Archive at Rice University documents Asian immigration experience in Houston

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To honor Asian Pacific Heritage month this May, Fox 26 is taking a look at the Asian immigration experience in Houston. Rice University's archives hold incredible stories of hope and heartache that show progress through Houston's history.

Houston is the most diverse city in the United States, but for all that diversity here, there are few records of the early Asian experience in Houston.

But discrimination did shape much of that experience, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to building the nation’s railroads.

“They came to the Houston area to build the railroad between Houston and Dallas, and some of them were discriminated against because there were other people working on the railroad who said they didn’t want to work with the pig-tailed Chinese, and so they actually cut them loose,” said Dr. Edward C. M. Chen, a visting professor at the Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice University.

At Rice University, the Houston Asian American Archive pieces together that history for a better understanding of why Houston is now the way it is.

“From story to story, you piece together the story of what it was like to live in Houston from early 20th century to now,” said Dr. Anne Chao, the manager of the Houston Asian American Archive.

Dr. Edward Chen is one of the first Chinese-Houstonians. He was born at St. Joseph's in 1937 -- the son of a diplomat -- and one of only about 50 Chinese people in Houston growing up. He said there was adversity but still remembers his childhood fondly.

“Some of the kids were nasty and taunting but you know the teachers were always very good,” said Dr. Chen.

Dr. Chen credits his father for playing a large role in Houston in preventing President Truman from interning Chinese people during the Korean War.

“He said, ‘Look, the American Chinese are loyal to the United States of America. I will help you find out who is not loyal, and I will let you know about them and you can do with them whatever you want. But you should not be interning the large number of Chinese who are in the U.S. at this particular time, and so he didn’t do it,” said Dr. Chen.

His father eventually joined the FBI, teaching agents Chinese.
These archives are a peek into the past, to see how Houston's Asians existed, survived, and coped. It also may explain why the Asian immigration experience is often overlooked.

“They are very eager to assimilate,” said Dr. Chao, referring to Asian immigrants. “They don’t want to stand out as a discriminated group or a group that’s ‘other than’ mainstream, which has its advantages because then if you can brush aside a lot of the obstacles, you can advance well and probably live happily because you’re not dwelling on a lot of these unfairness. However, the flip side is then your story doesn’t get told. So, by creating the archive, you honor their story.”
 

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