As Houston’s Asian community celebrates Lunar New Year, questions of culture and community arise


This is an excerpt from the Houston Chronicle’s HouWeAre newsletter on race, culture and identity. You can register here.

What is a community? Is it a place or a culture – or can it just be an event?

I thought about that question one recent evening while watching teenage lion dancers put together their ornate costumes for a Lunar New Year celebration at Mikoto, a ramen bar west of Houston. The lion’s colorful body and fierce face, shaped by thousands of years of tradition, stared at the huddled teenagers on their phones.

Here’s an ancient art form from China, performed by a decades-old troupe performing in a modern Japanese restaurant on the Texas prairie. I was fascinated by the continuity within the discontinuity of the Lion Dance and other Lunar New Year traditions in Houston.

The traditions, enduring and highly visible, celebrate the one unbroken experience of Asian American communities established by people who have left their homelands and traveled halfway around the world: the passage of time.

Although I grew up moving around the city, I was not very familiar with the local versions of these customs. Houston’s legendary diversity is as much a maze as it is a tapestry. I had long navigated the peculiar experience of being surrounded by diverse cultures but isolated, and sometimes singled out, as one of the few Asian American students.

Culture without community is an alienating and even dangerous condition, but what defines a community is complicated. It wasn’t until I began volunteering with civic and cultural efforts in Asiatown, the center of gravity for Houston’s Chinese and Vietnamese populations, that I began to understand what it meant to be part of a Asian American community.

These communities are not simply a culture or a neighborhood, but a constantly woven social fabric that embodies the complex narrative of immigrant life and generations of history unseen at first glance. Understanding these communities, too, takes more than a glance. When I started at the Chronicle, I decided to try and do what I had never seen in local news: detailed and sustained coverage of Asian American communities as they experience fundamental changes. .

The February 1 Lunar New Year marked two years since false rumors of an early COVID outbreak in Asiatown emptied hundreds of its restaurants. A growing number of older, smaller restaurants have since closed, their retired owners taking traditional Chinese cooking techniques with them. They are often replaced by renovated storefronts with hipper Asian franchises.

The past few years have shown that the notion of an Asiatown community cannot be taken for granted, as the pandemic has inflicted deep economic turbulence and time itself has brought about generational change. An older generation, whose immigrant, working-class lifestyle formed the social fabric of Asiatown and downtown Chinatown before it, is disappearing.

The loss of their living history has left a sense of community as an experience – a set of cultural patterns and a series of recurring events that herald an expendable “Asian” aesthetic.

When I spoke with business owners in Asiatown, it was clear that they needed to appeal to a wider audience to survive the competition. But companies are not the only ones to promote the idea of ​​“culture” as consumption. When I watch and read our local news, stories about Asian Americans and other cultural communities fall into two broad categories: tragedy and celebration.

This sporadic and dramatic coverage expresses a logic of community as spectacle. But viewing culture as a mere commodity easily leads to fetishizing people as objects of desire and hate. When this representation of culture exists without a strong community, it is only a matter of time before our lives are consumed.

In the aftermath of tragedies like last year’s mass murder of six Asian spa workers in Atlanta, media outlets across the country raced to find sources in Asian American communities where they had little presence before. As a journalism student, I watched national media strive to give voice to the voiceless without thinking about who had flattened our stories.

Today, the spike in violence targeting Asians during the pandemic continues amid uninterrupted coverage portraying China as a menacing threat.

My series of stories aired on Lunar New Year, but I wrote them to add nuance and dimension to the simple narratives of Asiatown in the face of gentrification or pandemic hardship. My own assumptions were frequently challenged; one restaurateur I interviewed disagreed that authenticity could only come from serving traditional dishes — flavor profile is key, she said. Another pointed out that Asiatown no longer only suffers, except for the constant fear of anti-Asian harassment.

These insights cannot be found by looking in the most obvious places. For the past nine months, I’ve gone to community events posing as the Chronicle’s “Unofficial Asiatown Reporter” to create a network of local sources that helps us better understand Houston’s Asian American communities. These relationships foster trust, but better coverage maintains it.

We need media spaces like HouWeAre that encourage the notion of community as belonging and foster dialogue. When communities are only covered in terms of “culture” or diversity, people are seen as perpetual others whose lives are a spectacle to be consumed.

But the Houstonians who form communities like Asiatown, many of whom have been here for generations, are much more than their stories, told and untold.

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