History through food: How Asiatown grew into a premiere family and foodie destination

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Houston's Asiatown has grown and evolved over the years, and the best way to understand it is through its food.

"It's become a real good hang out place. People will come with their families and they'll shop here. You can literally spend the entire Saturday in Chinatown or Asiatown," community advocate Alice Lee said.

But Asiatown wasn't always a premiere family and food destination.

When Janet Chiu's parents first opened Tan Tan in the 1980s, she would walk through grass fields and parking lots every day to get to the restaurant and help out.

"It was funny because I remember being a dishwasher. When we ran out of dishes, we had to close," Chiu said.

Three decades ago, the heart of Houston's Chinatown wasn't along Bellaire Boulevard on the west side. It was downtown, in what is now known as Eado.

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Restaurants and businesses thrived in the 60s, but these days, China Garden is one of the only remnants of that era. It's been open since 1969 with Marian Ju at the helm.

"They come for our food. Our food has never changed. All our customers say, 'Marian, your food tastes so good. Never changed, always delicious,'" Ju said.

But as downtown real estate got more expensive, and families started to buy homes outside the loop, Kenneth Li and a few other aspiring entrepreneurs saw opportunity.
"We think of this as a prime location for a new breed of Asians to settle down here. So that's why we decided to take it," Li said.

Cheap land, ironically caused in part by the oil bust, helped bring in real estate investments. It attracted new immigrants eager for the American dream.

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"All this was done by individuals - mom and pop shops. They work 24/7, like every immigrant family," Li said.

Families like the Chius, whose modest Tan Tan now has multiple locations, have learned what makes Asiatown a success.

"I think you thrive on competition, you don't have a choice. You're either outdated or you're gone," Chiu said.

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