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.

Frustrated with the authorities, some villagers slipped away. Father Vuong was only 15 and better known as a saxophone player than a religious figure when he fled Thai Xuan in 1982 for an Indonesian refugee camp. Chinh sponsored him to come to Houston and convinced him to join the priesthood. Pictures of the young father in his frock now hang prominently in his brother's two-story concrete house. Money sent by Vuong helped build a tiled shrine to the Virgin next door. The family stands out in the village, his sister says, because Vuong is "a priest recognized in the United States."

Those who stayed in Thai Xuan after the war labored to scrape by. Thu studied to be a priest but wasn't accepted by the church, possibly because Chinh was his uncle-in-law. College wasn't an option; it was reserved for city dwellers and the politically well connected. So Thu worked as a tailor and pulled all-nighters to make ends meet. He finally saved enough money to buy his own farmland, but it was sucked into a collective. The politics embittered him. "The one who did nothing got the same result as the one who worked very hard," he says. The collective soon collapsed.

Yet as Vietnam's economy slowly opened up to the world, Thu's fortunes improved. He returned to farming most of his old land and gradually bought more. Falling taxes and rising international demand raised profits on his papayas, durians and coffee. Now in his mid-sixties, he's wealthy enough to hire someone to work his fields.

Tan Hiep Food Market in Houston's Thai Xuan
Daniel Kramer
Tan Hiep Food Market in Houston's Thai Xuan
The owners of the Tan Hiep Food Market moved from 
one Thai Xuan to the other -- and nearly died making 
the trip.
Daniel Kramer
The owners of the Tan Hiep Food Market moved from one Thai Xuan to the other -- and nearly died making the trip.

Up and down the narrow streets, Thai Xuan flourishes once again. Next to the unpainted wood-plank houses built by early settlers, workers construct colorful three-story concrete towers with balconies. The small downtown of tightly packed buildings offers a florist shop, a jewelry store and Viet Pop, a trendy record shop that could be straight out of Saigon. Even the business of religion is booming: Thu's house is adorned with shrines and a local artist's wall-length rendering of the Last Supper.

Still, religious life there can look deceptively placid. A visit to the village under a tourist visa required government permits. The local priest didn't want to be named in this story. A short drive away, at least six Catholic priests were serving terms of ten or more years in Xuan Loc's Z30A prison camp, according to a 2000 report by Human Rights Watch. An activist familiar with the prison testified before the U.S. House International Relations Committee this year that many religious captives are still detained there. Citing new arrests of worshipers, the U.S. State Department this year listed Vietnam among the world's eight countries "of particular concern" for religious freedom.

The Thai Xuan villagers in Houston have been no less immune to persecution, though it has taken different forms.

The first Vietnamese immigrants to move into the complex found it occupied by territorial Mexican-Americans. "Immediately, we had problems," says Houston police officer Louis Ballesteros, who is based in a storefront a few blocks away. The Hispanics called Ballesteros to complain that the Vietnamese were running the complex "the way they wanted to live." They were, for example, building a temple in the parking lot. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese were calling Ballesteros, complaining of theft and vandalism. He brought in a federal mediator in an attempt to ease the tensions.

In 1996 a new conflict in Thai Xuan nearly ended in a mass eviction. Paragon Trading, the company that had sold the villagers the property, hadn't replatted the buildings as condos or transferred the deeds. When it filed for bankruptcy that year, the complex was handed over to a court-appointed lawyer. Hearings revealed that the villagers had renovated the buildings without permits and that bringing them up to city code would cost more than $1 million. Paragon also owed $500,000 in back taxes on the property. The villagers organized a protest and won deed to the complex on condition of making payments.

An entirely different set of problems sprouted in 2003 behind St. Joseph's Village, where residents were tending to a garden of Eden-like proportions along the banks of Sims Bayou. A nearby landowner threatened to sue the village for trespassing onto the waterway's public easement, says Niem Nguyen, a 70-year-old resident, and the greens, mints and banana trees had to be plowed under. "There's no land to grow the vegetables that I want," she says.

Even now, legal assaults on the villages continue. City health inspectors informed Thai Xuan's ten vegetable ladies this year that selling homegrown produce out of baskets on the parking lot isn't allowed. "The city say it is not healthful food this way," recalls Duke Pham, the village secretary. The fish vendor received a $650 ticket. Still, the village market persisted until last month, when the police told the fish lady they'd arrest her if she didn't pay the fine.

Until recently, the villagers' only allies seemed to be either Vietnamese or Christian. St. Luke's Episcopal Health Charities last year published the first ever community health assessment of the villages. The report benefited immensely from the help of the Harris County Hospital District's Lan Trinh, a Vietnam-born outreach counselor who had worked in the villages for a decade. "Deep down in the community, there is a big need of medical care," she says. Mayor Bill White responded to the findings by creating a task force to be led by Rogene Gee Calvert, the head of an Asian-oriented political action committee. The group has met once to hear villagers' concerns, Calvert says, but hasn't been active.

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