Inside OKC’s Asian District
The growth of a cultural capital
Photos by Shannon Cornman
In one of the great stories of Vietnamese mythology, a carp is the only fish that successfully leaps over a series of gates, and as a reward, is transformed into a dragon. Unlike destructive serpents in Western mythology – think St. George, Beowulf, The Hobbit – Eastern culture views the dragon as an auspicious symbol of prosperity and power, and because of its association with rain, also of life and abundance. The carp becomes a dragon because it was persistent, because it succeeded in its efforts.
It’s an apt metaphor for the Vietnamese community in Oklahoma City. The Vietnam War generated a mass emigration of people from the region, including Laos and Cambodia, and the individual stories of courage and perseverance, poverty and loss, and ultimately triumph and prosperity are told with a matter-of-fact tone within OKC’s Asian District. As business owner and second-generation Vietnamese-American Mike Hoang puts it, “My family’s story is unique in America, but not in the Asian District.”
The war ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975. The waves of immigration that followed – some not related to the war itself – would last until the late 1990s, as more than 1.5 million refugees were resettled around the world. Of those, more than 700,000 were “boat people,” those who fled the country in boats and ships, and most of whom lived in temporary camps in Southeast Asian nations until they received a sponsor family or organization in another country.
The United States was one of the main destinations for Vietnamese refugees, and the U.S. military had camps set up at various bases around the country, including Ft. Chaffee in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Its relative proximity to Oklahoma City made our city an easy choice for permanent settlements. Catholic charities and local Protestant congregations sponsored and resettled hundreds of Vietnamese refugees in 1975 and 1976. Because most of the immigrants fell into two religious categories – either Catholic or Buddhist – Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral became a social and community center for the new arrivals, and so the surrounding neighborhoods, which at that time were suffering from blight and high crime, became home to the first Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodians to arrive. Those first families formed the beginning of the Asian District.
Co Nguyen came to Oklahoma City in 1976; she was 19. Her entire immediate family escaped Vietnam on a fishing boat. Forty-two years later, she is still emotional when she recounts the story. The flotilla of fishing boats was directed toward a large American ship, and as Co recalls, the smaller vessels pulled up alongside the ship, and the passengers climbed the nets to get aboard, leaving their boats behind. As the number of empty smaller boats expanded outward, people had to jump from boat to boat to make it to the ship.
“With my own eyes, I saw hundreds lose their lives to the sea,” Co says. “It was a nightmare. My parents and my four siblings all made it. It must have been God protecting us.”
When her family arrived in Oklahoma City, there were fewer than a thousand Vietnamese immigrants. Her father worked for an air conditioning contractor and her mom took a job at Tony’s Italian Restaurant on N. Penn. (The location is now Rococo, and owner Bruce Rinehart still has the Tony’s sign in his restaurant.) Co took a job at Split-T until she was hired by AT&T – which sold to Lucent – and worked there for more than 20 years.
She met and married her husband in Oklahoma City. The two attended Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help; they were married there in 1978; they raised their six children there, and the couple still attends the church. The cathedral would eventually add a Vietnamese-language service when the population reached a point that they needed their own time slot for Mass. As Co recalls, it was about 20 years after they arrived in OKC.
“There were no Vietnamese-owned businesses in the district when we got here,” she remembers. “The original Cao Nguyen wasn’t even open yet. Still, the Americans we met were so welcoming and so nice to us. I thank God for the American people.”
Ba Luong, whose family owns Super Cao Nguyen market, credits food with helping solidify the district and open it to non-Asians.
“I use this quote a lot, but it’s true,” he says. “Language divides people, but food unites.”
Ba’s father, Tri Luong, bought Cao Nguyen from the original owners in 1979, and the store has remained in the family since, including the expansion in 2003. As part of that new development, the Luong family saved room on the complex’s south side for restaurant space. It’s now home to Tsubaki Szechuan, one of the city’s best Chinese restaurants (see page 62), and Ba said he’ll soon be announcing a new restaurant that will be “very authentic” and fill the vacancy left when Mr. Pho closed.
“Before Lido opened, the district only had a couple pho shops and a few mom-and-pop restaurants, not the kinds of businesses that bring in non-Asian diners,” Ba Luong says. “This was before pho became huge, of course. Lido brought fresh, West Coast-style Vietnamese food to Oklahoma City, and people responded. It was the first restaurant in the district to start pulling in lunch diners from downtown and the Capitol.”
The Lee family bought Lido in 1990. Tri Luong himself put in the call to friends who were then living in Southern California. The restaurant and the center in which it’s located have been an anchor in the district ever since. The menu is expansive, but its diversity allows for beginning and experienced diners alike to find dishes they love. Vermicelli bowls and spring rolls remain popular choices, but deeper into the menu, Vietnamese comfort foods such as Salt and Pepper Squid and Thit Kho To (caramelized pork in a clay pot) bring in Vietnamese diners and non-Asians who know their way around the cuisine.
The center, originally called Little Saigon, has a new tenant, too, and it’s one of two national, Vietnamese-themed chains in the metro, the other being Lee’s Sandwiches. Bambu started in San Jose, California, in 2008 and has since expanded around the country. The concept is focused on chè, which are dessert drinks made with coconut milk or coconut water, but also offers coffee, tea, smoothies and juices.
“It’s a dessert concept,” Ba Luong says, “so you can eat spicy at Lido or Tsubaki Szechuan and then go cool off at Bambu.”
For a time in the 1990s and 2000s, the Asian community around NW 23rd and Classen Boulevard discussed how best to brand their district. Since the overwhelming majority of refugee families had been Vietnamese, “Little Saigon” was a popular choice. Many OKC residents have memories of Little Saigon signage along Classen – not because that was the name of the district, but because the center in which Lido operates used to be called the Little Saigon Center. Although it was common to refer to the district that way, the name did not win out for the district, thanks in large part to Tri Luong.
“My father wanted to put up signage that would identify our district,” Ba Luong says. “He made the push to be more inclusive, to be an Asian district, not a Vietnamese district.”
In fact, community leaders had talked about adding a physical gate that would span Classen, similar to projects in well-known Chinatowns and Koreatowns around the country. Engineering was the problem, though.
“Classen is six lanes plus a median,” Luong says. “The gate would have collapsed.”
Signage was the obvious choice, and “Asian District” eventually won out as the preferred designation. The city council made it official in 2005.
The Asian District is smaller than most locals realize. Officially, it runs from NW 23rd to NW 30th streets, and from Western to McKinley avenues. That means popular and recognizable spots are outside the district, including Pho Lien Hoa and Vietnamese Public Radio. In practice, locals treat everything from NW 22nd to NW 36th as the district, so unofficially, it includes Café Kacao, Lee’s Sandwiches and Memorial Park.
A general obligation bond in 2007 paid for the streetscape, including the Asian District markers, but the district operates independently of partnerships such as Downtown OKC. Jill DeLozier, vice president of the Downtown OKC Partnership, said the original Business Improvement District for downtown districts was created in 2000. Since, the BID has been revised to include Film Row and Midtown, but she said more expansion is unlikely.
“We already have one of the largest and most complicated BIDs in the country,” she says, but adds, “that doesn’t stop other districts from becoming their own BID.”
In fact, a coalition of young business leaders in the Asian District has approached Kim Cooper-Hart, who oversees the city of Oklahoma City’s Commercial District Revitalization Program, about more intentional development plans for the area.
“We were thrilled to hear from this group,” Cooper-Hart says. “They were already extremely well organized when they reached out. They’d secured their 501(c)3 status and worked with the Center for Nonprofits. We’ve discussed what the next step will be for the Asian District, because every district has a different first step.”
The Next Generation Thuan Nguyen owns THN Insurance Solutions, with his office located in the Asian District, and is one of the young business owners leading the call for more development. A first-generation immigrant – he was a toddler when his family arrived in OKC in 1979 – Thuan helped found the Asian District Cultural Association, the 501(c)3 that Cooper-Hart referenced.
The organization has a seven-member board, all of whom are business owners inside and outside the district. The board is a mixture of first- and second-generation immigrants, and they see themselves as something of a bridge generation. Many of the second-generation children were born within a few years of arriving, so the children of the first generation are close to their age. Their experiences are very similar, and they are all in their 30s and 40s now, ready to extend the reach of the community outside the boundaries of the district.
“We formed the association as a way to preserve our traditions, but also to entice economic development into the district,” Thuan says. “We would like to see more diverse economic development projects, as well as more real estate development.”
Phuong Vu, a Realtor and board member, said his generation – the second – is tasked with carrying forward a torch their parents are passing along. “Asian culture is different with parenting,” Phuong says. “Your parents aren’t your buddies; it’s ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir,’ and many of our parents worked multiple jobs after they came here. We are respectful of their traditions and their ways of doing things.”
Ba Luong addresses this issue with an example drawn from Super Cao Nguyen. “When we first expanded, it was tough. We had an identity crisis. I started adding products slowly from different countries; my father had always run an Asian market, but I was getting requests from other places. Once I added things and the store didn’t fail, my father accepted the changes. We now have products from more than 60 countries of origin.”
Diversity is a theme that kept coming up in conversations with business owners in the district. The younger generation is ready to embrace a more diverse Asian District, including businesses such as Café Kacao, Classen Coffee Company and other non-Asian-owned businesses that bring economic health and vitality to the district and the Asian community overall.
The question had to be asked: Is there a language barrier in the district? Can a non-Asian move comfortably, dine easily, interact without confusion as a patron of the district? It’s one of those questions you put out there, and in our world of heightened racial awareness, you wait with breath held for the sign you’ve asked a fair question.
“It’s an issue for me, and I’m Vietnamese,” Mike Hoang says. Hoang, 32, owns a marketing firm downtown and a real estate investment firm. His English is native perfect. “My Vietnamese needs work. I’m not always confident I’ll be able to communicate well in the language.”
Hoang was born in the U.S. His family arrived in 1983, and their three children tell the story of their journey: eldest, a daughter, born in Vietnam; middle, a son, born in a refugee camp in the Philippines; and youngest, Mike, born at St. Anthony in Oklahoma City. Because his parents worked constantly, he was raised by family and friends, and like so many Americans, he learned English from “Sesame Street” and friends. He spoke Vietnamese at home, and they went to “school” on Sundays to get the grammar and structure of the language. Still, between school and friends, and then work later, he used English more and more.
The consensus, though, is that most businesses in the district are very English friendly. Of course, you might encounter small businesses where language can be difficult, but even there, the merchants are happy to have customers and will make a way around the barrier. For many reasons, including the language issue, Hoang, Thuan Nguyen and Phuong Vu see themselves as an “in between” generation, a group tasked with bridging the divide between first and third generations.
“Our parents sacrificed so much,” Hoang says. “We are here because of them. I’m fully American and fully Vietnamese. I inhabit a space in between. As a generation, if we are not mindful of preserving our traditions, our children will lose those traditions.”
The Next Step
Asian Night Market Festival
Toward that end, the association hosted the first Asian Night Market Festival in Military Park on June 9. Samantha Vu, a scientist at the State Health Department and a first-generation refugee – she was 2 when she arrived in 1980 – acted as the event planner.
“We had approximately 15,000 people at the event,” Samantha says. “We need more of this in the world. We have too much exclusion and prejudice. It was wonderful to see thousands of people come together to enjoy the food, displays and entertainment, and to get a taste of Asian culture.”
The team hung flags for each Asian country represented, more than a dozen total. But in addition to the Asian displays and food, diversity was present in the form of dancers from Central and South America. Thuan Nguyen said the association wanted to showcase not just Asian culture, but diversity in the Asian District as a way of bringing the larger community together.
Going forward, the Asian District Cultural Association hopes to stage the night market festival annually. They also are dreaming about an Asian cultural and community center in the district. The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (Tet Trung Thu) has been celebrated every year since the refugees arrived, inside and outside the district. Eventually, they want to get outside the district even more; Thuan Nguyen talked of dragon boat races along the river. The ideas come as fast as the team can speak, and at the heart of them is the idea of preserving the traditions, honoring their previous generations – those who survived and those who died along the treacherous route from Southeast Asia to Oklahoma City – and instilling in their fully Asian-fully American children the treasures of their grandparents’ diverse Asian ways and customs.