Preserving International Heritage in Central Florida



Photos by Lesa N. Lorusso

Saigon Market is located at 1232 East Colonial Dr, Orlando, FL

I spent a significant amount of my childhood in the beautiful island nation of the Philippines. My earliest memories are brilliantly rendered with the verdant greens of a lush tropical landscape. Exotic visuals not found in the United States are resplendently organized within my mental Rolodex. As a child I called my family’s homeland “the states” due to my lack of familiarity with the location. The US was a strange concept to me and floated on the far side of the globe, remaining like a distant relative, enigmatic and unfamiliar. In fact, by my ninth birthday, I was more acquainted with Southeast Asia than I was the dairy laden farmland of Wisconsin or the pecan tree-lined streets of Arkansas that my parents knew well. Although we returned to the United States many years ago, my family and I share a collective longing for the vibrancy and unforgettable sensory experiences unique to the culture we once called home. Whenever we find ourselves overtaken by a need to reconnect to Southeast Asia we inevitably make our way to the nearest Asian market.

Walk into the lauded Saigon Market located at 1232 East Colonial Drive, Orlando, FL and you step through a defining portal into another world. The architecturally insignificant exterior hails from the 1970’s era of nondescript strip malls built across the US. Benign brown bricks and unassuming glass windows constitute the linear facade of this hidden local gem. Brightly lit signs break the architectural monotony by declaring the building’s wares in bright colors, and multiple languages. A lighted sign hung in the storefront of Saigon Market shouts “Fresh Seafood We Clean Fish!” above neatly stacked bags of rice. Upon entering Saigon Market you are forced to leave your mainstream American concept of cuisine and general grocery store etiquette at the door. Inside the store the abundance of sights, smells and sounds assault the senses. Unlike at Wal-Mart where the smiling face of an employee greets you, at Saigon Market lively wriggling soft shell crabs in open wooden crates wave you in.

After the sensory shock wears off, and you are able to look around the interior, there is much to take in. The store serves a vibrant Asian diaspora community in central Florida hailing from various locations around the world. Discerning consumers walk down one aisle to peruse twenty different types of oyster sauce, and then turn the corner to pick up incense while shopping for a variety of household gods. From Buddha and Confucius to Mary and Jesus, symbols of many of the world’s religious ideologies are available for purchase. All manner of meats are displayed, some distinguishable and some that seem to be vicious replicas of creatures in a science fiction movie. Roasted duck hangs succulently in a glass showcase glistening beneath special lighting while dried fish and frozen eel look on. Speckled quails eggs rest next to a herculean display of bean curd prepared in an amazingly colorful and visual stunning array. The grid-like organization of the aisles reassuringly brings visual order to the chaotic abundance of sensory stimulants. Walking up and down the aisles of this colorful cornucopia for the senses, it is easy to remember the sights, sounds and smells of a familiar part of the world so far away.