As we stood on the threshold of the Teo Chew Temple, Darryl de Mello, the man leading our Asian Heritage Tour through Houston’s Asiatown on a recent Saturday morning, whipped through the things to know about the place—how the pair of stone lions outside the temple mean safety; how the grim-faced soldiers painted on the door are the creation of a Chinese emperor, who had portraits of two of his generals painted on his own door to protect him from evil spirits; and how, once we entered, we should not touch the gallons of cooking oil and small piles of fruit placed alongside the temple’s altars and shrines, there to honor gods and ancestors.
“Be respectful,” he advised us one last time as our crew of about 20, all white, mostly older visitors shuffled inside. The temple is a mix of Buddhist, Taoist, and secular influences, de Mello explained. A woman strode past us without a backward glance, sank to her knees before a statue, pressed play on a tape deck, and began her prayers, singing in a high, piercing voice.
This was our introduction to Asiatown, a district that retains an otherness to the uninitiated. At first some might feel they’re visiting another part of the world, but that could not be further from the truth. This sea of strip centers could not be more quintessentially Houstonian if it tried.
De Mello, the fund development director for the Chinese Community Center, told us he’s been bringing groups through the district for a few years now. We followed him through the temple as he pointed out the newspapers, cans of soda and Miller Lite, and packs of Marlboro Reds left in small cubby-hole memorials alongside pictures of the departed.
Then it was time to load back onto the bus. Within minutes we were rolling down Asiatown’s main drag, an artery that runs from Beltway 8 through Bellaire for more than a mile, through one of the largest automobile-centric districts of its kind in the United States. In fact, this iteration of Asiatown—populated by restaurants and businesses with ties to countries all over Asia—is fairly new, even by Houston standards. “Before 1983 none of this was here,” de Mello told us as we took in the expanse of bustling shops.
Houston’s original Chinatown—the neighborhood wedged between the Third Ward and the East End now known as EaDo—was established in the 1930s by Cantonese immigrants who experienced the same racial discrimination as neighboring African American and Hispanic communities. The area thrived until the 1980s, when it was hampered by its own growth: Unable to expand beyond the section they occupied, and looking for cheaper land, Asian Americans started moving out to the southwest Houston suburbs. Asian American business owners were right behind them.
Within a decade the old district largely had been hollowed out, and the former EaDo denizens—the schools teaching Chinese, the bakeries, dim sum restaurants, banh mi eateries, and retail shops—had taken root in Bellaire. Everywhere you looked, there were shopping centers anchored by Asian supermarkets.
A sense of community was also established, one that has remained even as, in recent years, people have moved to different parts of the city. “Asian Americans may not even live around here anymore, but they’ll still drive over every weekend to do their shopping, see friends. Even though people have moved, the community feeling here has stayed strong,” de Mello said as we unloaded in front of HMart, the Korean supermarket chain.
We prowled through the packed grocery store, enjoying free samples of food. The regular shoppers stepped around us, intent on their own affairs. I accepted a cup of sweet tea from a woman giving out samples, and started to ask her a question, but she dismissed me with a shake of her head and a smile, as she didn’t speak English. Most of the day was like that. We stopped at the cruise-ship-like Ocean Palace, then moved on to a shop where a woman patiently explained the tea ceremony.
Of course, not every part of Asiatown is easy to tap into if you don’t already know the culture. As the tea ceremony came to a close, a friend and I snuck off to the coffee shop next door. There, a group of men and women were gathered around tables, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. They gave us a frank once-over. I walked up to the counter and ordered a Vietnamese iced coffee, strong black brew sweetened generously with condensed milk, as everyone in the place waited. We left, and they went back to their game.