The area we now call EaDo has been through its share of change over the years, and its history is one of the most interesting in Houston. Part of what makes it so unique is that remnants of the area’s history are still visible today, and that includes buildings from Houston’s original “Chinatown.”

To shed some light on this history, we’re recounting research culled from the fall 2014 issue of Sugar and Rice Magazine and this interview with Executive Director Anton Sinkewich on Houston Public Media’s Houston Matters podcast.

  • Houston’s original Chinatown started in EaDo, though of course that was long before the “East Downtown” moniker. It began at the intersection of Chartres and Rusk streets, where Chinese merchant “Bo Bo” Lang Yee Woo created the On Leong Association in 1938 to serve immigrants coming to Houston in the late 30’s and early 40’s.
  • In the 1940s, Houston’s Chinese population—which numbered just over 120 people at the beginning of World War II—more than doubled as migrants from other southern states moved to take advantage of the city’s growing wartime economy.
  • Because the On Leong Association was located near Union Station, immigrants would arrive by rail and stay in the buildings’ apartments while they looked for work. Many found employment with the area’s Asian restaurants and specialty food wholesalers.
  • During the 1960s, two important milestones contributed to the growth of the district’s economic vitality for Asian immigrants: the US 59 Freeway was built on what is now downtown’s eastern edge, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 passed. Prior to the law, restrictive immigration policies limited just 195 immigrants from China or other Asian countries per year; the new act allowed a maximum of 20,000 immigrants from each country in the eastern hemisphere, with a total annual cap of 170,000.
  • Though Asian immigrants largely lived in other parts of the city during this time, the east downtown area stayed an important economic hub for the immigrant community. Asian entertainment businesses and restaurants filled in along St Emanuel & Chartres Streets, and specialty Asian food products grew to eventually distribute throughout the entire southwestern United States.

As one might surmise from looking around EaDo today, the area has gone through lots of change through the decades. If you’re interested in reading more, check out part two, which covers the major socio-economic and political shifts from the 1960s to today.