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Friday, December 01, 2023 — Houston, TX

‘It’s close to home, always’: Sharing and preserving AAPI stories

Ndidi Nwosu / Thresher

By Riya Misra     1/24/23 10:31pm

A handful of decades ago, the Gee family came to Houston. Rooted in the era of Jim Crow and tracing its way through the civil rights movement, the Gee family spent much of the mid to late-20th century building their legacy. Now, the family name marks a large and vibrant network of Chinese Americans across Houston.

Without the Houston Asian American Archive, their stories — and many others — wouldn’t be preserved. HAAA, which was founded by Anne Chao in 2009, seeks to document the stories and lives of Houston’s vast Asian American community. 

Chao, HAAA’s current program manager, said that the archive was sparked by a chance encounter at a function, where a friend of hers was looking for a place to chronicle old newspapers.

“A friend of mine said, ‘My father was a publisher of the first Chinese bilingual — English and Chinese — newspaper. He’s retired and we have all these old newspapers at home. We don’t know what to do with [them],’” Chao, who is also an adjunct lecturer in the Humanities department, said.

Chao discovered that, despite Houston having one of the largest Asian American populations in the country, the city had no depository of the activities and life histories of local Asian Americans. Chao said that in July 2010, she sent out a prospective intern to interview her friend’s father and potentially start a new initiative.

“Mr. Gene Lee was actually a grocer who really wanted to become a newspaper writer,” Chao said. “So toward the end of his career, he sold a grocery store, bought a secondhand printing press and started writing [a newspaper] on his own … He was so proud on his deathbed that his experience, his life, [his] entire history is now preserved in our archive at Rice University.”

According to Chao, HAAA quickly grew in popularity, amassing 450 interviews in over 13 years. The archive, which Chao describes as Pan-Asian — that is, representing all ethnic groups across the continent — captures Asian American stories that would otherwise be lost to time.

“As people heard about us interviewing people, referrals [would] come to me saying, ‘You should interview Mr. or Mrs. XYZ … They have stories that if you didn’t capture them, [will] be lost forever,’” Chao said. “We also noticed that, in studying the official history of Texas, Asian American activities are not mentioned very much, even though they’ve been here since the early part of the 20th century.”

In Chao’s eyes, HAAA exists to fill that gap in Houston’s documented history. Aside from stories about the Gee clan or Gene Lee, Chao said that the archive has documented stories of artists, entrepreneurs and pioneers.

“Recently, I think we have documented many stories of artists,” Chao said. “In the South Asian community, we have a group of gentlemen who wanted to start a new museum called the Eternal Gandhi Museum … We also have a wife of physician Lakshmy Parameswaran, who in the 1990s … began a South Asian women’s center to help South Asian women who are in domestic abusive situations.”

Chao said that the original impetus behind creating HAAA has only been magnified in recent years, as the country has seen a rise in hate crimes and anti-Asian violence. By providing an academic context to the AAPI experience, Chao hopes that the archive can provide a space for Houstonians to realize just how strong of an Asian American community exists within their city.

“Especially with the rise of anti-Asian violence after COVID-19, Asian Americans tend to be a silent group,” Chao said. “Every single story is just vibrant and heartwarming or even heartbreaking. I think people will then realize that there’s such a strong community of Asian Americans in Houston. All they have to do is go into our archive and pick out any story … If people would pay attention to these lives, they will certainly go a long way to humanize and normalize Asian Americans.”

Hoang Nguyen, the editor-in-chief of the Rice Asian Studies Review, said that RASR, which is housed under the Department of Transnational Asian Studies, similarly tries to provide a voice for otherwise unspoken Asian histories.

“We do make sure that all the articles are focused on a diverse group of countries and diverse themes,” Hoang, a Lovett College junior, said. “This is the first year that we’re explicitly calling for papers that are related to Asian American and Asian diasporic studies … We want to give a platform or a space to publish articles on these communities in our journal.”

At Rice, Nguyen points towards an academic need for deeper Asian American representation, a need which RASR hopes to fulfill. 

“We need to focus more on Asia and Asian American communities in academia itself. At Rice, there are really not a lot of courses related to Asian studies, or Asian American studies … [there hasn’t been] a lot of spaces for people interested in these communities [and] in these countries to learn from each other,” Nguyen said.

Karen Siu, associate editor of RASR and cofounder of the Rice Asian Diasporic and Asian American Research Collective, seconded prior sentiments, saying that the rise of anti-Asian racism has served as a secondary and increasingly more important motivator for her work. 

“In terms of increasing levels of anti-Asian racism during our ongoing pandemic, it was good to see more recognition outside of Asian American communities that [racism] is real, and it actually does happen,” Siu, a fourth year English Ph.D. student said. “These issues matter and they need to be seen and recognized.”

When closely studying and organizing events, such as bringing together Asian American Studies faculty across Texas universities, that grapple with Asian American issues, which Siu said are often at the forefront of discussions about race and culture, the risk for burnout is high.

“It’s a lot of pressure because you’re involved in the work. I studied Shakespeare, [and] I can put him down. Asian American studies, you can’t necessarily put it down,” Siu said. “The stakes are high to do this really important work. So it’s extremely difficult to sustain momentum and to work in these issues, but it is hugely motivating.”

For Siu, the balance between her personal and professional life — both of which actively inform each other — is a precarious one. Anger helps.

“Stay angry. Stay angry that these things are happening,” Siu said. “You have to take time out for yourself still and do things that are unrelated to your work. My academic work is so intimately tied with my personal life … it’s really hard to extricate yourself from the work when you live it … So it’s close to home, always.”

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