THE ASIAN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Building New Saigon
Houston Institute for Culture
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
COMING TO AMERICA
With the fall of Saigon in April 1975, many Vietnamese officials and service personnel closest to the American troops were lifted to safety and processed for resettlement. It was only the beginning of a humanitarian crisis, studied by the United Nations in a 1979 conference, which would result in the United States and several other western nations accepting approximately 700,000 Vietnamese refugees.
From the end of the Vietnam War through 1983, former South Vietnam soldiers, displaced civilians, farmers left with destroyed fields, suspected American loyalists, and heavily-persecuted Chinese Vietnamese fled their homeland. Many crowded onto unstable fishing boats and floating platforms made of tires and sheet metal. With grim prospects, they set course for the South China Sea, to be rescued by sympathetic ship pilots or washed ashore in Thailand and Malaysia, or be captured. Through illness, dehydration, starvation, and violent weather, as many as half of the refugees may have died at sea. Many were robbed and killed by pirates.
ONCE BOAT PEOPLE
Lifted from the seas by Chinese merchant ships and foreign navies, many who were children still remember the terror and relief of resting on the decks of Australian and Indonesian war vessels, while their parents wondered if they would be processed and transferred to safety, or returned to Vietnam to risk their lives another day.
Some in their late twenties are old enough to remember leaving Vietnam in this way, as the world referred to the refugees as "Boat People," but many of college age have experienced a different world most of their lives. Born in the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s, they are sometimes embarrassed by the customs and traditions of their parents and grandparents.
Unbeknownst to many of their children, following the American dream did not come easy for the immigrants.
Uncertainty, resentment, and even violent and bitter conflict greeted many of them in Texas, long after they left the aftermath of war in Vietnam behind. In many cases, living in fear of their neighbors characterized their daily lives.
Little is said of the hardships most faced after arriving in resettlement camps and establishing new lives in American cities. Anglo and African Americans talked of the "Asian Invasion" on radio dials and some took drastic measures to reject the newest Americans.
ALLEN PARKWAY VILLAGE
Many Vietnamese refugees were settled in government housing projects, where they entered a brand new world of crime and survival. Unwittingly, more than 400 Vietnamese families came to reside in one of Houston's poorest communities, Allen Parkway Village, in the shadow of an oil-rich downtown. Many would be caught up in a twenty-year struggle between wealthy developers, government agencies and poor tenants, and their supporters, over the fate of one of the highest valued real estate properties in the nation. The Vietnamese residents, along with fellow Chinese and Cambodian immigrants, soon made up two thirds of the population of Allen Parkway Village. They raised herb gardens in the peace and quite Fourth Ward offered, relative to war. Even with many cultural barriers, and faced with high rates of crime in the crowded tenement, they achieved mutual acceptance with many of their African American neighbors.
Fourth Ward was slated to become the developers' battleground. Many theorized that the new Asian immigrants were being purposefully concentrated in the 963-unit public housing project west of downtown, because they would offer less resistance than Black residents (who comprised fewer than one third of the population) and receive little legal representation as the housing authority moved forward on the sale of the property. Bordering on historic Freedmen's Town, the 1942 complex of brick buildings and compact living quarters was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s.
Many Houstonians argued that Allen Parkway Village stood in the way of the redevelopment of historic Fourth Ward. Others claimed the housing authority was part of a deceptive plan to displace minorities and auction the prime office space to wealthy developers. Neither side ultimately prevailed as the dispute dragged on in court and energy profits declined, though the residents were ordered to leave in 1996.
Near the end of a twenty year struggle over the fate of Allen Parkway Village, many moved to other parts of the city with relatives, concentrated in Midtown, or left Houston altogether for destinations like Port Arthur, where they received aid from the Queen of the Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church. Some integrated into other thriving Asian communities, such as historic Chinatown, east of downtown, and new Chinatown, west of downtown on Bellaire Blvd.
But some remained at Allen Parkway Village to the bitter end, when federal marshals and city police officers stood by as they packed. Times had changed so much for the Vietnamese immigrants that some described being treated like respected grandparents by the Black community. Even though they were suspicious of each other at first and were unable to communicate, some of the elderly Vietnamese residents could barely stand to part with the African American neighbors they had come to rely on for social health.
Language barriers and cultural differences made it difficult to move into the more prosperous sectors of Houston's economy, though many did over the years. Location and cultural experience played a significant role.
The U.S. government's resettlement plan called for distribution of Vietnamese refugees into diverse communities to avoid creating a culture of poverty. Most immigrants gravitated to the cultural centers of the new Vietnamese communities. Texas' coastal communities were ideally suited to establishing an economy for the Vietnamese, based on fishing and shrimping the Gulf waters.
Most Texans had little previous exposure to Asian cultures, outside of television coverage of the Vietnam War. Extreme racism surfaced in coastal communities, like Kemah and Seabrook, where the immigrants set up fishing operations. Economic competition, just at the time when increased importation of foreign shrimp caused the price to fall, led to threats and a campaign of intimidation by White shrimpers. Several Vietnamese-owned boats were destroyed in 1980 in cases that investigators determined to be arson. White residents organized a protest against the Vietnamese boat operators on February 14, 1981. One month later, on March 15, the Ku Klux Klan and Texas militia groups paraded past working Vietnamese-owned shrimp boats, wearing menacing robes and hoods, and waving firearms in the air.
Morris Dees, a founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, was determined to enforce the legal gains of the Civil Rights Movement on the Klan for their campaign of intimidation against the recent immigrants. On behalf of the Vietnamese, Dees filed suit in Federal Court against the Ku Klux Klan on April 16, 1981, on the grounds that they were in violation of Antitrust and Civil Rights laws. He additionally argued that the Klan was operating an illegal private army.
Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, an African American appointed to the federal bench by president Jimmy Carter in 1979, was assigned to hear the case. The Klan claimed that the first African American judge appointed in Texas would exercise prejudice against the hate group in her decision.
On May 14, Judge McDonald issued an injunction to prohibit the Klan from using any form of harassment against the Vietnamese fishermen or inciting the actions of others. She determined that the Klan acted with the "intent of eliminating a class of competitors from the commercial fishing business in Galveston Bay." U.S. Marshals were assigned to Vietnamese boats to protect them from further action by the Klan.
Since the landmark 1981 Civil Rights case was decided in favor of the new immigrants, Vietnamese fishermen have thrived in the Texas shrimping industry.
SIMS BAYOU AND NEW SAIGON
Through unbearable hardships, many Vietnamese immigrants have attempted to maintain cultural connections to their homeland and even developed aquaculture farming techniques in hidden places, like Sims Bayou in southeast Houston. Behind crowded apartment complexes off of Park Place, the Asian tenants tried to establish rural living by the slow waterway. Evidenced by banana trees and cultivated bamboo, only remnants remain of the gardeners' efforts to sustain the lifeways of the Vietnamese people in their new city.
While others were reveling in the oil embargo-profits and boomtown days of the 1970s, the refugees from Vietnam were struggling to open restaurants and introduce Houstonians to the flavor of the new culture in Texas, and more importantly, to establish services to meet the educational, legal and social needs of their community in the divided languages of generations separated by place of birth.
But Houston's growing Vietnamese population, the second largest in the United States, has remained highly independent, maintaining many businesses throughout the city. The community benefits from high rates of achievement in education, establishment of varied professional services, various Vietnamese-language media, and events throughout the year to preserve language and culture.
In the sentimental building of a new Saigon, the Vietnamese community has created a thriving center for Vietnamese-owned businesses in Midtown, affectionately (and now officially) called "Little Saigon," a district characterized by street signs displayed in Vietnamese. For refugees who came to a new land, and often set out in their new lives with extreme poverty being the least of their problems, the Vietnamese Americans have made a significant contribution to the city's prosperity, while maintaining a strong presence of identity and cultural value.
Note: Re-development has forced many long-time residents to leave the Midtown area, south of downtown Houston along Milam and Travis streets, near Tuam. This area was designated "Little Saigon" during the 6th Annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Festival on Saturday, May 1, 2004.
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