11205 Bellaire Blvd. to 9180 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, Texas 77072
January 2004–Many Asian’s make their way across the Pacific Ocean to start a fresh life with new opportunities. Upon moving overseas, to the “Golden Mountains” roughly translated into English, they are presented with a new surrounding, far from home, and nothing but the clothes on their back and the suit case they brought along on the boat ride to America to remind them of China, the homeland. As American society began to accept Asian culture, the Asian society began to adapt to the American culture by building stores, shops, and buildings to remind them of home, soon to be known as Chinatown.
I go to Chinatown on Bellaire almost every weekend. Why? I don’t know. I like to walk around and see what has changed. My family comes here to go grocery shopping and sometimes we eat here, at the many restaurants that Chinatown has to offer. For some strange reason, this place seems to lure me in.
Today, we’ve started off at the Hong Kong Supermarket. This particular store is the 4th to open in the Houston area. It’s the most recent and offers more for the people around here. The supermarket itself looks like it was modeled after the ancient Chinese houses, with the tile rooftops and curvy corners. As my parents walk in, my brother and I lag behind. My brother scopes the area, looking for anyone he might know. I look at the little kids running around, joyfully playing around their parents’ feet. Gosh I wish I were a kid again.
We’re greeted by lucky bamboo as we walk into the grocery store entrance. I see people crouching down to look at the bamboo, which vary in sizes from 4 inches to 6 inches, and come in straight poles or ones that go curly at the top. I walk further to find my parents in the grocery section. They are looking at green onions and bok choy. “Bernice, could you get me bag please?” my mother asks in Cantonese. She picks up a bundle of green onions and puts it in the bag I give her. I walk over to the cart my parents took at the entrance and look inside. Various ingredients for tonight’s dinner lie in the cart. I look up and find a little boy in a cart opposite ours staring at me. I look at him and smile, waving my fingers. His eyes light up as the cutest giggle comes out of his mouth. My mom walks over, does the same thing, and giggles some more. We push the cart over the meat department, where my dad is standing, looking around. “It doesn’t look too fresh,” my dad says, speaking to my mom. “We could go to another market,” my mom replies. While my parents are in line paying for our groceries, I walk outside, into the mall of Hong Kong Supermarket. I turn to my left and see dozens of stores lining either side, selling things from cloth to make Vietnamese dresses to a toy store for little kids. At the very end of this stretch is the food court, where venders are selling their homemade recipes. I look to the right of the mall and notice that it stretches even further. Some restaurants line one side and a name brand clothing store is on the corner. A cell phone booth sits in the center of it all.
I look ahead and notice that my parents are almost out of the door, my dad looking back at me to see if I’m done looking around. I scuttle over and we all load the groceries into the car, get in, and gradually proceed on our way to the next destination.
As we’re driving, my parents are talking and I’m looking out of the window. I see many Asian restaurants and stores that line this part of Chinatown. They all sell and offer things that are indigenous to many Asian countries. I hear a low rumble approaching and look to see a spiky-haired person driving a fixed up car. My brother looks over to see what just passed by and catches my dad’s attention. “They all look alike Ben,” he says, looking at him in the rearview mirror. I notice what looks like an old fashioned Chinese palace come into view. My mom tells me that it is a Buddhist temple. It has what looks like a gold roof and a pathway leading down to a walkway built next to the bayou. It looks like a gigantic square mansion. I find this a very unusual place to build a temple, because next to it is another building with a similar colored roof, with a sign reading Home Depot. But, I can understand why someone would build a temple here, because most Buddhist people tend to be Chinese, and being that this is Chinatown, they picked this spot.
We travel under the Beltway to the other half of Chinatown, the half that has been here since I was a little kid. Run down apartments with faded sides and dusty parking lots line one side, occupied by elderly Chinese couples. If they need something, all they have to do is walk across the street into the market and get what they need. Or they could walk into a local restaurant for some Dim Sum. They walk everywhere because in China, they walked.
A few of these apartment buildings have been transformed into various businesses, one being a dentist, and another a martial arts school. My dad drives into a parking lot, almost hitting a lady that didn’t bother to look both ways. “Idiot,” my brother says. My dad finds a spot close to the entrance and parks the car, telling us to wait while he runs in. This supermarket, Dynasty, has been here for as long as I can remember. My dad would always come here for fresh seafood, bringing me along to look around with curious eyes. I used to not like it there because the floor was slippery and it smelled fishy. But I grew out of that. My dad comes out with a bag of fresh fish paste in his hand, something that he only likes to buy here. He puts it in the cooler we brought along and we are on our way again. As we drive further along, I see this magnificent building with red pillars. It’s the Chinese bank, with shiny windows that make the sun hurt your eyes if you were to look at them. Across the street in Diho Supermarket, a place we don’t go to as much as we used to. That’s been there since I was a little kid, too. It’s kind of run down now, with posters hanging on the windows that have faded with the sun. There’s a little ice cream parlor next to the market that sells crushed ice with various toppings, such as tapioca, red, beans, jelly and sweetened condensed milk to top it off. It’s a great way to cool off from the summer sun. They also sell tofu with sweet ginger sauce, which is a great dessert. I remember this place so well because this is where I experienced my first dragon dance for Chinese New Year. They would clear all of the cars out of parking lot and hang up 3 separate lucky money pouches with lettuce heads attached. Then the day before Chinese New Year, Chinese dance companies would come out and perform with their drums and dragon costumes. Then fireworks would go off and send gray smoke into the air. Parents would give lucky money to kids and everyone would eat moon cakes.
Well, since we didn’t stop here, we drive on and pull into the parking lot of Welcome Supermarket. Here, it’s brighter and a little livelier than Diho. My parents buy some more groceries, pick up some more seafood, and decide that H.E.B. is the best place to go for beef. As my parents are waiting in line, I tell them that I’m going to Star Snow Ice, the local hot spot. They’ve been open for about maybe 6 years, and it’s the first place in Houston, I think, that offered drinks selling tapioca in them. After that, bubble tea cafes have sprang up all over the Chinatown area. Star, as it’s called for short, sells a variety of drinks, from frozen mochas to milk teas, to fruit shakes, all with the option of putting tapioca in them, and also crushed ice with the various toppings. I order a mild tea with boba, or tapioca, pay the lady, and wait for my drink. I look around and notice all the people in here. Out of all of the bubble the cafes that I know of, I think this one is the only one where adult and kid alike come here to order drinks. This spot is a great place to hang out and have a conversation over bubble tea. Right next door is a shop that sells Japanese accessories, from stationary to everyday items. And right next to that is a store that sells Chinese clothing and other interesting little trinkets.
As I get my drink my cell phone rings. My parents are telling me that they are done and wonder what I would like to eat for lunch. We meet outside and agree to lunch at this little place in a corner called Hong Kong Café. There are many restaurants here in Chinatown that offer great food at affordable prices. Some may not be obvious, but most are designed to look very modern and hip, designed to in a way to attract the younger adult crowd.
While eating my Hai Nan chicken and seasoned rice, I glance around to see who else is in here. This is a family owned business, with the teenage kids and wife handling tables while dad and hired help cook in the back. A few families are here, with parents trying to get their kids to eat their noodle soup. Here and there are the various couples that sit quietly next to each other eating and looking at each other with goofy grins on their faces.
When we have finished eating, I walk outside and take a big gulp of fresh, sunny air. I ponder the day’s events and realize that Chinatown is a great place to experience new things. It shows you the mixing of the then and now. Some places are still fashioned to the past, while the newer places are focused around the present, about what people like now. Many different cultures come here to try out the various things that people have to offer. They may seem scared to try it at first, but when they do try it, they realize how good it is and come back for more. But this is the stuff that we are used to. Chinatown is a place many Asians think of as a place of belonging, a place they can call home…a home away from home.
For more information about Houston’s Chinatown, please call 713-779-8444. Or visit http://www.chinatownmap.com/