January 9, 2007

Asian District full of distinction


EDMOND — Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the concentration camps operated by the Nazis. Wallenberg worked to save Jews in a variety of imaginative ways, one of which was to dispense to them documents that they were citizens of Sweden — which was on officially neutral nation during World War II, and telling the German officials they could not be deported from Hungary as a result.

A somewhat similar procedure was used by a military officer from Oklahoma, Ellis Edwards, to allow hundreds of South Vietnamese to escape from their country in 1975 as the North Vietnamese army began to advance on Saigon. Edwards, who later would serve a term as Oklahoma State Treasurer, recently recalled how he entered the American embassy in Saigon and managed to obtain a container of blank visa forms that he passed out to South Vietnamese residents. He then journeyed to the South Vietnamese City of Hue, where he persuaded a high-ranking South Vietnamese military officer to allow the people holding those visas to leave Vietnam.

After many Vietnamese refugees were flown to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas after the fall of South Vietnam, Edwards and another Oklahoman, Gen. Clyde Watts, went there and agreed to serve as sponsors for many of the refugees, and brought them to Oklahoma City. Edwards helped many of them locate employment and personally co-signed many loans for cars and later houses for them. He reports that none of them ever defaulted on their loans.

The Refugee Assistance Division of Catholic Charities, which played an important role in resettling the refugees, was on Classen Boulevard, and future historians may conclude that is why the Oklahoma City Vietnamese community developed along Classen and 23rd Street. The Vietnamese refugees were welcomed in Oklahoma, and employers marveled at their work ethic and teachers were impressed with the dedication their children had for learning.

Oklahoma City gradually became known as a place of sanctuary and opportunity for people who had fled Vietnam, and thousands more of them made their way here as a result. In the following decades, the community expanded to include large numbers of Chinese and Koreans and other Asian immigrants, and was featured in a National Geographic article several years ago.

The heart of the Oklahoma City Asian District may be the Super Cao Nguyen grocery store off Classen on 2668 N. Military Ave. It is a large establishment, that always seems to be full of patrons, and the variety of the goods sold there is indicative of the diversity of the Asian community in Oklahoma City.

In one area lines of large fish lying on ice seem to stare at customers, while on another aisle rows of barbecued chickens dangle from a wire. The store appears to be a social place as well, where patrons encounter friends and relatives and talk in different Asian dialects.

The phone booths in Chinatown in New York City are in the shape of pagodas, and the stops on the New York City subway line under that community have their street names in Chinese characters. The entrance to the Chinatown in the London area of Soho is marked by a pair of large red gates. While there is a bank building on Classen adjacent to 23rd Street that is shaped like a pagoda, and Chinese characters on several structures on that thoroughfare, there are no public artifacts of that type in Oklahoma City’s Asian District.

But the Oklahoma City Planning Commission is said to be currently reviewing proposals for the construction of a similar set of gates for the district. Such a structure also would serve as a monument to those first Vietnamese refugees who had the courage and determination to begin new lives in a foreign land and also to the people of Oklahoma City who welcomed them.