Tale of Two Cities

Catholic priest John Chinh Tran re-created Vietnam's Thai Xuan Village in Houston with an iron hand. These days his control is slipping away.

The cultural norms of Thai Xuan's yeomen often trump the complex's old building codes, written when the structures were known as the Cavalier Apartments. One condo dweller has plastered the entire outside of his unit in shiny black, white, green and burgundy tiles, each affixed with a colorful sticker shaped like a flower. Red paper lanterns dangle above the turquoise door. Another unit sports a statue of the Virgin Mary encased in Plexiglas. And outdoor shrines mounted on numerous walls offer fruit and incense.

Religion is literally at the center of daily life in the village -- just as it was in Vietnam. Nestled behind a central courtyard, the small Thai Xuan chapel hosts a daily prayer hour and two weekly masses delivered in Vietnamese. On a recent Friday, men in the congregation occupied one side of the aisle, near a tinsel-decked Christmas tree, and women sat on the other. Standing behind the pulpit in a silk robe, the 87-year-old Chinh lifted a golden goblet with trembling hands, took a sip of wine and winced at the shock of swallowing it. His catechisms were faint. Still, the worshipers beamed smiles. "Peace be with you!" they said, turning to each other at the end of the service. "And also with you!"

These days Chinh gets around with the help of a wheeled walker, but when he first came to Houston in 1975, he did a great deal of legwork. Vietnamese refugees at the time were spread all over the city in government-appointed housing. It took Chinh nearly a decade to organize them. In 1985, with Thai Xuan still years away, he convinced Vietnamese investor Trung Anh Pham to purchase a broken-down apartment complex near Chinh's St. Christopher's Church in South Houston. Chinh, whose name in Vietnamese means "the one who fixes things," named the new community St. Mary's. It was his first Houston village.

Father John Chinh Tran founded both Thai Xuan 
Villages and tightly controlled them.
Courtesy of John Chinh
Father John Chinh Tran founded both Thai Xuan Villages and tightly controlled them.
The cultural norms of Thai Xuan's villagers often trump 
local building codes.
Daniel Kramer
The cultural norms of Thai Xuan's villagers often trump local building codes.

St. Mary's was popular with new refugees who needed a place to live, with veteran immigrants who wanted to return to a Vietnamese community and with anybody looking for a fixer-upper (two-bedroom condos sold for $10,000). Chinh and Pham bought another complex down the road and named it St. Joseph's. The good fortune of the pair led to the birth of Hue, Saigon, Dalat and Thanh Tam -- all within walking distance of St. Christopher's Church. "In Vietnam, I saw that I was successful," Chinh says, "so I knew that I would find success here, too."

Like Chinh's villages back in Vietnam, and later Thai Xuan, each Houston village was installed with a chapel. The Thanh Tam village even sported a courtyard garden with a larger-than-life Virgin Mary surrounded by stalagmites, which are common in the caves of Halong Bay. Chinh held mass in each of the seven chapels on a different day of the week.

Taking another cue from Vietnam's villages, Chinh put the complexes under the control of village chiefs. "The chief in each village is supposed to take care of the people and is the contact for the government," he explains. On paper the elected chiefs served as heads of each village's condominium association. But their duties often extend well beyond calling the plumber. The St. Joseph's chief, Chau Hoang, collects a small annual fee from condo owners for an emergency fund; he gives $30 to the sick and $300 to families of the deceased. Hung Phem, the chief of Thai Xuan, spends hours explaining America to the uninitiated. "They will get more problems if they go directly to the American community," he says.

Of course, avoiding the perils of an unfamiliar city is much easier for Vietnamese immigrants than it used to be. Houston's 32,000-strong Vietnamese community is the largest in the United States outside of San Jose, California. New Asian-oriented shops in Bellaire and Alief dominate strip malls for miles.

Even so, many village residents, especially the mounting ranks of the elderly, rarely venture into what they call the outside world. Instead, they fill their needs in the villages. Encouraged by Houston's trademark lack of zoning, residents of Dalat knocked out walls between street-level condos to build a commercial district: Com Phat Food Mart now sells produce and Asian cooking supplies; Hair Beauty styles new coiffures with Vavoom; Atom Video offers hundreds of Vietnamese-language movies such as Love of a Swordsman and A Remote Borderland; and Cao Thang Sandwich makes an excellent banh mi with two kinds of pork for $2.

Still, no village is more self-contained than Thai Xuan. Purchased and resold in 1993 by a development company owned by another Vietnamese immigrant, its 380 units nearly outnumber all of the other village condos combined. It is the only village blessed with an underground reserve of oil, an estimated $40,000 of it per condo, which sparked a rancorous 1995 legal dispute. Thai Xuan is also well supplied with books from its decomposing, one-room Mayor Lee Brown Library and with fish sauce and pickled leeks from its Tan Hiep Food Market.

The owners of Tan Hiep have traveled from one Thai Xuan to the other. They asked that their real names be withheld, so they'll be called Nuoc and Phong. Phong served near Thai Xuan as a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army. In 1980, he and Nuoc attempted to escape the country by boat, but the Vietnamese navy sank it on the high seas, killing Nuoc's two brothers and hundreds of passengers. More than a decade later, a visa program for former soldiers helped Phong reach Thai Xuan in Houston. "We were just happy to be out of the country," Nuoc says from her stoop behind the cash register. Her husband is wearing a GAP shirt subtitled "God Answers Prayers."

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