By Aaron Reiss
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Last December, as Houston's Vietnamese read their newspapers through the steam from bowls of pho, a name from years ago stared back like a reproachful ghost. The name appeared in bold, in small ads in papers such as Asian American News. "The FBI is investigating the murders of five Vietnamese journalists both independently and with respect to a potential conspiracy," the announcements said. "The FBI is soliciting the assistance of the Vietnamese community for any information related to these matters." At the top of the message was a familiar name: Nguyen Dam Phong, a Houston newspaper editor murdered 13 years ago.
For Houston's estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Vietnamese, Nguyen's name evokes dark memories. Like most of his neighbors, Nguyen Dam Phong escaped Vietnam soon after the fall of Saigon in 1975; like many of them, Nguyen and his family waited months in a chaotic Arkansas refugee camp for a Houston sponsor. When he finally arrived here, Nguyen worked his way up from a position in a terrarium factory to a job as a dental technician. But his real passion was found at home, where, rising as early as 4 a.m. to write, Nguyen toiled at the Vietnamese language newspaper he founded in 1981. Dubbed Tu Do, or Freedom, the paper carried news that wasn't always welcome to some of his Vietnamese compatriots. It was news that, barely half a decade after the fall of South Vietnam, often scraped at sores that hadn't fully healed. Then one afternoon in 1982, at his modest one-story house near Scarsdale Boulevard, Nguyen Dam Phong opened his front door to a killer. He was shot point-blank. A neighborhood dog yelped as Nguyen crumpled onto his tidy driveway, bleeding to death from multiple .45-caliber bullet wounds.
Although the FBI and Houston police descended at once, they never caught Nguyen Dam Phong's assassin. For one thing, HPD had no Asian officers at the time, much less anyone who spoke Vietnamese. Worse, Nguyen's Vietnamese neighbors and friends fell monolithically silent. "The Vietnamese didn't trust police back then," says someone familiar with the case. "Consequently, it was felt that a lot of people whom police spoke to had more knowledge than they let on." Although Nguyen's case was rich with potential leads, both the FBI and HPD finally abandoned it in frustration. The murderer went free, and Nguyen's case lay nearly untouched for a decade.
Untouched, but not forgotten. In cramped offices, in restaurants, in family-owned businesses on Bellaire Boulevard and Milam Street, Vietnamese immigrants today still shake their heads at Nguyen Dam Phong's name. A balding man with sharp, inquisitive eyes and a stubborn mouth, Nguyen knew quite well who wanted him dead, they say. And if you press the question, some will add that the whole Vietnamese community still knows who had Nguyen killed. So this winter, when Nguyen's name rose again from their community's newspapers, many Vietnamese immigrants thought back to the fierce politics that had colored both his life and his death. And they had to wonder: today, would Nguyen Dam Phong have been murdered? Today, would his killer go free?
Amble past the restaurants on Milam Street and you'd think it was Houston that had adapted to its refugees, not the other way around. In a sense, that's right. Fewer than two decades since they arrived traumatized, without English and clutching checks for $100 or $150 signed by Catholic Charities, Houston's Vietnamese have built an industry on their native tastes and customs. Gradually, Texans who first noticed the Vietnamese bussing tables in Chinese restaurants found themselves eating at the restaurants those same refugees had founded. The immigrants also went into factories, engineering jobs and technical positions such as Nguyen's work at the dental lab. Now two-thirds of the estimated 120,000 Vietnamese who came to Texas since Saigon's fall live in houses, not apartments. Their yearly incomes average slightly less than $22,000.
Restaurant owner Tri La, whose family fled after the Communist government took over their business in Saigon, remembers one of the first Texan customers to enter his restaurant here 15 years ago. "He looked at the menu, then he walked out," La says. They're not walking out much anymore. Accustomed to Vietnamese cuisine, Houstonians made La's restaurant, Kim Son, a $1.9 million success. They now also venture into the modest restaurants on Milam Street and in southwest Houston to eat pho, the lusciously addictive Vietnamese noodle soup.
Traditionally where Vietnamese trade news and rumors, Houston's pho shops also show off the immigrants' brio. One recent lunch hour at a popular pho place on Milam, the small tables brimmed with smartly dressed Asian professional women, grunged-out Vietnamese-American college students, American Asiophiles ordering in lame Vietnamese and a tableful of sharply dressed Vietnamese men who turned out to be plainclothes HPD officers. Stacks of local Vietnamese language newspapers waited by the door, their photo-heavy pages vaunting pageant winners with dark hair and majorette boots, Rotary luncheons and civic spectacles such as a visiting industrialist from the Republic of Vietnam's receipt of honorary Houstonian-hood. (Mayoral assistant Helen Chang did the honors.)
That a dignitary from Hanoi could be welcomed by Houston's government makes it clear that, for much of the city, the Vietnam War is truly over. But for many Vietnamese expatriates, the break is not so clean. Still, most would agree that their prosperous little universe is a far cry from their lives here two decades ago. "Every single refugee has a different story," says Peter Nguyen, a Houston architect who escaped Saigon two days before it fell. But there are commonalities: nearly all the refugees who came here arrived dispossessed, uprooted, stunned by their own helplessness. Peter Nguyen, who'd driven aimlessly round Saigon's port, airport and embassies looking to escape, says it was chance that he found space on a departing plane. "Nobody could tell you how to escape," he says. "We were lucky."