There's Tex-Mex and Texarkana; now there's Tex-Taiwan

IT was no doubt the first appearance by Chinese dragons in Missouri City, but it probably won't be the last. Heralded by snaking ``dragons,'' young men swinging martial-arts staffs, and a bilingual ribbon-cutting ceremony, the initial phase of what is being called the nation's first master-planned Chinatown opened over the weekend in this small city on the far southwest side of Houston.

To its Chinese-American developers, the project, called Tang City, represents the first fruits of a dream to bring a modern example of Chinese enterprise to the United States. For Houston in general, the 200-acre development, dominated at its entrance by a 65-foot-high, green-tile-roofed archway, symbolizes the tremendous growth the city has witnessed in its various Asian communities over the past decade. [Efforts to lessen prejudice against Asian refugees in the US. See story, Page 3.]

``Tang City will have a very strong Oriental flavor, but it will be different from what you normally see in a Chinatown,'' says Calvin Leung, the southern California developer who is Tang City's major investor. ``I think it's something the Orientals here can be proud of, yet something other Americans will feel very comfortable visiting.''

Indeed, the Chinese touches to the architecture are all that visually distinguish this shopping center from the dozens of others that line the highway between here and downtown Houston, some 14 miles away. Yet Tang City is expected to include by the early 1990s a trade center to help develop Texas-Asia commerce, a hotel and conference center, Asian-style commercial-residential town houses, and Oriental gardens.

Dr. Leung, who came to the US in 1957 as a student from Hong Kong, says it has long been his dream to develop a ``planned Chinese community'' free of the ``overcrowded, blighted conditions'' he says most Americans associate with Chinatowns.

Houston businessman Henry Chou, who first conceived of Tang City, says he, too, had dreamed of building a ``new model of Chinatown'' ever since he came to the US from Taiwan 14 years ago. But he says his previous American homes did not seem right for what he had in mind.

``I tried to make a new Chinatown in Hawaii,'' where he first lived in the US, ``but it was too crowded. Then I went to Boston, but I saw the old Chinatown there was very hard to change,'' he adds.

``Then a friend from here called and told me that this, you know, cowboy place is becoming very good for us,'' Mr. Chou says with a broadening grin. Upon moving to Houston eight years ago, he adds, ``I found he was right.''

That appraisal is apparently shared by others in Houston's Asian community, which has grown from some 100 members before World War II to nearly 200,000 today. The Vietnamese and Chinese, concentrated in several neighborhoods southwest of downtown, constitute the largest Asian groups, followed by Indians, Koreans, and Filipinos.

``Houston's trade and interaction with Asia is fairly longstanding,'' says Fred von der Mehden, a Rice University political scientist who has written a book on Houston's ethnic groups. He says the city's port and the petrochemical industry have fostered that trade, which has in turn made Houston a destination for immigrating Asians.

Also attractive to many Asians are Houston's warm, humid weather, and what a number of people participating in the weekend ceremonies referred to as the city's ``positive business atmosphere.''

``The climate is so right for our people here,'' says Julia Gee. She talks while distributing campaign flyers on behalf of her brother, Doug Jeu, a candidate for county judge, who Mrs. Gee notes proudly is Harris County's first Asian Republican candidate. She adds that the proximity of the Gulf of Mexico, with its fishing industry, has been important in drawing Vietnamese to the area.

Mr. Leung, who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., says he was attracted by Houston's ``strong entrepreneurial spirit, and the willingness of people to adapt to conditions and try new things.'' He says he has found a ``healthy pro-business climate in Texas,'' something he finds is ``not always the case in California.''

Despite the recession that Houston's real estate developers are experiencing in the wake of tumbling oil prices, Tang City's first phase is 85 percent rented. Leung attributes this to the lead time local developers had to locate tenants, and to a pent-up need for businesses to satisfy the growing Asian market.

In addition, Dr. von der Mehden points to the ``financial networking'' common in the Asian community among members of an extended family. Pooling resources toward a common goal, ``such as owning a fishing boat or opening a small business,'' he says, ``allows Asians to realize the kind of thing that otherwise we aren't seeing too much of in Houston these days.''

Tang City's next phase actually capitalizes on that tradition. It calls for construction of 58 town houses that will have commercial space on the first floor, with family living quarters above. Leung says Missouri City's willingness to go along with such structures -- ``common in the Orient but, I think, strange to the US'' -- is an example of Houston's ``open-mindedness to new business ideas.''

Stating his goal that Americans will come to see Tang City as ``the new Chinatown,'' Chou says, ``Considering the conditions and backgrounds of the people who built the old Chinatowns, they did a good job.'' But he adds that the new Asian immigrants ``have sometimes more money, and more education. We should be able to do better than before.''

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