KATRINA’S AFTERMATH: Houston Mall is a Lifeline for Vietnamese Who Fled

Los Angeles Times

September 6, 2005 Tuesday
Home Edition

HEADLINE: KATRINA’S AFTERMATH;
Houston Mall Is a Lifeline For Vietnamese Who Fled;
The owner, who took a perilous journey as a refugee from Vietnam in 1978,
mobilizes aid.

Mai Tran, Times Staff Writer

When the first evacuees from Hurricane Katrina arrived at the Hong Kong
City Mall, Ha Duong, the mall’s owner, initially thought they were
loiterers.

About 10 Vietnamese families — old people, young people, children — were
wandering in the main corridor of the shopping center that has long served
as the hub of Houston’s Vietnamese American community.

All day, they kept pacing, seemingly aimless, outside the stores. It was
the afternoon of Aug. 29, the day Katrina came ashore. Duong confronted
them.

“I asked them, ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you going home?’ ” she
said.

Their answers broke the heart of the former refugee, who fled Vietnam with
nothing but the clothes on her back in 1978.

The people told her they feared they no longer had homes, that they had
come from the Gulf Coast. They were poor — fishing people, shop owners.
They had no money. Having driven to Houston, they asked if they could
sleep on the mall’s floor.

Duong would not hear of offering such poor hospitality, and so began a
relief effort that has continued for a week.

Immediately, she contacted other former refugees from Vietnam. They did
not hesitate to help. They knew just what would be needed.

Houston, home to about 64,000 people of Vietnamese descent, has the
third-largest community of Vietnamese in the country. Duong called the
local Vietnamese-language radio station, Radio Saigon Houston, whose
listeners promptly volunteered to house the strangers. Then Duong set
about turning her 358,000-square-foot mall into an aid center for
Vietnamese American hurricane evacuees.

By that evening, more families had arrived — sleeping in their cars,
camping out in the mall parking lot. The next morning, the Houston
residents who provided homes for the first evacuees were calling Duong,
saying they had to go to work and couldn’t stay with their guests. Who
would cook for them? they asked. Who would take care of them?

Without hesitation, Duong invited the evacuees back to the mall.

To feed them, she printed vouchers for her restaurant, City Sandwiches. To
eat free, evacuees had to show a voucher and identification from any
hurricane-stricken area, she said. Within 10 minutes, the first 100
vouchers were gone. And when she made 500 more, they too were gone in a
flash.

By last Tuesday afternoon, as the need kept growing, Duong scrapped the
voucher plan and opened the restaurant doors wide. Now, evacuees just show
identification at a table set up in front.

Her offer of free meals was only the beginning.

“At first, they wanted noodles, ramen noodles. Then they wanted milk for
their babies. Then it was diapers,” she said. With her own money, she
provided all of it, setting up tables in the mall’s corridor to distribute
them.

Soon, shoppers began noticing and showed up with supplies too. Houston’s
Vietnamese American community began turning out in force, with carload
after carload. They brought used jeans, neatly folded and separated by
size. They wheeled in shopping carts of used shoes, also tidily organized
by size. They brought water and posted signs everywhere, offering free
services, including transportation and haircuts from the nearby Bellaire
Beauty School.

Now, about 1,000 evacuees visit the mall each day, to fill out forms for
government assistance, to find housing, to eat, to get clothing.

Duong has become a sort of field general, mobilizing forces to meet their
needs. She had no choice, she said simply — even if it meant hiring extra
security and maintenance crews to handle the traffic. “We can’t turn
people away,” she said Monday. “This is an emergency.”

After she left her hometown of Vinh Chau Ca Mau, Duong, who would not give
her age, spent two weeks at sea with 70 others on a small, rickety boat.
She spent eight months more in a Thai refugee camp before making her way
to the United States.

Duong is thin, with dyed brown hair, long false eyelashes and a
no-nonsense air. Tending to evacuees Monday, she wore a pearl necklace. On
her wrists were diamond bracelets. On her hands, diamond and ruby rings.

She has come far, she said, from her start as a refugee with nothing, who
came to America with the sponsorship of the Lutheran Church. First, she
said, she lived in New York state, where she worked as a seamstress. Then
she moved to Houston because New York was too cold and, with borrowed
money, opened a downtown gift shop. Selling figurines from China and Hong
Kong, she learned the import-export business. Before long, she was a
community business leader.

“During these difficult times, it’s no trouble for me,” she said. “I’m
just giving back because I’ve been a refugee, so I know what they’re going
through.”

On Monday afternoon, Duong moved briskly through the mall, supervising the
sorting of supplies, participating in a meeting to mobilize more aid.

At that meeting, Quan Huynh, president of the Vietnamese American
Community of Louisiana, said he and his fellow evacuees are overwhelmed by
the kindness they’ve received from fellow Vietnamese Americans. He asked
Duong and others to keep a list of all the people who had helped.

“I don’t want to miss any names of any donors on the donors list,” he
said. “Whether they donate little things or big things, after six months
to one year, when we Louisianans go back home, we want to thank them.”

For her part, Duong said she doesn’t want or need thanks.

Still, throughout the day Monday, grateful people stopped her again and
again in the mall corridor.

At one point, as she walked by her restaurant, Phuong An Vu stood up from
her table and grasped Duong’s left hand in both of hers before embracing
her. Vu, 42, said she had come from Versailles, a Vietnamese American
enclave east of New Orleans that was slammed by the hurricane.

“This is Lady Diana the Second,” she said of Duong.

*

Times staff writer Nita Lelyveld in Los Angeles contributed to this
report.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: INSTANT COMMUNITY: At the Hong Kong City Mall, Hung Dinh,
left, and Nhi Luong, both of Louisiana, hold their sons. Houston is home
to some 64,000 Vietnamese Americans. PHOTOGRAPHER: Mayra Beltran
Associated Press

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