Stories of Asian-American immigrants find a home at Rice


Chao Center’s collection includes harrowing tales of ‘boat people’ fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War

The winter 2016 issue of Rice Magazine features a story about an archive that tells the often-dramatic stories of Houston’s Asian-American refugees and immigrants, many of whom made a perilous journey by boat after the end of the Vietnam War. Rice News excerpts the feature here.

By Jennifer Latson

In the desperate days after the fall of Saigon, Vu Thanh Thuy didn’t know how she’d survive — or whether she wanted to.

Vu Thanh Thuy

Vu Thanh Thuy holds her daughter in their Saigon home while awaiting her husband’s release from a communist prison camp. (Photo courtesy Vu Thanh Thuy)

She felt like dying when she watched her parents and siblings leave Vietnam by boat, in the hope of being rescued by the U.S. Navy, and realized she might never see them again. She wished for death when her husband was sent to prison camp for aligning himself with the wrong side in the war — and once more when she herself was imprisoned. After escaping from prison only to be captured and tortured by pirates off the Vietnamese coast, she dreamed of death again.

But Vu, who was a young journalist and a new mother when the Vietnam War ended (her first child was born just two weeks earlier, April 15, 1975), wanted to bear witness to the atrocities of war and its aftermath. And she could not abandon her daughter.

“There were times when I thought of killing myself, but I couldn’t kill my baby,” she told a Rice University researcher. “So I started finding ways to survive.”

Vu’s tale is one of a number of extraordinary stories of survival, sacrifice and resilience housed in the Houston Asian American Archive (HAAA) at Rice’s Chao Center for Asian Studies. The oral history archive was the brainchild of project manager Anne Chao ’05, along with Rice history professor Tani Barlow, who had been appalled to realize that Houston had no collection of archival information about the immigrants and refugees who settled here.

Anne Chao

Anne Chao

“Houston is the eighth-largest city for Asian-American immigrants in the U.S., but it didn’t have a comprehensive repository to preserve and honor their life stories,” Chao said. “HAAA pays tribute to their vital role in building this city, and it provides scholarly material that can help revise many aspects of U.S. history: the history of labor, immigration, the South and Asian-American history as a whole.”

Since its inception in 2009, the archive — which contains letters, diaries and other records as well as videotaped interviews — has become a sought-after resource for Asian studies scholars at Rice and beyond, including researchers in China, Hong Kong and Japan. Locally, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research relied on it in part to compile its 2013 Houston Area Asian Survey.

The collection, which is online, publicly accessible and free to use, chronicles a wide array of Asian immigrant experiences, with a total of 230 oral histories to date from Korean-, Chinese-, Japanese-, Filipino- and Indian-Americans, among others, who were interviewed by Rice students and interns.

And it includes a proportionally large sample of Vietnamese immigrants — fitting for Houston, a metropolitan area with the country’s third-largest Vietnamese population, after Los Angeles and San Jose, Calif. People of Vietnamese descent outnumber those of all other Asian nationalities in Harris County, where the 2010 census identified 80,000 Vietnamese-Americans, nearly a third of the country’s total Asian population of roughly 250,000.

In 2012, the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation, a national nonprofit organization, donated 88 videotaped interviews with Houston-area immigrants to the Rice archive, which was entrusted with making their stories available to researchers and the public. Like Vu, many of these interviewees identified themselves as “boat people,” refugees who fled by sea, beating enormous odds to escape the harsh conditions that followed the war’s end and the change of regime in South Vietnam.

Vu’s story — recounted (in the winter 2016 issue of Rice Magazine) based on her nearly three-hour oral history, supplemented with an in-person interview — epitomizes some elements of the larger boat-people narrative. But it also stands very much alone, revealing the extraordinary toughness and tenacity that were part of her story long before it became a tale of sheer survival.

This story is featured in the winter 2016 issue of Rice Magazine. To read the rest of the story and others, visit


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