Category Archives: Alief

Willow Meadow Place: An International Residence by Phuc M. Huynh

10630 Beechnut St.
Houston, TX  77072
281-495-9293

April 2004–To find a perfect residence is extremely hard in the United States . Let’s say you are a newcomer and do not know where to find a good dwelling because everyone is unfamiliar to you. For the sake of economy, it makes sense to begin your journey of searching for an apartment at places that offer cheaper rental cost. Driving along several streets, you might pass a sign saying “Move-in specials, no deposits, first month free.” Your immediate reaction is to jot down the phone number of that apartment complex and call in its leasing office to reserve a rental. But that may be where your troubles begin. This is the case of many people who have lived at the Willow Meadow Place Apartment Complex. Located right in the heart of Southwest Houston , Willow Meadow Place used to be a crowded residence where time did not exist although it might be the middle of the night. However, for the sake of security and personal safety, the face of Willow Meadow Place has changed, and the complex itself has become desolate.

Located at the corner of Beechnut Street and Wilcrest Drive , a really busy and bustling corner in Southwest Houston , thousands of cars and drivers pass by Willow Meadow Place every day. However, the place seems not be noticed by the passersby. The complex looks shabby. The cranky, unsteady and full-of-bends fences show the signs of wear and tear at the first glance. The sky blue paint on the apartment doors is faded into somewhat white-blue. The long-standing buildings also contribute to the old appearance of the complex. The building bricks near the ground are coated with mosses. They all prove the lack of care and maintenance. Even though the complex itself is really big, there is just a small sign posted on Beechnut Street to welcome its visitors and couples of lines providing leasing information. Even though the shabby appearance makes it uninviting, there is one thing distinctive about it. Unlike other apartment complexes where you have to enter into in order to figure out what they are like, here at Willow Meadow Place you can just stay around the entrance, you are still able to see what the inside is like. By just driving by, you will notice a big mailbox where a lot of people gather around at the dusk, gossip and exchange their experiences of the day.

My family and I resided there for about one year. As for me, I loved the place since it was the first residence of my family after we moved to Houston . Six years ago, the complex was so beautiful and friendly. Most of the apartments were occupied; therefore, the mosses had no place to grow. The fences and gates were not newly constructed, but they were steady in place and had no bends. The smell of fairly newly painted doors was like the mint of winter-green gum, giving me a feeling of freshness every time I returned to my apartment. Willow Meadow Place also provided me with many good friends. However, all of us had to follow our family moving out to different parts of the city because of security concerns. Since then, I have not returned to the place even just to pay a visit, until recent time.

It was 11:30 P.M. on Saturday. I was on the way home from work. The outside temperature dropped below 55oF. This was usual for the nights in late November in Houston . I was on Beechnut Street and immediately had my car stopped at Wilcrest due to the traffic light. There was little traffic on the street at that time. And for less than two minutes, I continued driving and approached Willow Meadow Place . A strange occurrence caught my attention. It was almost midnight, and everything in the complex seemed ghostlike in the quite, misty darkness – everything except the appearance of an Asian man whose age I guessed was more than sixty. He was wearing a worn jacket while carrying a thirty-gallon size trash bag in his hand. When I slowly steered my Toyota Corolla past the complex, I saw him opening the gate and entering the complex. I wondered why he had to walk out that late.

In my mind, that apartment complex was not a safe place to walk. My father was mugged twice right in that apartment complex by black men when we were still living there. It was about seven o’clock in the evening, and my father went to the trash container in the back of the complex to throw away some food wastes. When he just approached the corner, halfway to the trash container, two black men attacked him. They punched him down and put a revolver on his forehead. One of them started searching in his Wrangler jean pockets and took away his wallet which had one hundred dollar bill, some changes and his driver’s license. After both muggers ran away, my father went back to my apartment with his pale face. He was too scared to immediately report to Houston Police Department what had happened to him, but a couple of hours later. The second time he was mugged was when he returned home from work at night o’clock right at the parking lot. The muggers did not deprive of him anything this time because he did not carry any cash with him. However, they punched his left eye so strongly that he had to call EMS to take him to the hospital immediately. My father was not the only victim of the robberies at Willow Meadow Place . The muggers also targeted Vietnamese people who seemed to be the main targets for the robberies. At times, old black and Hispanic men and women also fell victims of the violence. For years, Willow Meadow Place was known to be a Vietnamese village because once you entered that complex, you would catch Vietnamese people walking or doing something in every building block. Things started changing when others moved in including blacks and Hispanics. This move-in gradually made Willow Meadow Place a diversified apartment complex. Unfortunately, the robbery rate started rising following that move-in trend. Willow Meadow Place was then known to be an insecure place because the diversity made the complex more complicated.

Situated in the Alief subdivision of Imperial Point, Willow Meadow Place was known in Vietnamese as Bich Gia Nghia Village . The name of the village was translated roughly as “The Four Walls of Mutual Assistance.” It had an important meaning to Vietnamese residents here because “within these four walls, I would do anything for you, and you would do anything for me,” one of them explained. In this multiethnic apartment complex, about 750 Vietnamese residents had created vestiges of the village system of their homeland. At the time my family moved in, the Vietnamese population at the complex had doubled as the result of 153 new refugee families. Daily tutoring is a valued component of life at Willow Meadow Place . In a vacant apartment, the village leader scheduled the tutoring, four levels of English classes and a variety of other programs offered to residents. The Vietnamese immigrants at Willow Meadow Place found strength in working together. And together, they gathered to hear their share of stories about family difficulties or problems with their social lives. And together, the group tackled language barriers. And together, they wanted to learn English because each word learned was a step closer to a new life and new possibilities, a step away from the deaf-and-mute feeling.

Concerns about robberies and security had changed the face of Willow Meadow Place . The complex became more vacant as Vietnamese people started moving out. My family followed that trend because the violence happened to my father twice. After that time, we were no longer in contact with the complex and had no information about it. That accounted for my concern when I saw that old Asian man walking in the complex at midnight. Anyway, such a concern just flashed in my mind and then quickly faded. However, the same sight came upon my eyes again the next day when I was driving home from work and passing Willow Meadow Place . I began doubting him and asked myself if I should follow him to figure out what he was actually doing at midnight in a pretty cold weather like that. Finally, I decided, no, and went straight home.

I did not work on weekdays, so I did not see him the following five days. Such a scene was really strange to me because it had not ever caught my eyes in the past. I guessed he had been doing that for a long time, but I did not notice him. Next Saturday, I took the same route and caught him again. This time I decided to follow him. After he opened the gate and entered the complex, I quickly drove my car in and parked my car in front of the leasing office. I saw him approach the trash container, climb on its side, open his trash bag, and start disturbing the container with a wooden stick that he picked up right on the ground. In a moment, I heard the clank of cans emitting from the trash container. I came to understand that he was picking up the used cans. I stopped my car for a while and left the complex until he left for another trash container located further inside. On the way home, my mind seemed to be obsessed by what I had just seen. In fact, image of that man gave me an emotion and a deep thought about the life of people like him. I had ever thought that I was unlucky because I had to work that late. But when I saw him at almost midnight, I knew that at least I was luckier than one person. Society forgot him, left him out of its game. I asked myself unanswered question, “How many more people like him had to walk in this cold weather to pick up “pennies” thrown away by the others? Was it fair to them?” A sad feeling was provoked in me, and I did not say a word after getting home.

I decided to pay a visit to the apartment complex during the daytime to see how it would be now. After having my car parked in the lot where I used to park it, I hastily walked to the building located in the back of the complex. Physical things seem not to be changed. The apartment where my family and I lived in before is still there; however, a Hispanic family now occupies it. The doors are still painted blue. The trees are still sitting by the stairs, making a big shade ideal for those who like chatting with friends. Though the place and the objects seem to be intact, human activities are not as same as what they used to be. It is daytime, but no one there hangs or walks around. The scene is getting so quiet, giving me a feeling of having left something behind. It makes me feel like I was attached to it somewhere. The sky was overcast, but I could still hear the birds singing while hiding themselves on tops of the trees. A couple of squirrels were chasing each other while looking for food. They were running back and forth as if nobody were present there even though I was standing by the stairs and keeping my eyes on them. In a couple of minutes, I left for the nearby building. I caught no one in my eyes but a Vietnamese man who was fixing his Honda Accord. Rumpled and bleary-eyed, perhaps due to lack of sleep last night, he was sitting transfixed by the car with his eyes glued to it. I proceeded to him to find out if he would know something about the old man who I saw pick up used cans in trash containers. Before I said anything to him, he stood up and smiled at me. He gave me a feeling of friendliness and made me feel like I was actually welcome there. After a few words gossiping with him, I asked him about the old man I saw at night. He responded me in Vietnamese, “Sorry for not being able to help you. I don’t really know that man. My family and I moved in six months ago. And we are in the habit of not loitering outside at night because, you know, security is not very good.” Through his words, I acknowledge that security is still the main concern for residents at Willow Meadow Place . “So, you didn’t hear about security at this apartment complex before you moved in?” I asked him in Vietnamese. He let me know that he chose to move in because the price is cheaper there, and he thought that security at other places were not good as well.

After saying good-bye to him, I walked quickly to the building block neighboring the exit onto Wilcrest Drive . Passing by the waiting area where I now saw two more benches were added, I recalled the moment when everybody in this complex running out for life as the roof of this waiting shack caught on fire six years ago. It is now renovated with the entire roof removed. Instead, they grow a tree with the very big shade, giving the freshness to the area.

I took a seat on the bench for about thirty minutes. More human activities now came upon my eyes. A Southwestern Bell car passed by followed by four cars of the residents. Those cars were really noisy, but anyway they broke the strange quietness of the whole complex. Not so long after those cars passing by, the voice of a girl calling my attention, “Mom, please wait for me! I forget my wallet.” Looking on my right, I saw her mom was waiting for her while she was running upstairs to her apartment for her wallet. Her mom was wearing a blue Old Navy Dress while the girl had a new pink Banana Republic V-neck shirt on. They both disappeared in a moment. After their going, an Alief I.S.D. school bus arrived and dropped off their high school students. Among them, there were only three Asian boys and one girl leaving the bus. It came upon my mind that most of Vietnamese families had moved out of this apartment complex already, and they would not like to set their feet back here for security reasons. Willow Meadow Place is not as full of animation as it was in the past.

Several days following my visit to Willow Meadow Place , I got back to work. And on the way home, I still saw that old man. I was very unsatisfied because I could not figure out who he was after my visit to the complex. And nothing is going smoothly as I thought. Following the week of Christmas Day, I no longer saw him. I do not know for some unknown reason that this fact made me feel as if I were missing something behind every time I passed by Willow Meadow Place without seeing him open the gate and enter the complex. Since then, I went home in a fairly sad mood. I felt pity for him because his life was clearly not as happy and fortune as the others. I related what I had seen on the street to my father. One thing that amazed me was that he and my father have been friends since my family was still residing at Willow Meadow Place . After listening to the story, my father just smiled and told me about the life of that man. He lived alone in the apartment next to Willow Meadow Place and worked in the nearby Phillips gas station. He picked up used cans as his extra earning. He went back to Vietnam after Christmas Day and planned not to re-enter the United States . He had been saving enough money and wished to live the rest of his life in Vietnam . Well, I still felt pity for him. Willow Meadow Place now loses a midnight visitor. But his image will exist in my mind as long as Willow Meadow Place is still present in Southwest Houston.

Map:

Links

Alief School District

Alief

Advertisements

The Little School That Could: Kerr High School By Michelle Levine

8150 Howell Sugar Land Rd
Houston, Tx 77083
(281) 983-8484

 November 2010- “Oh don’t worry” my buyer at the Kerr High Senior School auction says, “You’re going to love being a gangster.” An hour later I am wearing black Nike gym shorts underneath gray Tulane baggy sweatpants which are hanging down around my thighs ready to fall of my Puma tennis shoes. My white wife beater tank top allows everyone to see the barbwire tattoo on my left arm and the numbers written out on my right arm in black sharpie, of course! Right below, and off to the side of my left eye, I have a tear drop sharpie tattoo, like the ones you get in prison. To top of my outfit I am wearing a flat billed Astros hat tilted to the side.

Being sold as a senior at Kerr High, located in SW Houston, is sort of a rite of passage. The concept of the auction is to bid on all the seniors, with prices ranging from $10 to $200 plus, per student, whoever the bid goes to no matter what grade level, wins that senior. The prize that the winning bidder gets is the right to get the chance to dress their senior up entirely in anything they want (school appropriate). Then all the seniors have to parade around the school with the other seniors. Though this is an optional activity, the vast majority of seniors do willingly participate. Seniors are confident enough to put up with a little friendly humiliation to help out with the primary senior class prom fundraiser. Kerr is infamous for this event among high schools. It is truly an exciting and fun experience, once you get past the “mortifying” idea that you have just been auctioned off to the highest bidder.

For years tiny Kerr High School located in the Alief Independent School District in Southwest Houston, has been described by students and faculty as the “best kept secret in Houston,” because of just this kind of creativity. Today, Kerr has been recognized as an outstanding school on the local, state and national levels. My sister, brother and I have all graduated from this “little school that could.” In addition, my father has taught Kerr students secondary Social Studies since 1998. While I admit I might be a little biased towards my alma mater, I would like to share with you the vibrant, diverse, creative and enriching environment that is Kerr High School.

Driving by the small, plain and non-institutional looking building, I really couldn’t blame you if you didn’t stop. It is beige and has navy blue stripes and consists of two hallways and a small upstairs. It looks more like an office building than a high school. It’s because it was once a bank that Alief bought in 1994. Our school colors are white and purple, so why Kerr’s building still has blue stripes rather than purple is a mystery to most. As is the rarely ever used tennis courts right in front. Despite its looks, Kerr does have something going for it: it’s off Highway 6.

Off campus lunch my senior year was amazing. Leaving campus for lunch every day with friends was a great privilege that students recently received. I remember standing in line at Taco Bell, unable to stop laughing long enough to give my order. It is the inside of Kerr that matters most of all, though. Its small gym, library, band room, cafeteria, and academic centers offer big opportunities for growth and accomplishment. In fact, Kerr is the kind of school President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan have envisioned for America. Modeled after Bishop Carrol High School in Alberta, Canada, the curriculum is based upon college preparation with an emphasis on the fine arts. Our Choir, Theater, Art, Band and Orchestra programs have all won prestigious awards.

Unlike Alief’s three traditional high schools—Hastings, Elsik, and Taylor—Kerr does not offer a competitive sports program. However, the small student body takes advantage of Kerr’s fantastic intramural exercise and weight training programs. Kerr is proud to successfully compete against traditional schools from Houston and the state of Texas in academic and fine art interscholastic competitions. Many of Kerr’s students view themselves as David battling Goliath when they compete against larger and often wealthier schools from around the state. To better understand this common Kerr mindset, it is important to have a greater understanding of what makes a “Kerr student.”

In my four years as a member of the Kerr choir, I was in non-varsity my freshman year and varsity during my sophomore, junior and senior years. All of my memories from choir seem so close, as if it were just yesterday when I sat in a chair in a row of 15 girls, waiting for my choir teacher to come into the room on the first day of freshman year. When Kerr competes they appear to have a less favorable chance of winning. I remember going to choir competitions and being intimidated by the gigantic sizes of the other choirs. Here we were, Kerr choir, walking into the competition area with around 30 members and sitting down next to a competing school of around 150 members. Against all odds, Kerr’s fine arts program has still came out on top year after year.

Acceptance into Kerr is based upon student application and an interview. Applicants must be passing their middle school classes, be recommended by a teacher or a counselor and must not be experiencing disciplinary problems. Once at Kerr, students learn and work both independently and in groups polishing their research, writing and questioning abilities. A give and take relationship between teacher and student results in less direct teaching by the instructor, replaced by supervised independent study in all classes.

During my four years at Kerr I witnessed many returning graduates returning their appreciation to the Kerr staff for helping them adjust to the requirements of college life. I know I will be doing this same thing after my freshman year of college. While walking down to the cafeteria I see people from almost every race interacting in the hallways. Unlike most traditional high schools, Kerr’s students try hard to avoid joining cliques and are accepting and open minded towards the schools diverse population. Because of the small numbers, everyone knows everyone and gets along with each other. While many schools are asked to participate once a year in a national “mix it up” day which encourages students to sit in the cafeteria with people outside their cliques, Kerr students do it every day of the school year. It is a regular United Nations in the cafeteria at lunch time. At a table at Kerr, in the cafeteria, you can literally find kids from four or five countries all sitting together. You will see an Asian boy with glasses, an Affliction t-shirt and blue jeans sitting with a couple of girls from Pakistan with traditional salwar kameez. Sitting two tables over you will find a girl wearing Coach tennis shoes and another girl who would never spend that much money on something that you put on your feet, laughing together about a joke they both heard. There is a true feeling of respect and a sense of belonging which I like to refer to as the “Kerr family.” Like any strong family guidance and wisdom are passed down by example and tradition.

I know it is fairly common to hear some say that their high school, in some way, affected how they developed as people. At the risk of sounding like a bad cliché, Kerr really did affect me as a person in a positive way. It is the kind of place that is small enough so you can focus on who you are becoming as a young adult but also big enough to nurture and develop your dreams of the future and all that those dreams entail. While many students look back fondly at their high school experience years after they have graduated, Kerr students appreciate their unique experiences while still attending their future alma mater.

Kerr was nominated in the 2009-2010 school year by the Texas Education Association as one of only 26 schools in Texas as a National Blue Ribbon school. On September the 9th 2010, Kerr’s faculty and student body received exciting news form Washington D.C. During my years at Kerr, I have observed many other awards and honors earned by the staff and student body. The National Blue Ribbon Award is, however, the most prestigious award that Kerr has ever earned.
Selected as one of only four Texas high schools and one of 320 schools in the nation, the United States Department of Education recognized Kerr for its outstanding test scores as well as its success in a long list of categories. Kerr became the first school in the Alief district to be awarded this honor. To many of its founding staff members and former students, this represents affirmation of Kerr’s past, present and future role as an educational powerhouse in the city of Houston.

Just as Kerr High School molded itself from the model of Bishop Carrol High School, many school districts and campuses have sent teachers and administrators to visit Kerr for inspiration to bring back to their schools. The “best kept secret” in Houston may no longer be a secret but is still one of the best learning environments in our great city. Loved by students, faculty and staff, this small alternative high school welcomes students and visitors alike to discover the tracks to success. All aboard…”The little school that could” is truly a phenomenal ride!

MAP:

 

LINKS

Kerr High School

U.S. News & World Report

Wikipedia

Author Bio

Michelle Levine is a freshman at University of Houston Downtown, who is hoping to major in Business Management.  She grew up in Richmond, Texas in a small community named Pecan Grove. She loves fashion and music and one day dreams of owning her own clothing boutique. Michells’s favorite city is New York because she has been going there ever since she was little. She can not wait to graduate with a great degree and begin the next chapter of her life.

A Place for Everyone: Hong Kong City Mall by Nancy Nguyen

11205 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072
Phone: (281) 575-7954

January 2004–After attending church with my family, we raced down the street and quickly reached our destination: Hong Kong City Mall. It was populated with people talking and having the time of their lives. As we walked in the main entrance, I looked around only to see kids laughing, parents socializing with friends, and everyone reuniting with each other. All around were decorations of dragons, Chinese letterings, fireworks, banners, and delicious food. Hong Kong City Mall was so lively.

This day was not like any other day, it was Tet, the day that officially marks the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar. Tet, also known as Vietnamese New Years is a time for families to come together and spend quality time. People believe that the first day and of the Lunar holiday week will determine fortune and misfortunes for the rest of the year, so they prepare for Tet weeks in advance. They clean their homes, buy new clothes and shoes, pay off debts, and resolve differences.

Hong Kong City Mall is known to have big celebrations during Tet. Singers such as: Don Ho, Thuy Nga, and Huong Mai perform to make the celebration more entertaining and special. Their songs are upbeat and full of energy; it goes perfect for this kind of celebration. -The traditional thing to do on Tet is to have dragon dancers put on a show by doing the Dragon Dance. The Dragon Dance consists of 3-4 people who stand on each other’s shoulders, under a big dragon costume and dance. Their goal is to get people to give them money or red envelopes, which also consists of money. That money is usually donated to shelters and people in need. Raffle tickets are sold days in advance and the drawings are done in front of a crowd. There are plenty of prizes such as: a brand new Mercedes, a trip to Vietnam, cash prizes, and gift certificates. Elders usually give away “li xi,” (money in red envelopes) to young kids to represent good luck and prosperity. While all that is going on, friends and families sit by each other socializing and enjoying themselves.

HK City Mall organizes a lot of celebrations and events. The world famous Vietnamese radio station, Little Saigon, often hosts and sponsors events at HK City Mall. Ocean Palace restaurant is best known for their events and shows that they put on. Well-known celebrities go there to perform, sing, and dance. There are also many shows that are put together by different groups and organizations to raise money for the community or those in need of money.

Another big event at HK City Mall is the Moon Festival. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Families go to HK City Mall to celebrate the end of harvest season with big feasts and parties. People enjoy listening to music, dancing, drumming, exotic foods and spices, shopping, and learning about the Asian culture. With lighted candles and lantern, families watch the fullest moon of the year, while eating their moon cakes. For generations, moon cakes have been made with sweet fillings of nuts, mashed red beans, lotus-seed paste or Chinese dates, wrapped in a pastry. Sometimes a cooked egg yolk can be found in the middle of the rich tasting dessert. The Moon Festival is also associated with passing on messages for revolution through inserting a note in moon cakes. HK City Mall usually has the traditional Dragon Dance with lighted lanterns. The lanterns are so pretty and nice it creates an enjoyable atmosphere.

As you can see, Hong Kong City Mall is a big part of Houston and its Asian community. It has four store locations: on Harwin at Gessner, on Veterans Memorial Drive, on Scarsdale at Beamer, and the last and newest location is the Hong Kong City Mall, which is located on Bellaire at Boone.

After three different locations, the owners of Hong Kong Supermarket built the fourth one with careful consideration. The outside is constructed to bring forth the wonderful Chinese and Vietnamese cultures. Hong Kong City Mall is also very exquisite. There are numerous colorful gardens and many water fountains filled with lily pads that that squirt out water which attracts many customers. Unlike the other three shopping centers, the parking lot is much larger and spacious, making it very convenient for visitors.

The Hong Kong City Mall is my favorite for many reasons. It is very convenient because unlike the other three, Hong Kong City Mall is not only a supermarket, but it is a mall. There are many varieties of stores located within the HK City Mall such as shops that sell food, drinks, clothes, cds, videos, jewelry, cell phones, cell phone accessories, and many more. In addition to the stores, there are also dental offices, clinics, and law offices. People go there to eat, shop, run errands, socialize, and have a good time with family and friends.

Sure there are many other centers, but HK City Mall is most certainly a well-known and popular Asian center in Houston. It is always crowded and busy. The weekends are crowded the most because those are the days of resting and relaxation. Families want to spend quality time with each other so they go to HK City Mall to eat and have fun. HK City Mall is a great place to sit back and relax.

Hong Kong City Mall is an Asian mall, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that only Asians go there. White, Black, and Latin families often shop in the HK City Mall location because it has the largest fresh seafood counter in Houston and has some of the best prices on fresh vegetables and fruits. Hong Kong City Mall’s supermarket is the best and biggest in town. The supermarket is located in the center of the mall. You can find plants, paintings, kitchenware, fresh herbs, variety of meats, shrimps, seafood, fresh vegetables, desserts, snacks, condiments, and many more.

HK City Mall is a popular site for tourists. It is well known around the United States. People enjoy it because it is very big, it has many varieties of stores, and there are a lot of things to do in the HK City Mall. They can get a lot of souvenirs from the gift stores. We as Houstonians take HK City Mall for granted because we can go there anytime we want, but for those out of town, they enjoy every second of it. They always tell us how lucky we are to have such a big Asian community in Houston.

I interviewed a friend from Florida who often visits and asked her what she likes about Hong Kong City Mall; she responded excitedly as she said, “Hong Kong is so cool. I wish Tampa had these centers around. It would make things so much easier for my mom. She wouldn’t have to travel so far to get decent Asian food. I also love the crawfish there!”

A popular hang out spot in HK City Mall is the game arcade. It has many video games and different activities to do there. Little kids go there to play games as their parents shop and run errands. It is very convenient for both the kids and parents. The parents can get their errands done while the kids have fun. Everyone can come to Hong Kong City Mall and leave a happy camper.

Right next to the arcade is the food court. The food court sells many types of food such as: crawfish, beignets, rice, noodles, desserts, etc. The food court is always crowded with people eating and enjoying their food. All around the food court are a hand full of televisions. People can watch whatever they want while they eat. Often times, people watch the sports and news channels. Also inside the food court, grown adults gather around to play Chinese checkers and chess. The players sit in the booth while challengers stand around watching and waiting for their turn.

People don’t only go to the food court to eat but they also go to play and enjoy a round or two of mahjong. Mahjong is a very popular Asian game. It is like dominoes and cards put together, but with Chinese characters on blocks. HK City Mall has been known to have mahjong tournaments, which attract many people, especially adults.

Today, many Vietnamese-American kids grow up speaking English and not their own language. They grow up with American standards and know nothing about their own culture and background. Being surrounded in Asian areas like Hong Kong City Mall helps them stay well acquainted with their cultural background.

Hong Kong City Mall is important to the Asian community in Houston because it is a place that brings people together. It gives them a sense of belonging. It’s a place where running into family or friends is very common. People can eat, talk, hangout, play games, and even go grocery shopping together.

MAP:

LINKS

Viet Hoa Supermarket

Vietnamese Business Directory

Exodus From Chaos to Tranquility: The Demise of the Original Vietnamese Enclave in Southwest Houston by Mai Phan

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.