As has already been described, Oklahoma City’s almost forgotten “Downtown Underground Chinatown”, always poorly documented and much a thing of unwritten “lore” and anecdotal information, is long gone, its last remnants having been gone for more than half a century. Click here for that post.
Today’s Asian District is anything but hidden. It is a highly visible and vibrant addition to the cultural and fun part of Oklahoma City. Perhaps this development didn’t catch our collective fancy as much as MAPS or the Hornets … the development has been a slow-cooker … but it is radically changing the area immediately around NW 23rd and Classen Boulevard and that intersection’s environs.
A nice National Geographic article, ZipUSA:73106, Lemongrass On The Prairie , is here. Some snippets:
A sense of the surreal swirls up like prairie dust as you drive through Oklahoma City and pull up to the flat, sprawling intersection of 23rd Street and Classen Boulevard. Just ahead hovers a giant golden geodesic dome, built by a local bank in 1958. Across the street, atop a trapezoidal hut, stands a 15-foot-tall (5-meter-) white milk bottle (emblazoned with a pink ice-cream cone). A couple of blocks beyond rests a Gothic church, its enormous stained-glass windows sheltered by carved gray stone.
Somehow it’s not where you’d expect to find a thriving community of Vietnamese, locally known as Little Saigon, the fragrance of lemongrass, garlic, and hot chili paste drifting out from a garish string of strip malls. Ten minutes away from the intersection, the heart of Little Saigon, you can easily walk to five restaurants specializing in pho (the classic Vietnamese beef broth soup), two Asian supermarkets, and several Chinese barbecue cafés.
This post give some description of the background which occurred, beginning around 1975, without which the “Asian District” would not likely have occurred. The next post gives you a picture tour.
POPULATION. Although I’ve not been able to find as good a set of figures as I’d like, Oklahoma City’s Asian population has dramatically increased since the end of the Viet Nam war. The official Census Bureau figures I found for pre-2000 weren’t as racially detailed as they became in 2000 and later. That said, Censusscope.org gives these numbers about Oklahoma County’s Asian population: 1980 – 5,631; 1990 – 11,356; and 2000 – 18,389. US Census Bureau figures for 2005 put the number at 21,220, that being 3.1% of the county’s 684,543 population.
ORIGINS. Viet Nam refugees doubtless provide the largest part of the influx of Asian people to our city, although other neighboring countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, perhaps others) have their share of the population pie, as well. Asian-Nation.org, gives this overview:
A Modern Day Exodus
This year  marks the 30th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. As we reflect on its legacy for Vietnamese Americans, we should first understand that the departure, evacuation, or escape (whichever term you use) of approximately 125,000 citizens from Viet Nam in the months after April 1975 was just the first of several waves of Vietnamese refugees who would eventually settle in the U.S. There were also significant waves of refugees in 1978, 1982, and 1992. Each of these waves were also slightly different in terms of exactly why they left, the personal characteristics of the refugees, and the reception they encountered in the U.S. from Vietnamese already here and from non-Vietnamese as well.
Those who wished (and still wish) to immigrate needed and still need a sponsor. I’m not informed about what the sponsor ‘s qualifications might need to be, but I’m pretty sure that substantial requirements of providing assistance as needed to those they would sponsor were involved. And, let we forget, immigration was almost certainly a dreadful last choice by those would elect to leave their homeland and become citizens in another – not just another “country”, but another culture, another language, and with the prospect of being considered “unwelcome intruders” in their new home of choice.
A FEW PROUD OKLAHOMA CITY SPONSORS
After the fall of Saigon, the Statue of Liberty’s inscription spoke useless words to some. A May 6, 1975, Oklahoman front page article by Allan Cromley gives insights into that time:
Congress Resists Refugee Funding – Mail From Oklahoma Heavily Anti-Refugee
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”
Thus begins the inscription on the Statute of Liberty, but Oklahomans who write their congressmen apparently oppose any “melting pot” hospitality for refugees from South Vietnam.
The mail is running overwhelmingly against admission of the estimated 130,000 persons who fled when Saigon fell to the Communists.
On the other hand, word has been received by Oklahoma lawmakers of offers by various Oklahomans to take Vietnamese families into their homes.
The article goes on, but the above is enough to see that it would take at least a few tall, bold, people for the fleeing refugees to be welcomed in the United States of America, the home of the free and land of the brave, including those living in the 48th state in the union.
But, even though perhaps only “of the few”, there were those who took to heart the Statue of Liberty’s inscription into the buxom of their being.
Although I’m sure there were others, three that come to mind are General Clyde Watts, his son, Charles (both prominent Oklahoma City lawyers), and Jim Bruno, furniture businessman, discussed in the above April 28, 1985, (then called) Daily Oklahoman, article. Excerpts help tell this story.
Sponsors Worked Hard to Aid Vietnam Refugees
Furniture sore owner Jim Bruno had never been to Vietnam and didn’t know any Vietnamese people.
But he had a lot respect for local attorney and retired Army Gen. Clyde J. Watts, and when the general told him in July 1975 to go to Fort Chaffee, Ark., Bruno did.
His assignment was to pick up 25 Vietnamese men, all former members of a Vietnamese airborne division the general and his family planned to sponsor.
None of the refugees could leave Fort Chaffee without an American pledging responsibility for finding housing, employment and insuring overall care.
“I got there,” Bruno said, “and these people desperately wanted to get out of Chaffee. They wanted to get resettled and get on with their lives. They’d beg to go, and I just couldn’t say no.
Then they would know another family – and they had big families.”
By the end of the day, Bruno – whose father had been an Italian immigrant – had pledged responsibility for 180 people.
He telephoned the general with the news.
“There was a pause, then he said, ‘Bring them on. Well take care of them. Bring them on.’
“Then his son, Charlie, got on the phone and said, ‘Bruno, are you crazy? There’s no way we can handle that many!’ But I figured I had the general’s OK.”
Because of paperwork at Chaffee, it generally took three to four days to be released once sponsors were located. However, because of General Watt’s influence, Bruno had his 180 people on buses and in Oklahoma City the next day.
The rest of the article is a real life tear-jerker, but you’ll have to look it up the rest for yourself. It makes me proud to share space in this city with the likes of Clyde and Charles Watts and Jim Bruno. Clyde Watts died in November 1975 in an single airplane crash near Chandler and he is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery. His son, and others, carried on with the task.
There’s a lot more to tell – homesickness of the refugees, learning the language, adapting to radically different social conditions, but getting jobs, graduating from high schools at the tops of their classes, becoming business owners, doctors, lawyers or whatever they put their minds to do.
Not all was or is ever perfect. Humans are humans on both sides of the immigration coin. But, it’s damn straight that Oklahoma City is a lot better off, in terms of principle and self-interest, for opening its arms to these Asian immigrants – even if it took the efforts of a few bold locals to make that possible. That was true then, even if not then self-evident, and it remains so today, when it certainly is. An editorial in the May 4, 1990,Oklahoman, said it well. I rarely say this about Oklahoman’s editorial opinion, but this one is deserving of full quotation:
Enriching Our State
It has been 15 years since 50,000 refugees from Vietnam began arriving at Fort Chaffee, Ark., just across Oklahoma’s eastern border.
Faced with deprivation and probable death at home, the refugees sought a new life in the United States. A large number settled permanently in Oklahoma, including a large Vietnamese community in Oklahoma City.
Most had no mastery of the English language and the American lifestyle was bewildering. Few had jobs or prospects for income.
Fifteen years later, few would argue that the Vietnamese have become on the whole productive citizens who have contributed to their new communities.
Their heritage of hard work and sel improvement prepared them to be excellent employees and equipped them to learn the ways of their new world.
To the surprise of many, their children not only adapted to their new school, but became leading scholars. It is rare to see any list of academic achievers in the Oklahoma City area without a disproportionately high number of Vietnamese children represented.
[DL note: The following 1st sentence I could do without – I doubt that “religion” had much if anything to do with the adaptability and other characteristics of the Vietnamese immigrants.] More Christianized than most Asians, the Vietnamese quickly became a vital part of Oklahoma’s religious community. Their cultural background has added significantly to their new surroundings.
Oklahoma is a state of immigrants. Many of our Indians were brought here from other areas of the country prior to statehood. Disadvantaged and ambitious settlers flood the state in the land runs of the late 19th century.
Future influxes of immigrants from such diverse places a Syria, Lebanon, Germany, Poland, Greece, Czechoslovakia and other nations added to the diversity of Oklahoma’s population and enriched the state.
The Statute of Liberty remains a symbol that the United States has always welcomed the outcasts of the world and provided them with hope and opportunity. N turns most of these waves of immigrants have had positive effects on American society.
Fort Chaffee, Ark., is another of these symbols. Fifteen years ago, the fort was the gateway for the infusion of a dedicated, patriotic and productive people into our midst.
Without all of the above and more, today’s “Asian District” could not have occurred. See the next post, or click here, for a visual picture what Oklahoma City Asians have contributed to our common home as of Sunday, October 22, 2006.