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How a Chinese-Vietnamese refugee built the Sriracha empire

Mar 07, 2019

Sriracha sauce as we know it today was concocted in Los Angeles by David Tran, a Chinese-Vietnamese refugee, in 1980. Its iconic rooster bottle is recognizable the world over. We went to the factory of Huy Fong Foods, which makes the sauce, and got an inside look at how it’s made.

We also interviewed Tran himself, who offered a lot of words of wisdom and insisted on speaking in Chinese.

Tran has given a lot of interviews in the past few years, mostly in English. His sound bites have always been snappy, delivered in deadpan, broken English.

In one interview with East West Bank, he jokingly referred to Sriracha as his girlfriend. And in a Bizarre Foods episode, Tran had a Yoda-esque aura when he gave advice, making sure to enunciate each word.

David Tran, middle, during his appearance on Bizarre Foods.
David Tran, middle, during his appearance on Bizarre Foods. / Photo: Bizarre Foods

Our reporter didn’t get the same treatment.

“Can you speak Chinese?” Tran asked as we sat down for the interview.

There was a moment of hesitation before Clarissa Wei, our reporter, answered, “Yes.”

“Okay. Let’s speak in Chinese.”

And with that, our Goldthread interview was conducted in Chinese.

David Tran surrounded by Sriracha memorabilia.
David Tran surrounded by Sriracha memorabilia.

When you watch our video, pay close attention to how Tran’s Chinese interview gives off a completely different vibe from other on-camera interviews he’s done in English.

Instead of the snappy caricature of himself that (quite literally) surrounds him and the cult of Sriracha, Tran was quite somber and eloquent. He brushed off questions about the company’s past and present, and instead wanted to focus on more contemplative and philosophical questions.

“My success today is because of good fortune.”

“I didn’t have a plan or anything,” he said. “I’m very satisfied with what I have. I’ve already achieved my dreams. I don’t have any more dreams.”

It felt as if in the seventh decade of his life, Tran no longer cared about the numbers, figures, or chili recipes anymore. He seemed more keen on passing down words of wisdom from one human to another, rather than participating in another interview about his lucrative hot sauce.

David Tran dropping some wisdom.
David Tran dropping some wisdom.

When he spoke to us, Tran didn’t embody the stereotype of the eccentric, old Asian man talking about his sauce as his girlfriend. His voice had an air of authority because it was in his native language.

We loved that we were able to connect with him that way, and it’s another reminder that language matters. People’s stories sometimes need their native tongue to carry them.

Correction: In the video, we said Tran left Vietnam in 1967. The date should have been 1978.

SrirachaHuy Fong FoodsDavid TranChinese-AmericansVietnamese Americans

Credit

Written and Produced by: Clarissa Wei

Voiced by: Joel Roche

Shot and Directed by: Jason Poon

Second Camera by: Martin Gradek

Edited by: Nicholas Ko

Mastered by: Victor Pena