire."

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect location for Little Saigon Plaza.

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.