It was a clear, cool winter day in Houston. The sun extended its rays to land that yearned for its touch of warmth. I lay out on the naked concrete floor of my apartment’s balcony, gazing into the ocean-blue sky and the swaying arms of tall palm trees. I could hear the breeze cutting through the trees’ screen-like fingers. Far southeast of the city and adjacent to the bay, my neighborhood was free of the sounds of city chaos. I arrived in this place I call home, a suburb of Houston called Clear Lake, after moving sixteen times in thirteen years. The environment in which I was raised and to which I was accustomed for half of my life, Southwest Houston-Alief, was altogether different.
“Mom! What are you doing?” The shouts of my oldest son tunneled through space and broke the wholesome peace. A bit disturbed by not ever being able to meditate because of the constant calls of my children, I rose up in silence and strolled back into our home.
Surveying the situation, I began to give directions to my two sons and my daughter. “Boys, hurry. Get your shoes on, and also help your sister to put on her shoes.”
As they scurried through the pile of shoes at the entrance to our home, my youngest son asked, “Where are we going?”
“To Ba va Ong Ngoai house.” In translation that meant Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s house, in a mix of Vietnamese and English.
From where we lived in Clear Lake, we hopped onto racetrack-like I-45 North, and then exited on the Sam Houston Tollway West towards 288 East. The long and fast-paced drive took us to my parents’ home in Fresno, a suburb on the southwest edge of Houston. I planned to ask why my parents left the Chinatown environment of Southwest Houston-Alief and moved here. Full of culture and festivities, Chinatown seemed the best place for our family while I was growing up. But then recollections of troubled times arrived like a ghostly apparition into my thoughts, startling me to a harsh reality and reminding me how I came to despise the area myself. Perhaps my parents decided to leave because of these same disappointing experiences. That was soon to be revealed.
After we pulled into the pits at my parents’ house, the kids sped through the door to greet their grandmother. My mother sat patiently alone on the living room couch awaiting the greetings of her grandchildren. The kids then ran upstairs to play, respectfully leaving the elders to their business. Not wasting time and always avoiding personal pleasantries, my mother and I got straight to the interview.
“So, Mom, how did you end up choosing Southwest Houston to raise our family?”
My mother started by discussing her desperate passage from Vietnam in 1976 in the aftermath of the horrors and violence of the Vietnam War and the despotic Communist rule in the country. Thirteen terror-stricken yet brave members of her family defiantly huddled together in the cramped, dark bottom of a tiny shrimp boat to escape from the tyrant government.
“There was Ong Ngoai, Ba Ngoai, Di Huong, Chu Hung, Di Lan, Di Thuy,” my mother said, listing the surviving family members who escaped with her.
“No, Mom. Stop! I got the point. Just give me the numbers.” Too impatient to give the emotional and heart-wrenching memory its proper due, I rudely and abruptly interrupted her without thinking considerately. As if to slap me for interrupting her, my mom glared at me angrily with eyes like fiery lasers and continued with her story. At that moment, we experienced a tension much like the tense feelings of her harrowing escape from her beloved homeland.
The Japanese government rescued my mom and her family, and then transferred them to the United States as refugees. After being transported to Colorado, my mother and her family found the area to be too cold for their nature and migrated to Port Arthur, Texas, on the basis of local Vietnamese newspaper reports of the warm Gulf weather and growing Vietnamese community. It was there in Port Arthur in 1978 that my mother was introduced to my father. After they were married, they moved from Port Arthur to their new home in Gulfgate, the southeast area of Houston. I was born in 1980, and then after my younger brother was born, my father and mother made their decision to buy a home in Alief, a quiet rural area known to have a good school district.
“Was Alief like a Chinatown then? Was there an Asian community?”
“Don’t call it Chinatown. Call it Vietnamese town. It’s half and half there!”
“Uh, if it’s half and half, that doesn’t make it a Vietnamese town, so may we just call it Southwest Bellaire?” Completely thrown off by my mother’s rejection of the naming of Chinatown, I was sure not to get that wrong again. I never understood why the Vietnamese and Chinese were like enemies. They worked so closely with each other yet they banned each other from their personal affairs. Later in the discussion, my mother responded that Southwest Bellaire was completely empty.
In the midst of my mother’s interview, we heard a sound of rustling against the front door, and my father entered after a day’s hard work. The kids slowly and cautiously walked down to pay their respects to their grandfather, never knowing for sure if he was willing to speak. Standing militarily by the entrance door with his navy blue uniform marked with black oil stains that crept to our noses in the living room, my dad hunched over to remove his shoes. As he did this, he carefully lifted his head to the kids halfway down on the stairs, and gave them a hint of a smile as an acceptable greeting.
He was never an easy person with whom to converse, but when he learned he was going to speak of his past, he swiftly sprung into action, cleaned up and, trailing the scent of Irish Spring, quickly took his seat in his black leather chair. Transformed now from the military to the domestic, he sat seven feet across from me for his interview in his worn beige pajamas with his body leaning towards me leaving the back of his chair untouched. It was an odd and delightful opportunity being able to pursue a conversation longer than five minutes with him for a change.
I asked him the same question. “How did you end up living in Alief?” My father’s eyebrows raised in confusion.
My mother interrupted and stated, “Speak in Vietnamese, or he won’t understand thoroughly.” The rest of the interview was conducted in Vietnamese with my crooked English accent thrown into it.
In 1968 my father joined the Vietnamese Air Force and later studied to be a pilot in the U.S. He flew the C-47 training aircraft and fought during the Vietnam War against the Communists. After the 1975 Communist government takeover of the country, he and his fellow airmen fled to Thailand without their families. He was taken in by family sponsors in the U.S. and moved to Houston to find a job after graduating from college.
“Nho Ong ma o trong thang pho Victoria?” My father asked me if I remembered the man we visited in Victoria. I nodded, and he explained that this man was the gentleman who sponsored him and his other airmen in Texas. I remembered the man standing in an oil field on his ranch — an elderly man who stood about six feet tall and looked like Santa Claus on Slim Fast. Even after all the intervening years, I still remembered the snowy complexion of his skin, how his cheeks turned rosy when he chuckled.
My father stated that Alief was close to major thoroughfares such as I-59, I-10, and I-45. Bellaire and Beechnut also existed back in 1981, reaching from the inner city all the way out to Mission Bend (West Houston). Some of today’s large streets did not exist at that time: Highway 6, Synott, and Eldridge. My parents resided at 11616 Corona Lane, a one-story white brick home with green wood cladding. I asked my mother about her memories of the physical structure of the home.
“It’s a box. A closed box in a hot city,” she said. “Nothing like Vietnam where homes have boundaries that are transparent to the exterior.”
I was not satisfied and asked for more specific details of the home, but she immediately scolded me. “Don’t ask me, then, ask your father!”
Their home sat on a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood, with cars zipping by constantly. Different species of trees — pecan, magnolia, pine, and oak — sat on the front and back lawns on the generous land plots in the neighborhood. Mailboxes sat at the end of the driveways waiting everyday on stilts for the momentary visit from the friendly mailman.
Both of them said they had to drive into downtown where there was actually a Chinatown and they did most of their shopping weekly. They cooked at home and finally saw a few Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants and markets open up in the 1990s in the easternmost section of present-day Southwest Bellaire. Not recalling the specifics of each store that became part of the growing Asian community, they did recollect the rapid rise of the Vietnamese-Chinese commercial and residential area in Bellaire in 1997 when the British left Hong Kong.
My parents were delighted with the grand presentation of big parking lots in newly created Asian plazas and malls topped with ornaments painted green and red — the traditional celebrated colors in Asia. One of the first plazas was the predominantly Chinese-owned Diho Plaza — a place filled with a supermarket, restaurants, small retail shops, a bakery, movie theatre, arcade room and hair salon. The plaza was like a long orthogonal dragon that sat u-shaped, possessively hugging the parking lot with its menacing head and long dragging tail facing the streets. Three-foot-thick red concrete legs were set near the parking area to hold up the canopy walkway so that customers would not get wet while strolling shop to shop. I remembered that after leaving my parents’ home I had once lived in the Louisville apartments located directly behind the Diho Plaza. The red-bricked apartment building had white trimming and tall exterior white ionic columns. There were many Asian elders as occupants in these apartments.
“No smoking in unit! I don’t want building to burn down!” my female elderly neighbor from above shouted at me with a Chinese accent while I was moving my furnishings into the unit. I respectfully nodded and looked down to avoid eye contact. I thought, “Man, woman! I don’t even smoke! Pass the message to some other young person who actually got a cig in their mouth. What a nice welcome.”
The complex was connected to the Diho Plaza by a gate, making it easy to access for dining and shopping. I never cooked at home during those days. I ate lunch at One Dragon, and then usually a late dinner almost everyday at Sinh Sinh or Tan Do in the Plaza.
In the early 1990s, the Dynasty Mall was built adjacent to Diho Plaza off the intersection of Bellaire and Corporate. Though predominantly owned by Chinese, many Vietnamese owned shops and were consumers there. The two-story building had some lightness to it, using steel, brick, and concrete. Glass was used extensively for window advertisement, and its colors were beige and dark red. The main difference from the neighboring plaza was its indoor sitting area. As beautiful and unique as this building was when it first opened, it never reached full occupancy. I recalled walking through the mall and seeing dead silent tunnels devoid of signage.
Later, the Diho apartment building across the street from the Dynasty Mall became a home to many and also a commercial place for them. Before long, neon lights flickered from across the street shouting “Kung Fu!” with a red-and-yellow lit jump-kicking man. Many businesses have opened in the apartments, providing the convenience to live and run businesses all in one place.
Soon the first Vietnamese-Chinese Mall opened — the Hong Kong City Mall located at Bellaire and Boone. My family was overjoyed during its construction in the mid-1990s. We saw the huge size of the site and anticipated the variety of shops it would offer. This new construction was an opportunity for more convenience and lower prices for imports. Also this was an opportunity to have larger cultural festivities instead of limiting the Dragon Dance during Lunar New Year to a small community. The mall was L-shaped with its ends facing Boone and Bellaire. The green overlapping tiled roof imitated the traditional Chinese clay roof. Similar to Diho Plaza, columns sat at the edge of the building creating an outdoor walkway. The exterior of the mall was colored in ivory, green and red. It also had an entry somewhat like a city gate for the parking lot nearest to Bellaire.
As the population increased in this area, so did the concerns of a typical growing inner-city area. The concrete roads were filled with the constant honking and reckless driving of congested city traffic. The stifling Houston summer heat created a suffocating oven-like atmosphere especially with the increase of building footprints and automobile car exhaust. The school district dropped in performance and experienced an increase in violence. While I was in eighth grade at Killough Middle School, there were two stabbings there. Every morning the students had to enter the building through metal detectors with bag checks. Every student was presumed a criminal in this prairie-like, brown-bricked, one-story building.
Crime became the greatest issue in the Chinese-Vietnamese community of Southwest Bellaire. When there was trouble, the police were not called because of the belief that law enforcement would not protect the minorities, and the fear that the suspects would return. Home burglaries were common. It was customary to hide gold jewelry and hard-earned money inside the home. Having immigrated from a Communist country, some found that the U.S. government was unreliable, and some did not understand how the banking system worked. Our home was robbed twice by Vietnamese criminals.
Lying in shock and horror on the bed with my brother in my parents’ room, I heard my mother cry desperately in the adjacent room, pleading profusely to two burglars not to shoot her and to leave my brother and me alone.
“Com no! (“Shut her up”),” the thief demanded of his accomplice. The accomplice wrapped my mom’s mouth, and I heard her voice dissipate but felt her heartbeat racing through mine. I lay falsely asleep and heard the thief call out to his father. “Ba!” From that day I have grown to hate the community in which countrymen would dare to terrorize their own people like wayward pirates. My grandmother’s home and the homes of other relatives were also targeted. These malicious acts have created fear in the community, but still no one reported them to the authorities. Many people, including my family, decided to relocate farther away from Alief. In a last-chance effort to avoid leaving, many chose to install ”Gua Sach,” the gated bars at the entry of the home. The gated bars were common in Vietnam. My mother described that the gates were more elaborately designed in Vietnam. After yet another act of vandalism at his home, my father purchased a guard dog hoping to discourage criminals. Unfortunately, that did not work as the dog ran away after being neglected in the backyard.
By the time my brother and I had reached our teen years in the 1990s, my parents were in desperate search for a new home in another rural area outside of Houston, far from the Asian community. Finally after two years of searching for a home nearly every single weekend, they found a two-story home in Fresno. It was not like the box of my mother’s memory in Alief. There was more room for growing gigantic trees, and more room in the garage to build a small outdoor kitchen area. Back yards were large enough to grow herbs and fruit trees like guava, orange, and persimmon. Since the buildings were not built like the ones in Vietnam, my mother accessorized the home to make it feel like home back in Vietnam. For my parents, the only drawback of this location was that they had to drive one hour back to their accustomed Vietnamese food and culture in Bellaire.
During high school, I left my parents’ home. I found myself moving to many different areas of Bellaire. It was the allure of the vibrant and unique cultural environment that brought me back to the Asian town of my youth. But then I too had the disturbing experience of being burglarized. The burglary occurred at the Encore apartments located on Corporate and Bellaire. The Encore apartment complex is bordered in evergreen paint, and disfigured with creaking, rusty steel stairs.
My home in the Encore apartments was broken into and my cash stolen. When I found my door forced open, I ran through the skeleton-like shadows of the trees with a swarming horde of bats veering through the veins of the branches. I knocked on my neighbors’ door, assuming he would have a clue about what had happened to my place. When my neighbor Jose opened the door, amidst the acrid smell of marijuana fumes, I found a friend I thought I knew well curled in the corner of the living room, incoherent on the ground. Tuan looked at me desperately, his eyes apologizing for the disrespect. Without a word exchanged, it was understood the drug influenced him to take what was not his. His friend John, his accomplice, yelled at me to go away. He aimed a 9-millimeter pistol at my face as he moved toward the door. My boyfriend, Girbaud, who had followed me throughout the scene, demanded he drop the gun.
Crime was growing more and more horrendous and the traffic worsened. Apartment parking lots were filled with cars during the daytime after a night’s worth of roaming the streets. Illegal deals were being made during business hours as if it were regular business. Trees and greenery slowly disappeared with the arrival of more box buildings of the kind my mother did not like.
As my recollections of the past grew within me, I became enraged and my emotions sunk down getting the best of me. I stayed there until I gave birth to my first child in 2000. Like my mother when she was expecting her next child with a growing family, I searched for a place to make a safe home for my family.
“That’s it, Ba Ma.” I concluded my discussion with my parents, struggling to maintain my composure. After gathering my children and giving our respect for departure, I became dead silent and headed out the door into the dark night to my black sedan.
I finally have settled even farther than my parents from the urban chaos of Bellaire. While speeding on the road to home, I watched the odometer increase: 156,876, 156,877, 156,878. As I am speeding on the I-45 race track and anticipating our arrival at home, I am calmed and pleased knowing the finish line is farther this time from that crime-ridden place. My three children and I have made our home close to the edge of the serene waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where the tensions and undesirable aspects of the Chinese-Vietnamese neighborhoods of Southwest Houston have yet to reach.