LAST WEEK, HBO MAX’S HOUSE OF HO became one of the few reality TV shows based in Houston to hit the airwaves, metaphorically at least, when the first episode recently debuted on the streaming service. And it's nothing like the iteration of H-Town most of the world is used to seeing. After all, Houston isn't typically portrayed as a city you go to to experience a palatial lifestyle, but that's the world House of Ho dunks viewers into.
“I’m really proud of the show, and how it shows off Houston, you know,” Washington Ho told Houstonia during a recent phone interview with him, his wife, Lesley Ho, and his sister Judy Ho. “Because it really is an ode to Houston.”
It makes sense that H-Town would play a big role in the new series. It was here that Washington's Vietnamese immigrant parents established themselves in an American life, and then began amassing a real estate empire. There is also another Houston connection to why the family has become the focus of a reality series, and that is the mega-hit Crazy Rich Asians, the best selling book by Houston native Kevin Kwan. The book gave rise to a series and then a 2018 blockbuster film (the first mainstream film to feature a primarily Asian cast in decades). Noting how the movie was such a hit, HBO Max planned to find an Asian family comparable to the Young family in Crazy Rich Asians and make them the focus of a show. That plan came to fruition when they heard about Houston’s own Ho family, the clan behind the creation of a multi-million-dollar real estate and banking empire who just so happen to be firmly ensconced in the world of the Bayou City.
But although the Ho family now fits the bill of a glitzy, high-powered crew, their lives weren't always flying private jets out of Houston Hobby’s Million Air and attending parties in River Oaks mansions, the way they are shown to be living on the TV show.
The family, led by patriarch Binh and matriarch Hue, had their start in the tumultuous lands of war-torn Vietnam over 45 years ago. The couple arrived in the U.S. in 1975 where they held various minimum wage jobs at gas stations, and had three kids, Washington, Reagan (who opted not to appear in the show), and Judy. “My dad was working at a gas station, and one of those big, white Cadillacs pulled up, and he told himself, ‘One day I'm going to be that person driving driving a Cadillac,’” Judy, an attorney, and Binh explained on the show's first episode.
Although the pair started off in Fredericksburg, they got into real estate, moved to Houston, and gradually worked their way up to the top of the city's real estate market, a story that is the quintessential American dream. In fact, their sons were both named in honor of U.S. presidents because the Ho family was so proud to be living in the United States. The presidential naming tradition has since translated to every grandchild also being given a presidentially inspired name. So far the family has name-checked Kennedy, Truman, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.
“I was a disappointment because I’m a girl, so I’m named Judy,” Judy, who was named after the person who taught her mother English, says sardonically in the show’s first scene.
These days Binh and Hue reside in River Oaks, minutes away from both Washington and Lesley’s house and Judy’s home. The family is a tight-knit group, who every Sunday go to church followed by a traditional home-cooked Vietnamese meal, something that comes across clearly in the show, even as they deal with various challenges and tensions.
When watching House of Ho, you get the “Ho truth and nothing but,” according to Washington. That commitment to not spinning the show with any particular slant led to a nervy move to offer viewers an unvarnished view of what the family is really like, to be as open as possible. “In the beginning of filming the show we all sat down as a family and decided to trust each other,” Washington told Houstonia.
So yes, the affluent bunch shows off their lavish lifestyles, but you also get glimpses into the more difficult aspects of life, the hard stuff that everyone has to deal with. Over the course of the season, Washington, who has long had a partying lifestyle but is trying to settle down, and Lesley struggle with marital issues, while Judy grapples with living in the shadow of Washington, the scion of the family and her parents’ favorite. Washington begins to come into his own as he takes on his father’s company, while Judy struggles to handle a divorce and becoming a single mom, a move that her traditionally minded parents clearly disapprove of.
“I was going through a divorce in real time during filming, which was kind of hard to experience,” Judy told us. But while it was challenging to be that open in the midst of such a painful time, she says it felt like the right thing to show the world that although the surface of her life may have appeared idyllic, she too was struggling. Why did she take this route? "I wanted my story to inspire others,” she explained.
“I was nervous to show our lives and have our issues open for everyone to see,” Lesley added, “but it’s our story, and so many people have marriage issues, too.”
And none of it was anything less than their own lives being shown to the cameras, they say. The trio pointed out during our talk that, unlike many reality TV shows, the production crew never cooked up storylines to start drama in hopes of catching something juicy on film; they simply filmed the Hos in their day-to-day experiences. “It was as real as my life is,” Washington explained.
Apart from the personal drama, viewers also get to experience the Hos’ Vietnamese roots, with celebrations that also may help the non-Houstonian viewer better understand what a melting pot of diversity this city really is. You see the family cooking traditional dishes throughout the show, as well as witnessing their opulent Lunar New Year celebration.
“I’m excited for people to see our culture, you know,” Lesley says. “The colors and the symbolism that I’m really proud of.”
Houston is a key character in the show as well, Washington says. You see the Bayou City’s landscape in every transition, and, since the show was filmed pre-pandemic, they family's dramas play out against the backdrop of the city's toniest neighborhoods and poshest restaurants.
Lesley and Washington favor taking walks throughout River Oaks and having dinner at MAD a couple nights a week, the couple says. Houston's restaurants are also frequently repped, mainly because, all three noted, the whole family loves the city's restaurant scene and never misses out on a chance to hit up Uchi, Lucienne, MF Sushi, Kata Robata, or other high-end spots.
The family is thrilled to be representing Houston before the wider world as well.
“I was watching the show with my Houstonian friends the night of the premiere and they were all proud of the imagery of Houston on the screen,” Washington says. “The shots of the city from River Oaks to West Gray and Downtown; it all made me really proud to show off my hometown.”