San Jose’s Vietnamese cafes serving up coffee, tea and whee!
By Bruce Newman
Posted: 06/19/2011 05:03:21 PM PDT
Updated: 06/19/2011 10:24:21 PM PDT
When Cafe Quyên is hopping — as it often is, day and night — the Vietnamese coffee shop has as many as six waitresses serving customers crammed into a space no larger than a doctor’s waiting room. A cultural fixture of San Jose’s Southeast Asian community bounded by Story and Tully roads, the Vietnamese cafes drip coffee and covetousness.
The waitresses at Quyên on a recent weekday afternoon were in various stages of undress. A middle-aged woman whom bloggers refer to as “boss lady Linh” passed through the crowd in a hot pink see-through blouse as waitresses climbed on chairs and danced, shouting “Tip! Tip!” at the customers.
The coffee shops — which have been in business for at least two decades in San Jose — have always been known for the provocative attire of their waitresses. But as the economy tanked, the bottom fell out of some servers’ costumes — literally. Several Vietnamese coffee shops began serving $4 glasses of iced coffee to their predominantly male clientele by waitresses wearing little or nothing at all.
Many of the cafes permit smoking indoors, the smoke often mixing with burning incense in shrines to Buddha, usually right next to a California Lottery Scratchers vending machine.
It’s hard to come by facts and figures — well, facts anyway — from this cafe culture. But if you believe blog posters, who follow the wardrobe contrivances of waitresses as they might Paris couturiers, women are paid according to how much they are willing to take off, with those baring everything earning about $30 an hour, plus tips.
With at least 20 similar coffee shops concentrated in a 3-square-mile area, the recent trend toward caffeine in the raw has prompted an outcry at City Hall. During a recent meeting with police Chief Chris Moore, Councilwoman Madison Nguyen — whose City Council district serves up most of the coffee deshabille — screened a series of videos shot surreptitiously at the shops.
Cracking down on coffee shops poses a political risk for Nguyen, the City Council’s first Vietnamese-American, who fought off a recall effort over her opposition to naming a business district Little Saigon. The newly dedicated gateway sign stands less than 200 yards from Cafe Chot Nhó, one of the most popular coffee shops.
“Obviously, wives are pretty angry that the husband is spending five hours at the coffee shop,” Nguyen says. “We are doing something about this. We’re not ignoring it. It’s a tough economy. We understand that there’s a lot of competition among the Vietnamese coffee shops. I don’t want them to be shut down. I do want them to tone it down.”
So does Thanh Nguyen (no relation to Madison), who opened Got Hong Cafe 18 months ago. A few steps away from the skinny dipping waitresses at Cafe Quyên and another clothing optional coffee bar, Cheo Leo Cafe, Nguyen’s cafe observes the more demure tradition of what he insists are “authentic” Vietnamese coffee shops.
“Coffee and tea is in our blood in Vietnam,” says Nguyen, 42. “When family and friends sit down, they always have coffee or tea.”
He gave up a job in high tech to get into the business. But before he could open his cafe, he had to convince his wife that what was brewing in his imagination wasn’t a drip ‘n’ strip club.
“My wife was really skeptical, really against me,” he recalls. “She heard rumors that it would be sexy, that guys would be going in there flirting. It took me a long time to convince her.”
Coffee shops with provocatively dressed waitresses have been part of the caffeinated culture of Vietnam since at least the early ’60s, when Thinh Tran was an 8-year-old boy in Saigon, frequently sent by the girls to fetch cigarettes when customers ran out. Now 58 and the author of books about physics, Tran says two decades ago he sat and sipped in San Jose’s Vietnamese coffee shops almost every night.
He hasn’t been back in years but isn’t surprised that local shops have begun to offer coffee, tea or whee! “You know why a lot of Vietnamese guys from here go back to Vietnam? Just to go to those places,” says Tran.
Despite the link to lust, the coffee shops have rarely been visited by the San Jose Police Department in recent months. “No, it’s not permitted, and no, we don’t turn a blind eye to it,” says Sgt. Jason Dwyer, a department spokesman. “But the reality is we have to prioritize. If we’re going to spend resources, do we want to spend them doing gang and drug enforcement? Or do we want them going into these Viet coffee shops?”
Thanh Nguyen says the naked cafes compete vigorously for the most beautiful waitresses, particularly those who will disrobe. “A lot of customers come in, look around, and say, ‘What’s wrong with your coffee shop? The waitresses wear too much,’ ” Nguyen says.
The city has received numerous complaints about smoking in Vietnamese coffee shops, says Michael Shannon of the city’s code enforcement division. Despite frequent monitoring, Hannon says, he has never encountered any violation of the city ordinance prohibiting nudity in businesses that serve food or beverages.
A Vietnamese-American man who runs his own business on Senter Road says he thinks the coffee shops may not project the best image for the area. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to do business,” he says, refusing to give his name because he’s afraid he’ll be blamed if the coffee shops are cleaned up.
Does he go to these dens of liquid iniquity himself?
“Oh, yes,” he replies. “I love them.”