Henry Newinn leans back on an Elvis pillow, takes a sip of soda from a crystal Elvis glass and says, "We go to Graceland twice a year. The whole family." His wife, perched on an Elvis chair, nods solemnly. His son fiddles with the family's sound system until swirling colored lights come on and then croons "Unchained Melody" into a microphone, his voice filled with emotion. Henry's wife smiles proudly. She's wearing an Asian Worldwide Elvis Fan Club T-shirt.
Henry is the fan club president. He's also a Vietnamese refugee who fled Saigon on the day of its fall in 1975 and survived an overcrowded boat, several refugee camps and long years of poverty before he "made it" in America. But in his efforts to assimilate, Henry had one big advantage over other refugees: He was an Elvis fan. As a teenager in Saigon, he listened to bootleg tapes from Hong Kong, playing them over and over, trying to decipher their English lyrics. Today, Henry identifies with Elvis because he, too, emerged from humble origins to live "the American dream."
Indeed, judging by the decor of his West Houston home, Henry's version of assimilation has everything to do with the King. Besides a miniature Statue of Liberty that stands next to a rickshaw in his front yard, nearly everything in the house is Vietnamese or Elvis-American. Beautiful Asian antiques sit side by side with the kitschiest of Elvis paraphernalia; Elvis photos share wall space with pictures of Henry's daughter posing delicately in authentic Vietnamese garb. Next to a potted sweet gum tree brought from Graceland to the Newinns' backyard, there's a large stone emblazoned with Elvis's visage and the title "King of Rock 'N Roll." The family sits quietly by the stone for a few minutes every day while they take their traditional tea.
Maybe it's filial piety, maybe it's the King's universal appeal, but son Johnny, born just before the family left Vietnam, is as into Elvis as his parents are. In fact, Johnny Elvis is an award-winning Elvis impersonator. A video from Henry's collection shows Johnny singing the Elvis-recorded "American Trilogy" and kneeling as he's draped with the American flag. Clearly thrilled to have Johnny Elvis for a son, Henry never tires of watching videos of his gyration-filled performances. In fact, sometimes Johnny's parents just call him Elvis.
Of course, Johnny will perform at the annual meeting of the Asian Worldwide Elvis Fan Club, which celebrates its own version of Graceland's Elvis Week at the Newinns' "mini-Graceland" home. The fan club's 100 members (half Asian, half Anglo) will tour the house, sample a giant guitar-shaped cake, place flowers on the Elvis stone and feel "the spirit of Elvis" emanating from the Graceland sweet gum tree. But Johnny Elvis isn't the only live entertainment on the bill. Henry giggles that they'll even have "a woman who will dress like Elvis."
Giggles aside, Elvis Week at the Newinn household will be fun, but it won't be funny. For the Newinns, Elvis is serious business. "We don't like fat Elvis jokes," says Henry. At 140 pounds and resembling a svelte younger Elvis, Johnny agrees. "Elvis will always live on in our hearts and minds."
Elvis-American. The Asian Worldwide Elvis Fan Club's celebration of Elvis Week begins at 11 a.m. on Saturday, August 7. For information about this event or joining the club, call (281)589-8133. Free with membership.