She peeled open my hand and shook the pellets carefully from a bag, filling my palm and giggling. As a smoky scent rose up from the counter, the woman took one of the herbs and popped it into her mouth, laughing completely now, not a crow’s foot in sight.
“I thought that you boil them and drink the water,” I said to the woman, Su Chen, who spoke only Chinese.
“Some of us can eat them, too,” said Alice Ma, her friend, fellow medicinal herb merchant, and translator. “But not every day.”
Chen encouraged me to try. She had a 24-year-old son and the skin of a toddler, no eyeglasses, and most likely a really clean liver and a healthy heart. She was the happiest person I had met in a decade. No, she was the happiest person I had met ever. I picked up a hard (really hard) dried longan and contemplated its consumption.
“I will make the tea,” I told my new friends, holding the gnarled “dragon eye” between my fingers. And then they told me about Plano.
Chen and Ma are Chinese, and they live and work in Plano. They love Plano. And they are not alone. Of U.S. cities with at least 250,000 residents, Plano has the sixth-largest percentage of Chinese residents, behind Honolulu, New York, and three cities in California. While the 2010 U.S. Census reports a population of about 14,500, informal tallies put the number much higher.
“A lot don’t participate in government activities, like the census,” says Charlie Yue, executive vice president of the Association of Chinese Professionals. “But in certain neighborhoods, if you knock on every door, seven or eight Chinese people will come out.” Yue estimates Plano’s Chinese population to be around 30,000, at least. According to census statistics, 5.2 percent of the city’s residents are Chinese, though Plano public schools report an Asian enrollment of about 20 percent, leaving Yue to reason that the more accurate figure for the city is somewhere near 10 percent.
Whatever the exact numbers are, they are big, and the curiosity remains: how did so many Chinese people find their way here?
Immigration to Texas occurred in two waves. After the Civil War, Southerners replaced African-American workers with Chinese men. First, in 1870, 250 contract laborers were brought from California to work on the Houston and Texas Central Railroad at Calvert, through cotton country. Soon after, 2,600 laborers arrived to build the Southern Pacific line, and by 1890, 710 Chinese people were living in Texas, 32 percent in El Paso County, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Many of the rail workers returned home when the job was completed, but some stayed. When Congress enacted a strict law barring Chinese immigration in the late 1800s, the influx was halted.
“My mom’s grandfather came in the late 1800s for the railroad. He stayed and would send money back home,” says Daniel Eng, whose grandparents and parents were born in Taishan, a Canton province on the mainland. Years later, Eng’s maternal grandparents came to the United States with two of their daughters. His mother, then 15, lived with relatives for several years before being sent to Houston, where his great-grandfather settled.
“There was water there, the ocean, so he moved from El Paso,” says Eng, whose father arrived from Hong Kong in 1956 on a full scholarship to Tabor College in Kansas. “He came alone. The Taiwanese and Communist Chinese would move children out. My grandparents had seven sons; my father was the second oldest. Some went to Europe, some to Canada. My father was the first to the U.S. My grandparents stayed back.”
Eng’s dad moved to Houston; met Eng’s mom; started a restaurant, a grocery store, and an insurance company, selling coverage to Chinese restaurant owners, many of whom lived in Dallas. So, in 1968, they moved to Webb Chapel and 635, had Eng 10 years later at Medical City, opened Dallas’ first dim sum restaurant, and relocated to Plano, the third or fourth family to do so. Now Eng owns Engvest, a commercial real estate company.
Like the Engs, many Chinese people own their own businesses, whether they are doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, or martial arts instructors. Others work for companies like Texas Instruments or Huawei, a high-tech firm that established its North American headquarters in Plano in 2001.
By 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been repealed, giving way to the second phase of immigration. While the older immigrants were nearly all men who came as peasants and unskilled laborers from Cantonese-speaking southern China (and expected to return), the newer ones were Mandarin-speaking professionals with careers in science or engineering, from northern or central China. They were members of the cultural and intellectual elite and came with their families as permanent residents. Since 1950, 250,000 Chinese people have come to American cities from Taiwan and the mainland as college or graduate students. They are a close-knit group of hardworking, highly educated people who are bound and supported by their distinct culture yet have integrated well into an American community that appreciates their talents.
Plano is a case in point. Ma, who shares space with Chen at the herb shop inside Asia World Market on Legacy Road, has a master’s in information systems from the University of Texas at Dallas. Both women came to Texas a decade ago to work and raise their families in a place with a good school system, affordable housing, and comfortable living conditions. Ma and her husband own a car dealership in McKinney and have three kids who were born here, play volleyball, and love pizza and pasta, both of which Ma sometimes cooks. Her herb shop is a part-time business.
“We have some friends who are not Chinese, and my kids love it here,” she says. “So far, I feel good.”
Because of their commitment to education, family, and work, Chinese residents feel welcomed by their non-Asian neighbors. “Most of us are highly educated, law abiding, and we maintain the value of our neighborhoods,” Yue says. “Being polite is part of our culture, and Texans, who seem friendlier than people in a lot of other states, appreciate that.”
Unlike New York and cities in California, which might remind Chinese people of the cramped environment they left behind, Plano provides room to grow. “My parents plant vegetables here, organic vegetables,” Ma says. Her parents live with her, after leaving China three years ago. “In China, it was too crowded, and they couldn’t find any space for a garden.”
Inside the supermarket, a vast store with entire refrigerator cases devoted to dumpling wrappers, shrimp, cuttlefish, and pork balls and aisles spilling with dried mushrooms, noodles, and teas, Saturday shoppers fill carts with delicacies from home. An older man lifts a red snapper in the air, presenting it to his wife for inspection. A young family snacks on seasoned tofu and seaweed at corner tables by a concession. A mom and daughter buy bok choy and snow peas for the week. Shoppers are Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese, as well as Chinese, along with a few Caucasians. They shop for themselves and for their restaurants (there are 500 in the area), as shelves feature 8-pound jars of sauces and sacks of rice in 25 varieties.
“When we first came to Plano in 1984, we had one grocery store in Richardson, the Terrace Supermarket on Greenville,” says Jane Jan, who runs a small commercial real estate firm and handles public relations for the Dallas Asian American Youth Orchestra, which has grown from 35 to 110 students in 13 years. “Now the services have caught up with the people.”
On one corner, there are three acupuncture offices and four martial arts studios. Six Chinese churches have been established in Plano alone; 60 Chinese cultural organizations are based in North Texas, mostly in Plano and Richardson. UTD, with an 18 percent Asian-American population, has nearly 1,000 Chinese students and an active recruiting program.
Jan left Taiwan for Houston with a law degree in 1978 so that her husband could pursue his Ph.D. Their two children entered Plano schools in the mid-’80s, when most of the area’s Chinese kids lived in Richardson. “We feel lucky to have put them in a place with such a good academic record,” Jan says.
While most kids attend the public schools (Harrington Elementary even has a bilingual pre-kindergarten program), many parents supplement their children’s education with weekend Chinese school, intensive morning classes in math, writing, and Chinese language at one of about 14 programs in the area. Students work a year ahead in math, which gives them an edge during the week.
Behind Chen’s herb counter, a wall of emerald green drawers contains the cures to whatever might ail you: insomnia, loss of concentration, women’s maladies, fatigue. Chen, who 10 years ago was working in a Qingdao hospital, visits her home once a year. She misses it but is always ready to come back. As I get ready to leave the shop, Ma motions to the drawers. Giggling again, Chen pulls out two sacks of fructus lych and arillus longan and sends me home with generous samples of each. In my non-Asian kitchen, I fill a kettle with water and wait for it to sing.
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