by Judith Kahn
For more than 22 years, Richmond District residents could bring their old appliances to Son Nguyen’s shop at Universal Electric Service, which was located at 1551 Clement St. before it closed in August.
Nguyen has mechanical skills that are difficult to find today, as many products are produced cheaply and are usually replaced when they go bad. He can repair machines or find parts for old appliances that date as far back as 1930.
Universal Electric was closed due to an increase in rent and Nguyen wanting to spend more time with his grandchildren.
The master repairman is now working part time at Phil’s Electric Co., located at 2701 Lombard St., in the Marina District [www.philselectric.com, (415) 921-3776]. He has worked there part time since 1980 and looks forward to seeing his old customers who might need help to repair their old appliances.
Nguyen built a loyal client base on Clement Street because his customers appreciated his knowledge, politeness and honesty. People traveled from all over the Bay Area to get their appliances fixed by Nguyen, be it a blender, rice cooker or a vintage food processor. He does not like to work on new appliances because many have electronic parts that do not last as long as those in older appliances, which have mechanical parts and are better made.
His shop was the place to go for any old-style or discontinued products or hard-to-find parts. His customers appreciate that he determines what is wrong with the appliance, explains how it can be fixed and promptly repairs it.
For many, Universal Electric reminded them of the many small, independent shops that used to exist in San Francisco.
Nguyen took an interesting journey to arrive in America. Each new place he lived he connected with someone who would then lead him to a new path in his life, he said, and in many cases improved his life.
Nguyen was born in Hanoi, North Vietnam, in 1951. Three years later, his family moved to Saigon, and remained there until 1975. Nguyen joined the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1969, working as a helicopter mechanic. He left South Vietnam on April 29, 1975, the day before the North Vietnamese Army took over Saigon. He landed at the U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield in Thailand and from there was transferred to Guam.
After three weeks in Guam, the United States government transferred him to a refugee camp in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nguyen then decided he wanted to move to San Francisco. He contacted his former neighbor in Saigon, who had married an American soldier and owned a Vietnamese Restaurant, the Cordon Bleu.
The neighbor was willing to sponsor Nguyen, who worked at the restaurant for six months while taking ESL classes. While at school, he met someone who worked at the Sunbeam Company and offered him a job. Nguyen was delighted and was employed at Sunbeam from 1975 to 1996. He opened Universal Electric on Clement Street in 1996.
Although Nguyen has closed his storefront on Clement, he will continue to do the things he loves – fixing things.