Houston's southwest side Asian community! in International Houston Posted May 9, 2007 Shiou Huey, a nun from the Jade Buddha Temple off Bellaire and Dairy Ashford, performs a meditation and chant last month next to light offerings from worshippers to gain wisdom. Pu Thieu, right, looks out a window at Hong Kong City Mall in southwest Houston last month. The Chinese name for Bellaire translates to "Hundreds of Profits." May 9, 2007, 1:33AM Opinions vary over naming the growing Asian community on Houston's southwest side By LORI RODRIGUEZ Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle When Christy Chang began guiding wide-eyed Houstonians through the wonders of the city's booming, Asian southwest corridor, she grappled with what to call her tours. Community business leaders annually put out a glossy, fact-filled map that, after much debate, calls the area Chinatown. Discover Houston Tours calls it New Chinatown to distinguish it from Old Chinatown, the original Chinese settlement on downtown's southeast edge. Wikipedia, the popular Internet encyclopedia, refers to the area as one of the younger U.S. Chinatowns. Despite the commonly used sobriquet, however, it doesn't truly reflect the actual makeup of the community. "We have people here from Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Middle East, the Philippines; even among the Chinese there's enormous diversity in cultures and languages," says Chang, who immigrated three decades ago from Taiwan. On her own accord, Chang began calling her group trips through the area the "Asian Heritage Guided Tour," reasoning that it was more accurate as well as inclusive. "This area is not just Chinatown anymore. If anything, it's Asia Town," Chang says. But the dialogue over what to more formally call the area continues. In fact, the six-mile stretch along Bellaire from Fondren to Highway 6 is unlike its much older counterparts in other U.S. cities where Chinese long have held sway. While old Chinatown downtown near the Convention Center dates back to the 1920s, the southwest Chinatown was sparked by the opening of Diho Square on Bellaire by Taiwanese developers in 1983. Construction of the nearby Dynasty Mall shortly followed and, on its heels, waves of diverse immigrants during which the dominant population shifted from Chinese to Vietnamese. Chinatown? Asia Town? While there is no movement to formally refer to the area as "Asia Town," increasingly, that term and others equally more inclusive are being considered and, sometimes, discarded. When Grace Feng, owner of Grace Computer & Internet Corporation, and the China Town Map & Directory decided to produce an area map for visitors and tourists in 2002, the name was a prickly issue. "In the beginning, everybody just called it the Chinatown Map. But we realize there are a lot of voices in the community, not just the Chinese, and we've talked about changing the name," Feng says. After discussions with former Councilman Gordon Quan and other prominent Asian leaders, Feng says it was decided that every major U.S. city has a Chinatown. "Not every city has an Asia Town, so we decided to keep it Chinatown. That's what most people know this area as," she says. Faced with a similar descriptive choice, state Rep. Hubert Vo and area business leaders opted for the broader "International Management District" as the name for a tax-levying agency being considered by the Legislature. If Vo's legislation passes, new Chinatown businesses would pay taxes to be used for area improvements. "The larger community thinks that we all look alike so they still call us Chinatown. But we don't and that term no longer really applies," said Vo, who became the first Vietnamese lawmaker in the state House after winning the District 149 seat in the November 2004 election. "The Taiwanese started coming first; then Vietnamese fleeing the war. People from old Chinatown also started moving here because their businesses couldn't survive downtown. Now, the area has grown by leaps and bounds and more people come in every day." Real estate agent Billy Kung still remembers the grand opening of the Dynasty Mall in 1986; he was a college student in a decade marked by incessant immigration. 'Wall Street of Houston' Today, new Chinatown boasts nearly two dozen shopping malls, hundreds of restaurants and an astounding number of major, mainstream banks. The street signs are in English, Chinese and Vietnamese. The Chinese name for Bellaire translates to "Hundreds of Profits," an apt name for an area where a single street intersection houses a sleek bank on each corner, complete with bilingual signs, information and staff. "Within a two-mile radius of that Bellaire and Corporate intersection, from South Gessner to Boone Road, there are 12 banks," Kung says, earning this segment of Bellaire its nickname as the "Wall Street of Houston." Pristine new malls, restaurants, hotels and apartment complexes abound, most swarming with people of different race and ethnicity. Signs are in an array of languages; English translations may or may not be offered. Chambers of commerce and other business development groups abound. Every Asian/Pacific population has at least one group working toward their economic growth and social welfare; most have dozens. To a degree, it's every ethnic group for itself. But other organizations, like the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Association, try to bridge the divide. "Houston stands out from the rest of the country because we're a new, diverse and very rapidly growing Asian/Pacific American population. Our southwest community started in the mid-1970s, as opposed to the ones in New York, Los Angeles and other cities that have been here nearly since the beginning of the republic," says association executive director Jerome Vielman. Vielman says the association was created to promote Asian/Pacific culture and heritage in 1992, the same year that then-President Bush expanded Asian/Pacific Heritage week to a monthlong celebration in May. 'Common denominator' Vielman, who is Filipino, says weaving together the diversity of the Asian/Pacific community can be daunting. "But the way that we come together is to highlight the contributions of Asians who immigrated to the U.S., to their new home. "That's the common denominator." Religion, to a degree, also can be but even the numerous Buddhist and Taoist temples cater to distinct worshippers. "We began as a Chinese temple, but now we get all kinds of people who want to visit or meditate here; we even get Christians and Jews," says Sister Shiou Huey, a Buddhist nun at the serene and architecturally striking Jade Buddha Temple off Bellaire and Dairy Ashford. "We welcome everyone." New Chinatown's metamorphosis into a more multiethnic center, visually, can be dizzying. To some of Houston's earlier Chinese settlers, it also can be off-putting. "There is still some segregation between the groups; the older generation is more hesitant to embrace the changes," including the reference to new Chinatown as Asia Town, says Rogene Gee Calvert. Gee, a board member of the Gee Family Association, which preserves the heritage of one of the city's oldest Chinese families, wants to change that. "The more enlightened leaders know that together we can be stronger," she said. "I think we're getting there."