A memory of Houston is a memory of the sprawl. Most days we are on the road. The sun’s glare filters through the windshield. Trucks hurtle around us. From Westheimer and Gessner onto the I-10, the Katy Freeway, the Sam Houston Tollway. The air is hot and dry in the summers, cool and pollen-rich in the fall. The Greater Houston area is 35 times the size of Singapore and contains seven million people. Texas is 27 times the size of Greater Houston. Before, our view of the city had been confined to the trappings of suburbia by my father’s mental geography. It was only after I left the army and learned to navigate that new destinations availed themselves. The Rothko Chapel. Rice University. Me sitting in the front seat telling my Dad when to bear left or turn right. He curses, intimidated by the 4-wheelers careening around him. 

A memory of Houston is a memory of the freeway: how it stretches beyond a line of sight, curbing and snaking into a complex of tangles. The spaghetti highways that confound perception. The circulatory system of an auto-commuter economy. The freeway is the first and last thing you see in this city: the mass of cars escaping the congestion of the airport, the roads connecting neighbourhoods to elsewhere.  

Houston may not seem an intuitive choice for a Malaysian Chinese family looking to migrate to America. The other potential destinations on my Yeh Yeh’s list were Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles, California. The decision to leave is not uncommon to those of the Malaysian Chinese diaspora. Unusual, however, is the fact that my Yeh Yeh migrated in his retirement, after a substantial career as a civil engineer in Kuala Lumpur. Plaza Sentul, for example, is one of his projects that still stands today. 

In the 1980s, Houston was a rapidly evolving business and finance hub, ideal for my Yeh Yeh’s sons to launch their careers. Another stop in a life of movement. My grandfather had been educated in Glasgow, as had his brother. They’d had sojourns in Singapore and Cambridge, England, for work. He’d sent his children to schools in Australia and the UK—marks of Malaysian wealth and a distrust of the local education system. Yeh Yeh had been active in his church and secondary school alumni association, being appointed Ahli Mangku Negara, or a Member of the Order of the Defender of the Realm, by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong for his community service. 

Multiple events conspired to solidify my Yeh Yeh’s decision to leave. One was when the government bailed out a Malaysian royal from debts he’d accrued in Vegas, drawing conclusive disgust from my grandparents. Another theory is that my great-grandfather’s passing let him leave, the loosening of responsibility for an eldest son. A friend helped him secure land in Houston’s Memorial area. When they arrived in 1981, the city seemed a world away from London, where my father was in university, and Kuala Lumpur. Cosmopolitanism was swapped for the mores of white Southern etiquette. It demanded an experience of double consciousness, to borrow from sociologist W E B Du Bois, as the only Asians in their neighbourhood—a consciousness of themselves as Asian but also consciousness of being perceived as such by their white neighbours.

Growing up, I had never known Malaysia to bear the same kind of ancestral pull that it does for many Singaporeans. I learned quickly to live with the dissonance of having grandparents who were always at least a 24-hour journey away. It had once been 12 hours to Moscow then 12 hours to Houston, though now the transit is via Manchester. I remember my Dad’s disgruntlement at rigid Muscovite airport staff, the lines of fatigue on my Mom’s face as she dragged her three sons along. The flight cabin, always shrouded in dimmed lights, the glimmer of blue screens vivid to a restless child. The eventual landing in Houston would see us gathered and whisked away by our cousin. Singapore, Moscow, Houston, Manchester, all usual stops along the refinery circuit, one familiar to oil families who have followed its routes. The journalist Tilak Doshi wrote of Singapore’s role in providing petroleum refining, blending, and storage services in a book published in 1989. Its title? Houston of Asia.

My grandparents’ home in Tealwood North is built of red and brown brick, with tall windows, an open lawn, and a garage filled with gardening tools. Its interior reveals memories that remained beyond a passage across the Pacific: a grandfather clock with a calligraphic note of gratitude to my Yeh Yeh, my Mah Mah’s wushu swords hung above the television in the living room, ink paintings of storks, pictures of my grandparents in Kuala Lumpur. Beside the piano there is an angklung, and across the room are the organ and accordion my Yeh Yeh taught himself to play. Houston makes itself known in the waste collection schedule stuck to the fridge, the growing pile of newspapers and coupons, the photos of grandkids with Santa or eating lobster and corn. 

My grandparents settled into a diasporic community at the Chinese Baptist Church, as is common for many Asian communities across the US. They devoted themselves to service, as elders and teachers and choir members. It was this church’s pastor who furnished my generation with a common Chinese character for our names: yee (義) for the sons and yi (儀) for the daughters. There were not many churchgoers of Malaysian origin. Some could trace their roots to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, or mainland China; others had been in Texas for generations. An imbrication in Asian America. I’ll never forget the shock of being greeted by an aunty with a thick Texan drawl. The Cantonese and Mandarin services shrank over time, as the church’s children and grandchildren preferred to listen and pray in English. They might go to college in Houston or Dallas, Austin or College Station, for Texas is vast and its options are plenty. The state is a world unto itself. 

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