East Meets West In The Heart Of Texas

It's Sunday morning, churchgoing time in the affluent suburbs north of Dallas, and a young minister is giving men in a Sunday school class tips on time management. "Tape the Cowboys game on your VCR," he says. They can watch their beloved football team later on while doing something useful, such as ironing. He advises them to fast-forward through the commercials.

The discussion turns to the Republican Presidential field, General Colin L. Powell, and abortion. The smartly dressed congregation might be at home in any well-heeled church in this middle-American city. The pews are packed with the kind of upwardly mobile Texas non-natives who have fueled the region's growth over the past 15 years. Expensive new cars pack the parking lot--a sure sign of doctors, engineers, and successful businesspeople inside.

MANDARIN. But this isn't your ordinary Texas congregation. The newcomers aren't from Iowa or Ohio, and they're not named Smith or McCoy. They're from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, and have names such as Lee and Chen. Unless you speak Mandarin, don't stay for the second service at the Dallas Chinese Bible Church.

Drive around the sprawl of Dallas-Fort Worth's "metroplex," and you'll find scores of other Asian-American religious institutions. Many are new, serving a fast-growing Asian community. The number of Asians here has mushroomed from about 21,600 in 1980, or less than 1% of the Dallas-Fort Worth population, to nearly 80,000 in 1990, or roughly 2.8%. Now, local Asian leaders estimate, the number is 200,000, or 6%, and climbing.

The pattern is evident in other Sunbelt cities, but it's most pronounced here, as Asians flock in--bypassing or leaving crowded, expensive, and often dangerous metropolises on the coasts.

Today's influx is far different from the "boat people" who came to Dallas in the late 1970s. These newcomers have substantial incomes. Many have advanced degrees. Instead of drawing on welfare and social services, they pay taxes and create jobs. "One month they're employing three people, and six months later they have 10," says Richard W. Douglas, president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

When I moved to Dallas six months ago, I was surprised to learn that the area's Asian community was one of the fastest-growing in the U.S. After spending years in China and Taiwan, I considered myself familiar with the patterns of Asian-American life. Asians in Texas just didn't seem to mesh: To me, they're urban, seafood-eating, and fond of miniatures. Texans are rural, beef-loving, and obsessed with all things big. Intrigued, I went looking for Asia-Americana on the Texas prairie.

MIX OF CULTURES. That isn't easy, for in Dallas there is no Chinatown or Little Saigon. The new immigrants--unlike those who came earlier--don't feel the need to congregate because they aren't stuck in an economic ghetto, says Ralph Mak, a Hong Kong native and editor of Dallas Chinese News, one of two dozen Asian-language papers in the Dallas area. Those arriving in the 1990s, many in their 20s and 30s, are educated, speak English well, and quickly blend in, as exemplified by Taiwan-born Anchi Ku, who works for a Dallas investment firm. She's on the Texas Board of Human Services and campaigned for Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

In Dallas, a city of vast suburban tracts with only a stump of a downtown, Asians soon find the suburbs. They live the American dream in tidy ranch houses in places such as Plano, Garland, and Arlington. They live among whites, blacks, and Hispanics and seem to enjoy a comfortable mix of cultures. Members of the Dallas Chinese Bible Church hold giant family picnics. They and other new Asian-Americans love cookouts, but douse their barbecue with teriyaki, not tomato, sauce. They dance at community get-togethers--folk dances, not square dances or the Achy Breaky.

Newcomers shop in supermarkets as well as Asian malls, such as the one in Richardson, which houses a fresh-food grocery (selling seven different kinds of tofu and all manner of tripe). The temple of the International Buddhist Progress Society occupies a low-rise, glass-and-steel office building wedged between factories that manufacture telecommunications equipment and computer-graphics gear.

SILICON CITY. These high-tech companies are part of what draws Asians. Taiwanese engineers are a workforce staple at Texas Instruments, Cyrix, and Electronic Data Systems. Other professionals work in universities, law firms, and hospitals, or for import-export companies.

In addition, there are hundreds of Asian entrepreneurs. Pat Chang a Chinese-American from Taiwan, founded Lucky Computers in Richardson, which employs 95 people to assemble and market personal computers. Wu Baogang, who came to Texas as a high-tech company executive in 1987, set up his own flat-panel-display manufacturer, Advanced Display Systems Inc., in 1992. It employs 58.

Koreans, some of whom moved here after their businesses were destroyed in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, find Texas an easier place to do business. In California, "too many people are doing the same thing and cutting each other's throats," says Korean-American Michael Mo, who moved his transportation business to Dallas from Los Angeles this year.

The Texas environment encourages such relocations. Real estate is cheap, taxes are low, unions are weak, and local officials are business-oriented. For Asians, whose lives revolve around home and family, such attributes as safety, decent public schools, and affordable housing add to this city's attractiveness. Los Angeles, says Mo, "is getting too dangerous. I have two kids. This is a safer environment, better for their future."

The lifestyle and family values here are part of a vision of the U.S. that resonates among Asians. At the Dallas Buddhist Assn., a temple affiliated with a major Taiwanese sect, Huang Jen-chie, a monk, tells me his impressions of life in Texas. "I expected the U.S. to be morally loose and much more materialistic. But people here are simple folk," he says. When I observe that today's Texas seems to me much like 1950s America, he replies: "We think that was a better America."

Asians like this "better America," and tell me that they are in Dallas to stay. Says Chong C. Harmann, the owner of an apparel company and vice-president of the Korean Trade Association of Dallas: "Once a Texan, always a Texan."

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