Houston Institute for Culture
By Ruwanthi Vigilant
The Chinese contribution to shaping the cultural landscape of the United States is immense. In the early 19th century Chinese immigrants left their homeland following stories of California gold and came looking for work. In the 19th century, building railroads across the United States required great labor. Railroads paved the way for these newly arrived workers to find jobs. Their wages were meager, living conditions were poor, yet for them the land of opportunity was hopeful. As indentured laborers they were treated harshly and ridiculed for their dress, pigtails and conical straw hats. This was their beginning. In 1869 and 1870 nearly 300 Chinese workers were brought from California to Texas to construct the Houston and Texas Central railroad. They were contracted for five yeas and at the end of the project nearly 100 stayed. In 1874 nearly a 150 Chinese were registered to vote in Robertson County.
Their presence paved the way for many Asian cultural aspects to be assimilated into the already diverse United States. Chinese food became popular and celebrations of Lunar New Year parades were seen on city streets. By 1881 the Texas Pacific railroad was moving west from Texarkana, and Reeves County in west Texas developed the first known Chinatown.
After World War II many other Asians entered the country. Northern Chinese, who mostly spoke Mandarin and were often professionals, arrived. Vietnamese, Koreans, and Taiwanese followed, creating opportunities for many Asian businesses.
From its original location along Smith Street, in the modern theartre district, and the warehouse district east of downtown, Houston's modern Chinatown grew rapidly between Bellaire Boulevard and Harwin road. Today after 20 years of development it is ten times bigger than its original size. Many Chinese investors from Taiwan and Hong Kong bought land and buildings, and opened businesses. Diho Square was the first Chinese owned and operated shopping center. Today the Hong Kong mall is a bustling center of restaurants, grocery stores and bubble tea houses. Dynasty square and Asia City purchased more property as commercial real estate ventures developed in the area. Metro Bank, a Chinese owned and operated bank, contributed greatly to the development of the Chinatown. Today Bellaire Boulevard is considered as one of the major financial centers in southern Texas.
To a visitor today Chinatown is a bustling place of commerce - banking, groceries, entertainment and delights. From jasmine tea to shaved ice desserts with red bean paste, or dim sum and great dumplings, Chinatown offers a favorite place to many Houstonians.
Also, see Chinese New Year Legends
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