When the first evacuees from Hurricane Katrina arrived at the Hong Kong City Mall, Ha Duong, the mall’s owner, initially thought they were loiterers.
About 10 Vietnamese families -- old people, young people, children -- were wandering in the main corridor of the shopping center that has long served as the hub of Houston’s Vietnamese American community.
All day, they kept pacing, seemingly aimless, outside the stores. It was the afternoon of Aug. 29, the day Katrina came ashore. Duong confronted them.
“I asked them, ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you going home?’ ” she said.
Their answers broke the heart of the former refugee, who fled Vietnam with nothing but the clothes on her back in 1978.
The people told her they feared they no longer had homes, that they had come from the Gulf Coast. They were poor -- fishing people, shop owners. They had no money. Having driven to Houston, they asked if they could sleep on the mall’s floor.
Duong would not hear of offering such poor hospitality, and so began a relief effort that has continued for a week.
Immediately, she contacted other former refugees from Vietnam. They did not hesitate to help. They knew just what would be needed.
Houston, home to about 64,000 people of Vietnamese descent, has the third-largest community of Vietnamese in the country. Duong called the local Vietnamese-language radio station, Radio Saigon Houston, whose listeners promptly volunteered to house the strangers. Then Duong set about turning her 358,000-square-foot mall into an aid center for Vietnamese American hurricane evacuees.
By that evening, more families had arrived -- sleeping in their cars, camping out in the mall parking lot. The next morning, the Houston residents who provided homes for the first evacuees were calling Duong, saying they had to go to work and couldn’t stay with their guests. Who would cook for them? they asked. Who would take care of them?
Without hesitation, Duong invited the evacuees back to the mall.
To feed them, she printed vouchers for her restaurant, City Sandwiches. To eat free, evacuees had to show a voucher and identification from any hurricane-stricken area, she said. Within 10 minutes, the first 100 vouchers were gone. And when she made 500 more, they too were gone in a flash.
By last Tuesday afternoon, as the need kept growing, Duong scrapped the voucher plan and opened the restaurant doors wide. Now, evacuees just show identification at a table set up in front.
Her offer of free meals was only the beginning.
“At first, they wanted noodles, ramen noodles. Then they wanted milk for their babies. Then it was diapers,” she said. With her own money, she provided all of it, setting up tables in the mall’s corridor to distribute them.
Soon, shoppers began noticing and showed up with supplies too. Houston’s Vietnamese American community began turning out in force, with carload after carload. They brought used jeans, neatly folded and separated by size. They wheeled in shopping carts of used shoes, also tidily organized by size. They brought water and posted signs everywhere, offering free services, including transportation and haircuts from the nearby Bellaire Beauty School.
Now, about 1,000 evacuees visit the mall each day, to fill out forms for government assistance, to find housing, to eat, to get clothing.
Duong has become a sort of field general, mobilizing forces to meet their needs. She had no choice, she said simply -- even if it meant hiring extra security and maintenance crews to handle the traffic. “We can’t turn people away,” she said Monday. “This is an emergency.”
After she left her hometown of Vinh Chau Ca Mau, Duong, who would not give her age, spent two weeks at sea with 70 others on a small, rickety boat. She spent eight months more in a Thai refugee camp before making her way to the United States.
Duong is thin, with dyed brown hair, long false eyelashes and a no-nonsense air. Tending to evacuees Monday, she wore a pearl necklace. On her wrists were diamond bracelets. On her hands, diamond and ruby rings.
She has come far, she said, from her start as a refugee with nothing, who came to America with the sponsorship of the Lutheran Church. First, she said, she lived in New York state, where she worked as a seamstress. Then she moved to Houston because New York was too cold and, with borrowed money, opened a downtown gift shop. Selling figurines from China and Hong Kong, she learned the import-export business. Before long, she was a community business leader.
“During these difficult times, it’s no trouble for me,” she said. “I’m just giving back because I’ve been a refugee, so I know what they’re going through.”
On Monday afternoon, Duong moved briskly through the mall, supervising the sorting of supplies, participating in a meeting to mobilize more aid.
At that meeting, Quan Huynh, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Louisiana, said he and his fellow evacuees are overwhelmed by the kindness they’ve received from fellow Vietnamese Americans. He asked Duong and others to keep a list of all the people who had helped.
“I don’t want to miss any names of any donors on the donors list,” he said. “Whether they donate little things or big things, after six months to one year, when we Louisianans go back home, we want to thank them.”
For her part, Duong said she doesn’t want or need thanks.
Still, throughout the day Monday, grateful people stopped her again and again in the mall corridor.
At one point, as she walked by her restaurant, Phuong An Vu stood up from her table and grasped Duong’s left hand in both of hers before embracing her. Vu, 42, said she had come from Versailles, a Vietnamese American enclave east of New Orleans that was slammed by the hurricane.
“This is Lady Diana the Second,” she said of Duong.
Times staff writer Nita Lelyveld in Los Angeles contributed to this report.