As Houston's Vietnamese community blossomed in the 1990s, the city's non-Vietnamese population discovered Vietnamese cuisine. During the 1992 Republican convention several Vietnamese restaurants were among those recommended by local guides. Today Houston's Vietnamese population is second only to that of Orange Country, California, and La's restaurants grosses $2 million a year. But an ever-growing portion is from the new Caucasian clientele that is gradually driving his Vietnamese following to less trendy eateries.
Several blighted Houston neighborhoods have received a much-needed injection of commercial energy from Asian immigrants ranging from Southeast Asian refugees to Hong Kong tycoons. Their efforts have built a second Chinatown and new Korean, Vietnamese and Thai districts. And Asian American professionals by the thousands have relocated to service these newly Americanized consumers.
The influx of Asians infused the city's small but old Asian establishment with new political clout. Houston's Chinese and Japanese communities date back to the late 19th century, when displaced Chinese railroad workers and Japanese laborers settled there. Small in numbers, their presence attracted little notice from the white, black and Hispanic communities. Some Asians acquired economic clout with the success of their businesses, but even well into the 1970s the communityıs small numbers minimized political influence.
By the late 1980s, however, Houston politicians noticed the Asian population growth and began courting its votes and contributions. This awakened the community's long-dormant political instincts. In 1988 Glen Gondo, a second generation Japanese American founded the Asian American Political Coalition (AAPC), the cityıs first Asian political group.
During Houston's 1988 mayoral race a candidate asked Gondo, a Republican party activist, to mobilize the Asian community's vote. Gondo quickly discovered that the community lacked political structure, access to city hall and strong leadership. He began by holding an organizational meeting, hoping for a strong showing from all ethnicities. Six people came, all from the traditional Chinese-Japanese establishment. Undeterred, Gondo held more meetings, and the attendance grew with each gathering. Within three months, the meetings drew over 100 attendees, from both the old and new communities. The rising interest prompted Gondo to form the coalition. It currently claims over 200 paid members, plus a host of followers.
"It used to be that the people active politically in the Houston Asian American community were individuals," says Gondo, who owns a Japanese restaurant and a chain of sushi bars. "You had to get their OK to see the mayor or the city council. I, as an American, felt that wasn't right. We all realized that we had to have an organization to help get Asian Americans access to city hall."
The AAPC has proven effective. Its muscle placed the first Asian on the city council and pressured the Texas governor to appoint an Asian to the Public Utilities Commission.
"Now we have a face," Gondo says. "Politicians, the newspapers and arts are including us more in the issues that face the city. Before it was just Blacks, Hispanic and Whites."
Some in Houston's Asian community think their delay in organizing cost them irrecoverable political loses, but others feel the delay was a blessing. Entrenched Asian American communities, like San Francisco's and New York's, they note, are dominated by a single ethnic group, usually either the Chinese or the Japanese. This, they say, splinters the community and weakens Asian political clout.
"We created pan-Asian vehicles before our different ethnicities had a chance to form their own leadership," says Glenda Joe, a Chinese American business owner and political activist. "All the Asian ethnic communities see the benefits of associating themselves with one group. We can speak with one voice on the critical issues. When the pan-Asian leadership wants to sit down with the Black leadership, it's not just the Chinese sitting down with them and not just the Koreans sitting down with them. It's the pan-Asian leadership."
Grass-roots political growth like Houston's stems from the need to overcome daily injustice, and for Asians across the south, the staunchest daily injustice is racism. Even the thousands who never directly encounter it feel the chill of its presence. Tri La, the Vietnamese restaurant owner, strives to prevent racial hostilities by hiring employees who constitute a mix of ethnicities. "It's the businessman's job," he quips, "to make everyone happy." Page 4