Asian Americans in Austin

Small numbers of Asian and Asian American families settled in Austin beginning in the nineteenth century contributing to the business, community, and cultural life of the city. National policies limiting immigration from Asian countries curbed the growth of the population in Austin until the mid-twentieth century when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, and immigration could expand. Currently, Asian Americans and Asians from a diverse group of countries are one of the fastest growing populations in Austin.

Railroads & Restrictions

Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad.

Some of the earliest known Asian residents of Austin came in the mid-nineteenth century during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Handbook of Texas traces the first arrival of Chinese folks to 1870, when a group of laborers from California came with the Houston and Texas Central Railroad and then in 1881 with the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Austin Public Library’s online exhibit Pioneers from the East: First Chinese Families in Austin states that there were 20 Chinese people living in Austin in 1875, most of whom were men. The Page Act, passed by Congress in 1875, was utilized to restrict immigration by Chinese women, so most of the Chinese people living in Austin at this time would have been men. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, barred the immigration of more Chinese laborers to the US and prevented Chinese immigrants from naturalizing as citizens. These exclusionary policies, which were later expanded to limit immigration from other Asian and Southeast Asian countries, severely restricted the growth of the Asian population in Austin for more than half a century.   

Early Families

Joe Lung and his brother were two of the men who came to Texas to construct the railroad, and both men eventually moved to Austin where they opened a café. Descendants of the Lung family, featured in Austin Revealed: Pioneers from the East, continue to live and work in Austin to this day. Joe Sing, who came to Austin in the late nineteenth-century, opened a laundry service called Hong Lee Laundry on West 5th Street and married a Mexican American woman named Francis Moreno. Due to a citizenship law entitled The Married Women’s Citizenship Act, American women who married foreign men lost their US citizenship, and so Francis Moreno was no longer a US citizen after marrying Joe Sing. Descendants of Francis Moreno discovered her story in Pioneers from the East: Sing Family.

Joe Lung Cafe, ca 1945

More Families Arrive

In the early to mid-twentieth century more Asian and Asian American families arrived Austin. The Ng Family put down roots with the entrance of Ng Bon Hor (Harry Ng) and Lee Son You, who managed the Sam Wah Café and Lim Ting Restaurant. Their relatives continued to run the restaurant into the mid-1980s. Fred Wong and his wife Rose Chin moved to Austin in 1938 and founded New China Food Market soon after their arrival. Their descendant, Dr. Mitchel Wong, became an ophthalmologist and describes his adolescence working in the family grocery store in Pioneers from the East: Wong Family. The Tu Family came to Austin during World War II by way of, Kwei “Duke” Tu,  a Chinese military officer fluent in English who was hired to interpret for the air force. He was stationed at Bergstrom Army airfield and chose to stay after the war.

Growth after 1965

Changes were made to immigration policy in the first half of the twentieth century, such as allowing Chinese folks in the US to become naturalized citizens or making provisions for overseas family members to emigrate. Yet, a racist quota system put in place in the 1920s still meant relatively few numbers of immigrants were allowed into the US from Asia. It was not until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed that restrictions were finally loosened, allowing many more immigrants from Asia into the US. In addition to changing immigration laws, the Vietnam War had a large impact on Asian American Austin. Refugees from Vietnam began arriving in Texas in the late 1970s, and most found their way to Texas’s urban centers. According to the Texas Handbook, “In 1981 Texas had the second largest number of Vietnamese of any state, 40,000, and Houston had more than any American city outside of California. In 1985 the total Texas Vietnamese population was estimated at 52,500, but the actual number was probably larger.” In Austin, Vietnamese Americans became the largest Asian American population, and organizations and businesses were established to support the expanding community.

Photo from the Nguyen Family Papers

Growing & Flourishing Community

According to “The Asian Community in Austin: A Demographic Snapshot,” “Asians in Austin are the fastest growing local demographic group in terms of percentage gain year-to-year and are doubling in total size roughly every 12 years” (23). Included in Austin’s diverse Asian community are Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Filipino people, among many others. In response to this tremendous growth, new structures have been established to help support the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. The Austin History Center employs an Asian American Community Archivist Program to collect archival materials related to Asian and Asian American people in Austin. The Asian American Resource Center opened to the public in 2013 and offers programming, events, and exhibit space for this community. Asian South Austin, a community newspaper featuring events, news, and interviews, was established in 2017 and continues to offer resources to the Austin South Asian community. Finally, the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce offers demographic data and resources for the Asian Pacific American community. Asian-American-owned businesses have also thrived in Austin, with a recent Austin American-Statesmen article counting more than 10,000 such businesses in Central Texas in 2012.

Unrecognized Needs

While many members of Austin’s diverse Asian community are economically stable, another recent Statesman article entitled “Busting the Myth: The Needs of Austin’s Diverse and Fast-growing Asian American Population are Masked by the Model Minority Myth” uncovered some of the particular issues facing those of Asian descent living in Austin, including low wages, lack of access to health care, and language barriers. Moving forward, Austin’s Asian population will continue to grow, and with this growth will come both successes to celebrate and challenges to address.

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The Smithsonian Collection Waves of Hope: Asian American History in Austin shows the 1875 Census listing Chinese residents of Austin and recounts the stories of early Asian businesses in the city.

The Austin History Center’s Asian Pacific American Subject Guide provides more information on some of Austin’s Asian American communities.

The Austin History Center’s Vietnam to Austin: Restoring Community details the history behind the Vietnam War, the experience of refugees arriving in Austin, and the creation of community for Vietnamese American Austinites. One of these community organizations, the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation, continues to support the “preservation, promotion, and celebration of the history and heritage of Vietnamese Americans” in Austin.