Nearly 100,000 Asians lived in Houston when Martha Jee Wong became the first Asian American ever elected to Houston City Council in 1993. But when her father, Jim Jee, arrived from Ruleville, Mississippi, in 1938, there were fewer than 50 people of Chinese extraction living here. Nobody would rent Jee an apartment, but he was able to lease a grocery store at N. Main and Cavalcade in the Heights, then a predominantly white, blue-collar neighborhood, so the family lived there.
Born in 1939, Wong spent her first five years housed in the grocery’s storeroom with her family, eating on apple crates because they only had a single chair, and watching her parents tend the shop. “Sav-Mor Grocery, my father called it,” she says.
Her parents went to work building ties with the community they served, allowing customers to get groceries on credit. Their trust was repaid. When a property across the street from their grocery on Studewood was put on the market in 1945, it was a longtime customer who was selling, and just like that the family had a home of their own. “When you see your parents do kind things like that, you realize: that’s how you should be,” Wong says. “That kind of thing rubbed off on me.”
It was a feat. Houston’s Asian population had more than doubled from the end of the 1930s to the end of the 1940s, as scores were drawn here by the WWII-fueled economic boom. But although Chinese people were becoming community members, Asians were still widely discriminated against, particularly for housing. If her father hadn’t cultivated those relationships, the house might never have been theirs.
Still, Wong recalls an idyllic childhood, and she says she never experienced racism herself. She played jacks in the streets with her two sisters and their white neighbors and went to white schools—while Asians were not allowed to live in most white neighborhoods in Houston, her father had moved to Houston specifically because HISD’s segregation rules, unlike those of Mississippi, designated Asians “white.” By the time she entered Hogg Junior High, she was an exemplary student with a lush Texas drawl and an (unpaid) after-school job at the Sav-Mor, slicing meats and stocking shelves.
She was an enthusiastic student—elected to student council, on the yearbook staff, and a ferocious member of the debate team—and after Reagan High School (now Heights High School) it was a given that she would attend the University of Texas in Austin.
After she graduated with an education degree, her life took the prescribed course of the times. Wong had started dating Billy Wong, a fellow UT student whom she’d known since they were both teenagers attending the First Chinese Baptist Church, and the couple married and set up house in Meyerland in 1960. She focused on raising their three children for the next decade, but by the start of the 1970s Wong found she wanted to do more.
First she worked on rising through the ranks at HISD, becoming the district’s first Asian-American principal in 1978. She was in the middle of pursuing her PhD when her husband died suddenly of a stroke, but she finished the program, graduating in 1983.
Three years later she got her first taste of politics. Wong sent postcards out for Vince Ryan (now Harris County Attorney), a friend who was running for city council—and he won. She sent postcards out for more candidates in subsequent elections, and kept backing winners. Her knack caught the eye of the city’s robust Asian American community and in 1989, Wong helped form the Asian American Coalition, an entity that aimed to let political candidates know about concerns among the Asian American community. “We’d meet every Thursday night and discuss how we were going to organize,” she recalls. “We decided to start endorsing, and people found out about it.”
During the hotly contested 1989 race between incumbent Mayor Kathy Whitmire and former mayor Fred Hofheinz, both candidates addressed a packed church of nearly 1,000 Asian Americans. Wong’s group backed Hofheinz (and gave him a $60,000 campaign contribution), a move that landed the coalition on the Houston Chronicle’s front page. Hofheinz lost, but the organizers decided it was time for one of their own to stand for office. For the next election Wong put her hat in the ring for city council.
“We said, ‘Well, we should run an Asian, rather than asking people to be concerned about Asian problems and concerns in the city,’” Wong says now. “I filed the last day you could file, and that’s how I got into politics.”
The Asian American community coalesced around her. People she’d never met were volunteering to block-walk. Her own parents were handing out pamphlets in front of area schools and the polls. “It energized the Asian American community to have someone running in politics,” Wong says.
She won, and would serve two subsequent terms on the city council. Wong used her platform to do what her parents had taught her, to build connections between the city government and the Asian American community, which had felt left out of the politics and policy decisions in Houston until then.
Though now retired—she also became the first Asian American woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2002, serving two terms—Wong is still working to ensure that those voices are heard. She helped form the Texas Asian Republicans in 2013, a statewide assembly with a Houston chapter that supports local Asian candidates—even Zooming with them during the Covid-19 election year since many Asian Americans are standing for office.
In fact, the community has grown so much, Asians account for 8 percent of the population, around 500,000. “I can go anywhere in the city and see Asians all over, and I know very few of them,” Wong says. “I think it’s wonderful. I love that we have so many ethnically different people here. It’s exciting, very exciting.”