In Houston, the evolution of the Vietnamese-American experience plays out

Distinct waves of immigrants from Vietnam to the US have shaped and been shaped by the country. Today, in the Texan city of Houston, the evolution of the country's Vietnamese community can be seen in the differing outlooks and experiences of each generation

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July 5, 2021
In Houston, the evolution of the Vietnamese-American experience plays out

Soon after the then-22-year old Jonny Dang immigrated from Vietnam to Houston in the 1990s, he started visiting predominantly Black hip-hop clubs in the city. 

“I’ll be honest, in the beginning I didn’t understand the lyrics. I just liked the beat,” he said with a grin, wearing a shiny grey suit and diamond-studded necklace. Dang’s father had fled to Texas years earlier without him as a political refugee, surviving by fixing watches.

Like his father, Dang was a jeweler, but he wasn’t content to just follow in his dad’s footsteps. He found employment at a jewelry store to pay the bills, then studied English at Houston’s Community College and set up his own workshop in a garage. 

Dang quickly discovered that jewelry was an important cultural aspect of Houston’s rap and hip-hop scene, so he visited clubs on weekends, passing out flyers, looking for customers.

Now in his 40s, today he owns three jewelry showrooms across the city, with a star-studded list of local rappers as clients. 

“If one rapper trusts me, they refer a thousand others, because they are spokespersons.” 

Dang is part of a new generation of Vietnamese-Houstonians marking a break from Houston’s older Vietnamese. This new generation is more racially integrated and less conservative politically than first-generation Vietnamese immigrants. The new generation isn’t just continuing old family traditions, they’re drawing from their Vietnamese background and merging this with their Houstonian cultural roots, putting their own distinct mark on the city.

Quy Hoang exemplifies this melding of cultures in a very literal sense, combining his Vietnamese heritage with Houston’s favourite cuisine. He has taken traditional Houston barbecue, seasoned with salt and pepper then roasted over a pit of smoldering wood, and added Asian ingredients that he enjoyed as a child. 

Opening Blood Bros restaurant with two partners in 2018, just one year later they were labelled one of the best barbecue restaurants in the state by magazine Texas Monthly. Just last week, they opened a new location in Las Vegas.

“My mom would cook just all kinds of Vietnamese food,” he said with a slight Texas accent. His parents immigrated to the state in 1975. 

“I thought, that’s a good flavour. Let’s try to apply that to BBQ.”

Jonny Dang in his jewelry showroom. Photo: Ryan Anders

From 2000 to the last US census in 2010, Houston’s Vietnamese community grew by 45%. Today they constitute Houston’s largest Asian minority, with 28% of all Asians in Houston having Vietnamese roots, and have played a central role in the city’s development. 

“While other major US cities are shrinking – such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Baltimore – Houston is one of the most vibrant, rapidly growing places in the country thanks to the tremendous energy, vitality and commitment to hard work of immigrants pouring into the city from Africa, Latin America and Asia,” said Stephen Klineberg, professor emeritus of sociology at Rice University and founder of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Vietnamese refugees immigrated to many different cities across the US, but Houston was an especially good fit. Not only did the city offer a warm climate and inexpensive housing, more importantly, Houston’s economy – in contrast with places like Detroit or Boston – had a range of jobs for differing education levels.

“Houston had a bifurcate economy, high paying jobs for highly-skilled technical workers in healthcare and all the engineering fields, and then you had lots of low-paying jobs in construction work and personal services,” said Klineberg. “A bifurcated immigrant stream coming into a bifurcated economy, the Vietnamese exemplified that.”

Vietnamese came as political refugees in two waves. The first arrived in the late 1970s at the end of the Vietnam-American War. A large proportion belonged to the former South Vietnam elite, had ties to the US military and were typically educated.

Wendy Nicole Duong, for example, was already a star student in South Vietnam before fleeing in 1975 with her father, then a professor in Saigon. At the University of Houston, Duong earned her law degree and went on to be named the first judge of Vietnamese heritage in the US.

By now, Duong, along with much of her generation of Vietnamese immigrants, are retired. She no longer works as a judge, instead, she’s written three books of historical fiction set in Vietnam. 

The second wave of Vietnamese refugees, the so-called “boat people”, arrived in the 1980s as part of the largest refugee resettlement programme in US history. Most were unskilled, with tens of thousands turning to shrimping just south of Houston.

Joseph Do helped to found the Vietnamese American Community Center in Houston that originally taught English to Vietnamese arrivals. A sign of how well the community has integrated, his organisation has pivoted away from their original aim.  

“They do not need any help anymore,” he said. Now Do’s group devotes its energy to feeding Houston’s poor, predominantly Latino population. 

“We were refugees about 30 years ago, and we know the hardships of immigrants and how they suffer. So that’s why we try to help.” 

A monument in Houston honouring South Vietnamese fighters during the war. Photo: Ryan Anders

Today, a new generation of Vietnamese-Houstonians is rising, made up of second-generation immigrants, US citizens, who grew up in Houston. They have different ideas about race, politics and work than the first generation of  Vietnamese-Houstonians. 

Bao Nguyen is one of them. He is in an inter-racial marriage, saying this has exposed him in a very intimate way to the racial inequities in the US. 

“Everything since George Floyd is more intense,” said Nguyen, referring to the murder of a Black man by a white police officer in 2020. “Now the whole generation is just fed up at this point”. 

Like Nguyen, 61% of US-born Asians in Houston reported that they have been in a romantic relationship with a person of a different ethnicity, according to a 2011 Kinder Institute survey. This compares to only 32% of the older generation, born outside of the US.

One reason the new generation’s attitudes towards race is different from the refugee generation is because they’ve grown up in a radically integrated city. In 1960, just before the first Vietnamese came to the city, Whites made up 74% of the population. Today, Whites make up only 28% of the total population in Houston, while Asians (8%), Blacks (20%) and Latinos (44%) constitute the rest. 

In contrast to his parents, 24-year old artist Thomas Tran grew up in a racially balanced Houston high school. 

“There were so many immigrant kids that white children were in the minority,” he said. Tran said he experienced little prejudice or discrimination until he moved to Columbus, Ohio to attend the Columbus College of Art and Design. “When I went to college, I didn’t understand racism, you know?” 

This vastly different cultural education manifests in politics, with Tran representative of the new generation that holds markedly different views than their parents.

“There’s kind of a shift of values over the generations,” he said. “A lot of the older people in the Vietnamese community supported [Donald] Trump.”

Before Tran was born, in 1995, Houston’s Vietnamese population was predominantly conservative in their outlook. 60% self-identified as Republicans, while just 28% supported the Democratic Party according to data from the Kinder Institute. At that time, most refugee immigrants were attracted to the Republican’s strong anti-communist foreign policy. 

However, the number of Republican supporters in Houston’s Vietnamese community has dropped significantly in recent years. According to an updated Kinder Institute report published in 2013, just 40% of Vietnamese in Houston still self-identify as Republicans. A further 27% said they vote independent and 33% lean Democrat. This trend holds true for Vietnamese-Americans elsewhere in the US.

The generational divide between Tran and his parents’ generation also expressed itself in his struggle to go to art school instead of joining the family business after high school. When they immigrated, Tran’s parents struggled to survive financially. They first ran a small grocery store. However, after being robbed several times at gunpoint, they began fixing and renting apartments. 

“They don’t really get the ‘following your heart’ thing,” he said. “I think a lot of that was beaten out of them at an early age.”

Tran’s parents reluctantly gave in, though. He got his degree and now hustles to get work as a freelance illustrator. His artwork often mixes Houston landscapes and traditional Asian elements like dragons. 

“Every time I’d come home, I’d go to this certain spot, a bayou just behind our neighbourhood just to chill because no one would be there.”

I think it’s a Houston story … Not only me but many Vietnamese, Asians and other immigrants have come here and been successful

Back on Richmond Avenue, a modern-day Vietnamese-American success story unfolds at one of Jonny Dang’s three jewelry showrooms in Houston. 

There’s a steady flow of customers as soon as the doors open at 11am. A whiff of marijuana fills the air as several customers count out fistfuls of hundred dollar bills, placing custom orders. One gentleman even sat a plaster mold of his teeth on the top of the jewel case. 

When Dang himself finally arrives in a white Rolls Royce, he’s immediately greeted with requests for selfies. He’s almost become as famous as the stars who wear his diamond-covered grillz and regularly flies all across the country, meeting boxing stars and basketball players. 

“I grew up with no power, no electricity,” said Dang of his upbringing in Vietnam. “I think it’s a Houston story … Not only me but many Vietnamese, Asians and other immigrants have come here and been successful.”

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