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I'd almost never paid attention to the lock on my door until I lost my keys on New Year's Eve. I spent that night on a friend’s couch and obsessively Googled “how to open your door without keys.” In the morning, I gave up and called a locksmith that I found on Yelp and asked him to come and open the lock immediately, because my dogs were starving and whining behind the door. I never thought before how the lock on my door was such a vital thing.
This is when I met Dazhou Van, the owner of B & B Lock and Security on Valley Blvd in Alhambra and a former refugee from Vietnam, and learned about his locksmith business that has been thriving in Alhambra for 32 years.
Van grew up in a Chinese family in Nha Trang in South Vietnam. He left his hometown and went to high school in Saigon in 1970, and enrolled as a biology major at Saigon Technology University in 1973. Unfortunately, he dropped out of college during his senior year due to the fall of Saigon. “I fled to China in 1977 when the anti Chinese movement broke out in Vietnam,” he told me.
In the spring of 1979, Van went back to school again. He passed the entrance exam in China and enrolled in Huaqiao University in Fujian province. However, luck was a fickle thing to Van. He dropped out again due to the frayed diplomatic relationship between Vietnam and China. “I had to go,” he said. “The government of China and Vietnam disrupted communication. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to contact my parents in Vietnam anymore.”
Like many other Vietnamese refugees, Van took a small boat from the city of Beihai in Guangxi province to Hong Kong, where he resided in a refugee camp. He met his wife at the camp and married her. He also worked for a doctor from the Red Cross. “I worked hard with the doctor who wrote a referral letter for me. Thanks to this letter, I got the opportunity to come to America directly without having to transfer to the Philippines,” said Van.
He arrived in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day in 1980. “My sister, who came to America prior to me, picked me up at airport and brought me and my wife to Alhambra. We have stayed here since then.” After he settled down, he decided to complete his education and studied at Pasadena City College. “Meantime, I had to work two part-time jobs to support my family,” said Van. He attended school from 7am to 12pm, and then toiled from 1 p.m. till midnight. The herculean shifts and onerous studies depleted him. “I had to quit college for the third time,” Van sighed. He went to three colleges in three countries, but never got lucky enough to complete them.
And when it rains it pours. His house burnt down in a fire in 1984. “I lost many things in the fire including my car key. I went to a locksmith booth on the intersection of Garfield and Valley Blvd to find someone to open my car door and copy my keys, which changed my life and career permanently.” He saw a poster in the booth that said it was for sale. He asked the owner why he wanted to sell the business. “He said more and more Asian immigrants are coming to the city. Many of them speak Chinese, which he doesn’t know. It became too hard for him to do business with them. And he wanted to retire too.”
After discussing it with his wife, Van finally decided to buy it from the White American owner. “I didn’t graduate from college and had no skills. I needed to learn something,” said Van. So he started learning the locksmith's trade with the previous owner for three months. When he became the new owner of the key booth, “It was very small, five feet long by 14 feet wide.” He only made a few dollars everyday in the beginning. But as he became more experienced, and as more Chinese and Vietnamese speaking immigrants moved to Alhambra, his business took off within three years.
He expanded his business from locks and keys to safes and security gates. In 1997, he bought a store on Valley Blvd and named it B & B Lock and Security. Now Van has seven full-time employees, one part-time employee, six vehicles for mobile services and another factory to make the security gates he installs.
“I was told by the previous owner of the booth, I could make $20,000 in a good year,” Van said. “I never thought that there was such potential for a locksmith business.” But few residents know about Van until they lose their keys or have to change their locks. “I run into people time to time, who ask me, ‘How did you survive?’ Because they thought that there are no locksmiths anymore.”
In fact, it is harder for Van to hire new staff, because fewer young people want to learn this craft and work such a labor intensive job, excerpt for new immigrants who need a skill to survive as the same as Van did. “Young people want to work for big companies and things concerning computers and digital stuff,” Van said. “But when it comes to hiring, it is also tricky for us.” To hire people to learn and practice opening locks and safes, Van not only checks the propective worker's background and certificate, but also tests that the person is reliable and trustworthy.
One of the reasons that led to Van’s success is that he focused his business on the Asian community in Alhambra. “70 percent of my clientele is from the Asian community,” said Van. Because of the language barrier, many Asian clients tend to hire a locksmith who can explain what is a cylinder and can bargain with them in their first language. “For ten years, from 1984 to 1995, I went the national annual locksmith show every year. I was the only Asian locksmith at that show,” Van said. He adds that, in the last 15 years, he has seen more diversity.
“The cost of living in Alhambra is not as high as in other areas in L.A., so we don’t charge too much, and our pay can’t compete with big companies either, I try to be fair to all my customers, apprentices and employees. But this is a skill that doesn’t rely on heavy equipments, you can work into your 80s as long as you can squat down and open locks,” said Van, laughing at the thought. So far, he doesn’t want to retire, but he does want to do more management tasks at his store. This job is an “iron rice bowl," which means it is very stable and secure, because everyone needs to deal with locks someday in their life, just like me.
The interview was translated from Chinese, edited and condensed.