Murder in the Melting Pot
Vu Dinh Chung survived the Vietnam War, only to become a victim of American culture. But why did he make his four children victims too?
Forest Lawn North is a newer cemetary nestled just beyond the commercial chaos that is Houston’s Farm Road 1960. Flat, small, and bordered by pines, it has the look and smell of a pasture. It is a place for people whose roots in the community did not go very deep: The tombstones do not date back very far, and there are no imposing family mausoleums or impressive statuary, just a whitewashed wooden sidewalk leading to a modest but well-intentioned gazebo. World War II and Korean War vets are buried here, as well as country people with names like Clyde and Mabel, and infants like Clintesha D. Potts, who lived only a few short months.
By summer’s end, there were still no markers for the Children of Vu Dinh Chung. “It takes a while to cut the stones,” a cemetery official explained, an oblique reference to the abrupt nature of the deaths of Ngoc Huyen, eight, Mon Long, twelve, Ngoc Yen, sixteen, and Lam Hong, eighteen. Yet the graves were not hard to find: The three girls and their brother lie just east of the grave of their grandfather, a Vietnamese refugee named Vu Dinh Kham. The grass is still patchy here and the ground loose; the carefully spaced bouquets left by friends burn up quickly in the sun, but the green floral paper acts as a garish beacon for the sad and the curious. You know you have come the right place.
Between Kham’s tombstone and the graves of his grandchildren is a small space where someone seems to have rested a while. You think at first that an inconsiderate cemetery worker forgot to pick up his trash. Two cans of Budweiser sit stolidly in the ground, their tops covered with cigarettes burned down to the filters. It takes a moment to realize that this is the spot where the remains of Vu Dinh Chung are buried and that the beer and cigarettes are an offering to the children’s father, though whether out of respect, appeasement, or atonement remains open to question. They are gifts to a spirit that has not yet moved on, and if you come to the cemetery on the right day, at the right time, just after Chung’s widow, Hue, has left them, the smell of the cigarette smoke mingles with the odor of cut grass and lingers in the air, as if Chung too had just come and gone.
The deaths of Vu Dinh Chung and his four children did not haunt American readers of Houston newspapers for long. FATHER KILLS 4 CHILDREN, HIMSELF read the Post’s April 19 headline, followed by enough horrific details to sustain a few days’ news: Chung, 42, had taken Polaroid portraits of his children immediately before killing them with a .45-caliber pistol; he had committed the murders one day after his wife had filed for divorce and left town with her lover. The television news made much of a neighbor’s child who had almost been done in when a stray bullet came through the wall from Vu’s apartment next door.
But after the funeral, the outlines of the story lost their sharpness, and the crime became another crazy killing in a season of crazy killings. The Vu children died around the time a diner was gunned down in a holdup of a northside Denny’s and a local mime stabbed his lover in Memorial Park. “Frankly, it was my second child murder that month,” one homicide detective confided wearily. Perhaps more important, the Vus were Vietnamese. The crime was the product of an Oriental mind, the newspapers hinted, and therefore inscrutable to Westerners.
In Houston’s Vietnamese community, however, the tragedy hung in the air like the smell of smoke long after a fire. To them it was a story not about Orientals but about Americans, or rather, about America. In the cafes and beauty salons south of downtown in Little Saigon, in the Catholic Churches and the Buddhist temples, people argued about Vu Dinh Chung’s madness and Vu Lam Hue’s infidelity. Life here was both too easy and too hard, they told one another. In Vietnam there was no materialism and no divorce, none of the things that brought this particular drama to its tragic end. “In the American community, you find stories about the men who shoot their wives because of jealousy—murdering a lover is a common story,” the local magazine Xay Dung commented, “but even in America to find a story like this is rare.”
Chung and his wife failed to see the danger in a simple but powerful misconception: They imagined they could pick and choose from what their adopted land had to offer, a perilous folly that cost their children their lives and the family its future. Perhaps the bitterest irony of Vu Dinh Chung’s story is that in death he permitted himself and his children the opportunity he did not want to provide in life—the chance to be among ordinary Americans. That Chung’s wife, Hue, saw the opportunities of this country all too clearly is, some would say, the reason for her pilgrimage and her penitence now. The story of Vu Dinh Chung, Hue, and their children is, then, a story of life and death in the melting pot—for if the end of this family was extraordinary, the factors that caused its demise were not. “What happened to this family,” explained one Vietnamese social worker, “could happen to any Vietnamese family.”
Brentwood Village is one of myriad apartment complexes off the Southwest Freeway that were built to house the swinging singles of Houston’s boom years. During the bust it became home to thousands of struggling immigrants and minorities. It sits on a pocked, sun-bleached strip of Beechnut Street, where the pedestrians use umbrellas as parasols and are more likely to be from Southeast Asia or Central America than from Southwest Houston. There is nothing Third Worldly about Brentwood Village, however; it looks like an oversized southern mansion, complete with soaring white columns and wrought iron balconies. It was here, on the evening of April 18, that the Brentwood tenants gathered outside apartment 3, on the ground floor. A neighbor had heard shots and had run for the maintenance man, who, in turn called the manager, who contacted the police.
The evening was muggy and still. On the asphalt, the atmosphere resembled a summer picnic. People chatted, brought their dinners outside, and drank cokes and beers from the Stop ‘N Go next door as they gathered around—children and adults, mostly blacks and Hispanics. The police arrived and joined in while they waited for clearance to break down the door; someone guessed that the tenant had barricaded himself inside with a gun. There was some attempt at the kind of dark, nervous humor that breaks out when people are afraid.
There was no laughter when the police broke the door down; in fact, there was no sound at all. The scene before the small crowd took their breath away. An almost empty bottle of vodka sat on a kitchen counter, along with several empty beer cans. Supper was on the table, but the dining area of the tiny apartment was littered with bodies, awash in blood. To one side of the dinner were sprawled the corpses of Vu Lam Hong and her younger brother, Long, as if they had been caught fleeing the scene. Cowering under the table, slumped in each other’s arms, were the bodies of Yen and her little sister Huyen. Across the small room, besides the flickering television sitting on a gingham-covered cabinet, lay Vu Dinh Chung, his legs splayed almost comically before him, a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol lying wickedly at his side. Blood spattered the family photographs on the wall and flooded the carpet below; bullet holes punctured the walls, the ceiling, the floor. On the table sat half a dozen Polaroids of the children, their faces grave. On the back of one picture was a message: “These are the last pictures,” Vu Dinh Chung wrote to his wife, Hue. “You will never be able to see these kids again.” Shortly after writing the note, the police soon determined, Chung made good on his promise, ending his own life after he destroyed the lives of his children, and with them, the hopes and dreams he had carried with him when he fled Vietnam sixteen years ago.
When Vietnamese people think about the United States,” said Tran Van My, who assists Vietnamese refugees for Lutheran Social Service in Houston, “they think about heaven.” The same promises that have drawn immigrants to the U.S. for generations drew waves of Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon in 1975. These are people who find America’s anti-war protests of the late sixties and early seventies incomprehensible, people who fled the communist regime in terror, who count themselves lucky if they lost only their fortunes to their northern adversaries. These are people who, in the late seventies, survived starvation in prison camps by feeding themselves a diet of the American dream. In the U.S., they told one another, they would have a house, a car, and plenty of money to live on. Best of all, they could assure a vast, unlimited future for their children: “America is the country where you create geniuses,” one refugee explained. “Doctors, lawyers, educated people.” These are people for whom the word “freedom” is almost always pronounced with astonished, passionate reverence.
As the numbers of Vietnamese immigrants grew, Americans created a corresponding mythology about them. The newcomers reminded Americans of how they liked to see themselves: as honest, ambitious people who made their own way without government handouts. Each time a Vietnamese child became valedictorian of a high school class, it served as proof to both cultures that this country makes good on its promises.
What is seldom, if ever, discussed are the costs of those successes. The price of giving up a country has been glossed over, including the profound differences between Eastern and Western culture—everything from pace of life to the way people relate to on another. The most critical difference is that of family life, long the source of Vietnamese strength and solace. “In Vietnam the society is not made up of individuals but of families,” another social worker explained. “When the family unit is destroyed, everything goes wrong.” Ancestor worship prevails in Vietnam, and divorce is extremely rare. The family structure is resolutely traditional: Men work to support their families, and their rule is unchallenged; women stay at home and tend to domestic life.
To exert control over a family in the U.S. is much harder. Already bruised by their war experiences, many Vietnamese men arrive here only to find menial jobs, compounding a loss of both social and economic status. To make ends meet, like so many other Americans, they must ask their wives to follow them into the work force. (It isn’t just the immediate family that Vietnamese couples work to support, but the extended family back home.) Many Vietnamese women working outside the home find the same low pay and tedium encountered by their American counterparts, but they also find another kind of freedom. To women previously cloistered in their homes, often married to men their parents choose, the working world offers social and financial opportunities they never would have had in Vietnam. The U.S. public school system provides the same opportunities for Vietnamese children—in Vietnam, education is a privilege of the very few.
The result has been a predictable explosion of divorces among Vietnamese Americans (the divorce rate is 12 percent, low by U.S. standards, but agonizing for the Vietnamese) as well as the implosion of family life. The strict obedience a man expects of his wife and children is no longer a given, as the American zeal for independence and self-reliance overtakes the Vietnamese values of mutual support and interdependence. Such stresses have greeted immigrants to the U.S. for generations; now they met the Vu family upon its arrival and began to curl around the family’s dreams with a force as insidious as it was invisible.
Allen Parkway Village is a dilapidated dun-colored public housing project on an intensely valuable piece of Houston real estate just west of downtown. These days the place is virtually empty, the windows boarded up and painted over in an eerily complementary shade of rust. But when Vu Dinh Chung arrived in 1975, Allen Parkway Village was the destination of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. They did not intend to stay long—with many it was a point of pride to take only the amount of government assistance to survive—and perhaps it was just as well. As it has been for immigrants over centuries, the first home for many Vietnamese provided a dangerous dose of American reality. Allen Parkway Village was cheap and centrally located; beyond that, its attributes were few. To save even more money, two, sometimes three families crowded into apartments meant for one; there was often racial tension between the newcomers and the blacks who had preceded them in the complex. Crime was a constant concern, not just from local toughs, but from other Vietnamese, who knew fellow refugees kept their gold and other valuables hidden at home because they did not trust American banks.
In spite of the difficulties, the Vietnamese tried to make Allen Parkway Village over in their own image. They planted vegetable gardens in the weedy strips between buildings, started communal businesses, and even put on plays. Because so many of the tenants were devout Catholics, mass was held on the basketball court. They tried to hold fast to one life in the midst of another.
Vu Dinh Chung arrived with his father, Vu Dinh Kham, his mother, Nguyen Thi Mau, his wife, Hue, and two daughters, Hong and Yen. Their journey was not so different from that of many others who came to Houston from Vietnam at that time. Chung’s family was originally from the North. They were among thousands of Catholics who migrated south after Vietnam was partitioned in 1954, and they settled in a coastal city near Saigon called Vung Tau, where the family was well respected but not wealthy. One of Chung’s uncles became a priest, which added to the family’s prestige. When what the Vietnamese call the American War broke out, Chung served as a helicopter pilot for the South and was captured and held prisoner by the Viet Cong. After Saigon fell, he, like so many men in the military, fled to America, leaving his wife and daughters in the care of an elder brother. He had no choice; to stay would mean execution or internment in prison.
Sometime later, with the brother’s help, the rest of Chung’s family slipped out of Vietnam and pressed forward to the United States, where, through Catholic Charities, they were reunited with him and resettled in Houston. Chung’s brother was not so lucky: After several unsuccessful attempts to escape from Vietnam, he made it out, only to die on a boat headed for Guam. It would be years later before the surviving family member—Chung’s nephew Vu Dinh Chi—would make it to the United States.
The Vus wasted no time upon their arrival in Houston. They were northern Vietnamese, after all, true to the geographical stereotype that pegged them as thrifty, hardworking, and determined. Chung’s father, Kham, set up shop as a barber in the Allen Parkway Village apartment. He was a garrulous, good-natured man, so their home was often full of people, sometimes for business and sometimes just for the comforts of a cup of steaming tea and gossip. There were problems—Chung’s mother began to display signs of Alzheimer’s—but there were joys as well. When Hue gave birth to a son, the family threw a party to celebrate their good luck.
Chung looked for work through the job-placement program at St. Joseph’s, a small gothic church near the main police station, and became a favorite of the volunteers there. “He was one of those special ones,” said St. Joseph’s social worker Theresa Leal. Chung was a small, slight man—he stood only five feet two—with a patient air and a crooked, if slightly sorrowful smile. Leal remembered him as “kind, sincere, and inward,” a man who never ventured into her office until he was invited, who was too polite to help himself to a cup of coffee unless it was offered. He always refused the church handouts of free bread and was persistent about following up on job offers. Often, Chung would leave for an interview full of anticipation, only to return a day or so later softly disappointed but eager to try again.
Soon his determination paid off. Because he was a skilled cabinetmaker, he was hired to make custom doors for a company called Plywood Distributors. The general manager, Jerry Fesselmeyer, had contacted the church when Houston’s incipient boom forced him to scramble for employees. Chung came to work each day carrying his lunch of rice in a steamer pail; he did not mix much with the other Vietnamese and Cambodians there. At Christmas he sent a religious card from his family to the Fesselmeyers, complete with a grateful inscription.
“He seemed to want a part of the dream that all of us want in this country,” Leal recalled. And for a while, it seemed entirely possible that he would get it.
Among new immigrants, the pressure to get ahead does not come solely from the American ethos—the Vietnamese put pressure on one another to succeed in their adopted country. The newspaper and television descriptions of the Vus’ small apartment and modest furnishings, which many Americans interpreted as signs of a family trying to better itself, were interpreted differently by Vietnamese—as signs of a family that was simply struggling. In the days after Chung’s death, Xay Dung pondered why the Vus had lived in the U.S. for sixteen years and had not progressed.
But in the late seventies at least, Chung was as guided by dreams as any newcomer to Houston. When a friend told him he could make more money at another company, Chung gave notice. Fesselmeyer tried to persuade him to stay by showing him that the pay wasn’t really better than Plywood’s pay plus benefits, but Chung insisted on leaving. He had given his word.
The promise of the new company was not fulfilled. In 1980 Chung followed the treacherous path of so many immigrants—he worked in a convenience store. Then he found a job with Bison Building Materials, a lumber company on the eastern edge of town, but he quit after several months for unspecified personal reasons. He moved to an oil-field equipment company for another year but somehow wound up at a gas station, where he waited on an old friend from Plywood. When Fesselmeyer heard the news, he told the man to go back and offer Chung his job again. That was in 1983. By then Chung had shuttled his wife and children—now three girls and a boy—across the city, from Allen Parkway Village to the Montrose and then southwest, where the city’s newest immigrants crowded into apartments abandoned by upwardly mobile singles. The boom had gone sour, and Chung’s character was put to the test.
Chung was, from the beginning, a man who could not keep his temper in check. Xay Dung reported that at some point he “lost his motivation,” and his work history reveals a man who had mastered his craft but not necessarily his environment. On the job, he had trouble fitting in. While family members described Chung as a calm, serene person, co-workers did not always see that side of him. He was tense and precise; he usually ate alone, making few friends and not seeming to want any. He was given to brooding. “He looked normal but his eyes looked far away; sometimes he was just thinking, thinking, thinking,” said a Cambodian émigré who worked with Chung at Plywood. Perhaps as a holdover from his days as a prisoner of war, Chung did not like taking orders; he had a tendency to stalk off the job if he felt pushed too far. He quit his second job at Plywood after an argument with another employee, and when Fesselmeyer could not mend fences, he sent Chung off with a kind letter of recommendation, praising his carpentry skills, and regretting that the misunderstanding could not be resolved.
The misunderstandings grew increasingly frequent. After returning to his job at Bison in 1984, he was fired in December 1985. “Employee was not willing to put forth effort to work on a timely basis,” a note in the file reports. Chung seemed thwarted. He spent several years working for a furniture manufacturer in the Houston Heights, but quit when he found a job paying $10 and hour instead of $9. After two months he was laid off again, in August 1989. Once, Chung had managed to save almost $50,000. Now he needed that money to live on while he struggled to find work again. For the next eight months, Chung’s beer drinking increased, along with his anger and frustration. The family’s savings dwindled, along with its prospects.
In the restaurants of little Saigon, between downtown and the Montrose, the aroma of Vietnamese coffee, a thick brew made thicker with sweetened, condensed milk, mixes with the smells of cigarette smoke and fish sauce. It is, for the inhabitants, the unmistakable fragrance of another place and time. Travel agencies offer discounts to Thailand, the route by which most Vietnamese travel home; car mechanics chatter in Vietnamese as they test engines; beauty salons feature posters of Oriental women in spiky new-wave dos. Little Saigon is a place to begin easing into a new country, and it is here that Vu Lam Hue’s passage to America truly began, thirteen years after she first arrived in Houston.
She appeared at the Chinh Tailor Shop, a large room bathed in Milam Street sunlight, where whitewashed burglar bars and bolts of fabric line the windows. Hue was a tiny woman with an anxious step; she carried herself shyly, her head slightly bowed, like any proper North Vietnamese woman, though her long black hair carried a seditious wave. When she asked for a job, the owner, Nguyen Van Chinh, asked, “What can you do?” Alterations, she told him. Chinh needed help, and so Hue was hired.
“She was a perfect North Vietnamese woman,” he recalled. Hue had come from Gia Kiem, a farming village about fifty miles northeast of Saigon, known throughout Vietnam for the devoutness of its people. It was established in 1954 by Catholic refugees who moved together from the North. The countryside was fertile in Gia Kiem—corn, rice, peanuts, tea and flowers grew there—and the days passed simply. “Life was good mentally, morally, ethically,” recalls one member of the community.
A Confucian principle governed the relationships between men and women there: Tai gia tong phu, xuat gia tong phu, phu tong tu, tu tu tong ton, which, translated, means, “At home, I obey my parents; leaving my home, I obey my husband; when my husband dies, I obey my oldest son; when my children die, I obey my oldest grandson.” It was to this precept that Hue adhered when she accepted her parents’ choice of a husband, Vu Dinh Chung, and when she left them behind to follow Chung, first to Saigon and then to America. She was true to her upbringing when she stayed home to raise her children and tend to her husband’s parents, and again when the family’s financial situation demanded that, in the fall of 1988, she look for a job.
Even out in the world, Hue initially did not choose to join it. Chinh put her to work in a back room, where she toiled quietly and diligently. She wore no makeup, and her clothes were so shabby that after a few weeks, Chinh sent her home with fabric and instructions to make a new outfit for herself—he told her she had to look nicer for the customers.
Hue was amenable but unapologetic. She used the word “freedom” to explain her feelings—she wanted nothing for herself but to be free of government support; her greatest happiness was to be free of the communists. She wanted to raise her children well, but she wanted to protect them from materialism, a word many Vietnamese use to encompass the negative aspects of life in the U.S. Freedom was just a political concept for Hue at that time; she knew nothing of the personal freedom of America. She saved her money to buy a cemetery plot for her in-laws, and to put her brother Lam Ngoc Tuyen, who had recently arrived, through trade school. She told Chinh that she did not want to put her money into a house because she would rather spend it on her family. She did not go to dances because she did not know how to dance; it was a rare pleasure when her father-in-law stopped by the shop to take her out for coffee. After work, she went straight home. The children needed tending, as did her husband: If she was just a few minutes late, Chung would phone angrily, and Hue did not want to annoy him. Vu ham Hue put her trust in the men in her life, as she had been taught to do.
“Everybody know” is the way one Vietnamese woman described the love affair between Vu Lam Hue and Tran Van Duong. There may be more than 60,000 Vietnamese in Houston, but after the deaths it seemed that everyone knew someone who knew the people involved.
By the time she found Tran Van Duong, Hue’s life was defined by domestic pressures. Money was tight, and though at times Hue’s salary alone often supported her husband and children, Chung complained bitterly about the amount of money she sent back to her family in Vietnam. As time passed, the problems increased. In 1990 Chung’s father died. He wanted to bring his mother to their apartment to live. Hue resisted: Six people were living in the two-bedroom apartment already. She wanted to put his mother in a nursing home, a solution that might be sadly pragmatic in the U.S. but that is an abomination in Vietnam. Chung’s mother dutifully went to the home, but she tried to commit suicide there.
During the winter of 1990-91, Chung remained unemployed. He looked for work in the furniture factories in Southwest Houston with no luck. (“Hardworker attitude, speech may be a problem,” wrote one interviewer.) As his interest in the outside world narrowed, his grip on his family tightened; behind perpetually closed curtains, the children did their homework while Chung drank. For Hue, it was a joyless life.
And then joy appeared in the form of Tran Van Duong. Her attraction to him would have been easy to understand. He was tall and slim, a handsome, clever man with an easy charm, something of a show-off, a man who always seemed to know more than he was letting on. He made friends easily: “Whoever talks to him likes him,” his ex-wife said, with mournful simplicity. That Duong was radically different from the man Hue had married would probably have been enough to draw her to him, but there was something more profound at work. The two had been childhood friends in Gia Kiem but had not seen each other since the war. While Hue was making her home in the United States, Duong was incarcerated. The police appeared at his home in Saigon one night in 1975 and took him to the station. Someone had told the communist regime that he had supplied food to the rebels; he spent the next five years in a reeducation camp. His wife visited him as often as she could, sometimes hitching a ride on a forestry truck, sometimes with a child in tow. Food was a luxury the camp rarely provided—when the food Duong’s wife brought him ran out, he survived on crickets and tree roots. Eventually he escaped to Thailand, where his wife and children joined him in 1981.
The promise of America seemed to hold little allure for Duong, or at least he was not especially enchanted with the relationship of hard work to material success. Duong moved his family from the Washington, D.C. area to New Orleans to Houston, and they lived mostly on money his wife earned, first as a cook and then as a seamstress.
According to Xay Dung, when Duong moved to Houston he heard that another woman from his village lived there and sought her out. Hue refused his advances at first—he frequently called the Highway 6 tailor shop where she had gone to work—but he persisted until she gave in. Duong had told his wife that it was Hue who had approached him, looking for a way out of her marriage, and that she believed he was divorced. Whatever the truth, the two fell deeply in love, and like all people newly in love, they were careless and extravagant with their passion. They began to meet at local restaurants, where they were inevitably seen by people who knew one family or the other, and the talk began.
The affair reminded many Vietnamese of what they had lost, which is why they would later judge Hue so harshly. Just as Chung had no control over his life or his family, they were trying to live by old rules in a new society. When they talked about Hue, they reminded one another that in Vietnam, she would have been shunned for her actions. Here there were only warnings, which she was too much in love to heed. “Hue was like a butterfly” was the way one person described her.
The danger was not ephemeral. Many Vietnamese seemed to know that Chung’s anger was growing. With family honor at stake, he warned her in implicit and explicit ways that he had thoughts of violence. Once, Hue’s brother Tuyen asked the apartment complex’s handyman where he might buy a gun. Concerned, the handyman told the manager, who went to Chung with the story. In an oblique admonishment, Chung had the man return to the apartment when Hue was home and repeat the story for her benefit. In this way she learned whose side her own brother was on.
Whether it was this incident, the warnings from co-workers, or the growing tension at home, Hue finally took action in April. In a move that would never have been available to a woman of her class in Vietnam, she went to a lawyer. Hue told the attorney that her husband had been violent, that she was frightened, and that she wanted a divorce. Don’t serve him with papers, though, she told her lawyer; she would tell him herself. He would need time to get used to the idea.
The spring of 1991 should have been a glorious one for Vu Lam Hong. It was the season in which the eighteen-year-old became a U.S. citizen and learned to drive; it was the season in which she was to graduate from Sharpstown High School, standing thirteenth in her class. The eldest of the four children, Hong was the first to fulfill her parents’ dreams. “You are very lucky over a generation of teaching to have students like that,” one teacher said of Hong and her sister Yen. In spite of tensions between Chung and Hue, they managed to raise four exceptional children, and in spite of the strains that tore at their parents, the Vu children managed to keep trouble at home from their friends and teachers, as well-brought-up Vietnamese children were supposed to do.
Even the Vietnamese teenagers who knew Hong slip into stereotypes when they describe her: She was quiet and pretty, with her father’s wide-spaced eyes and high forehead; she was unfailingly polite and very smart, they say, a young woman whose sly sense of humor was her only defense against strict family dictums. Hong was the student who always kept the neatest notebook, who never cheated on tests, who always asked her teachers how their weekends went, and who always answered that hers went fine.
Had she lived, Hong would have made her father proud. She was not one of those immigrant children who would break her parents’ hearts with her American ways—she did not wear makeup or ask for plastic surgery to get an American nose, as some of the Oriental kids do. She wasn’t clothes crazy, and she didn’t chase after American boys. She gave herself an American name like many of the girls—Krystle, after the Linda Evans character on Dynasty—but that was her only concession to glamour; Hong wore the same clothes year after year and turned down offers of more fashionable hand-me-downs from friends. She did not complain when her father would not let her date, and she stopped borrowing romance novels from the Alief library after her father hit the roof when he found them hidden in her room. “I’m only allowed to check out intelligent books,” she told her friends afterward.
Vietnamese parents fear for their children in America, worry that they will squander their futures just as they fail to appreciate their abandoned past. Chung believed he could provide a proper future for his children only if he guarded them jealously, and if he failed in other aspects of his life, at this he succeeded. It was as if he wanted to protect his children—and himself—from some American infection. When Hong had a summer job at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant two blocks from the apartment, Chung walked her home from work each night, but he always waited for her outside the front door, never venturing inside the entire time she worked there.
Just as her father protected her, Hong protected her parents. When a Vietnamese friend’s mother asked to meet them, Hong demurred, saying they were too busy. She only hinted that her father could be violent; like most Vietnamese children, she would not bring embarrassment upon her family by revealing their problems. As the crisis built, friends sensed trouble only because when they called, more and more often Hong told them that it wasn’t a good time to talk.
She was trying to find a solution to an insoluble problem. It was Hong who agreed that her mother should leave for a week to let her father cool off, now that she had asked for the divorce. Though Hong had been absent from school only once before—the day she became a U.S. citizen—she told her teachers on April 17 that she would be absent the next day, for personal reasons. Before she left school that day, she composed a poem on her computer. She didn’t have a great deal to look forward to, she wrote, and she was lonely with only her books for company. Maybe, she noted, tomorrow would be better.
From the moment Hue announced her decision to get a divorce, Chung started making plans of his own. On Monday, April 15, he called his nephew Chi and told him to change the joint account Hue had helped him open when he came to the U.S. last year. At twenty, Chi was Chung’s only relative in Houston, the son of the brother who had drowned so many years before. Baby-faced but cocky, Chi thought his uncle’s warning was excessive—he only had $600 in the account—and so he did nothing.
On Tuesday Chung did not go to work. Things had been looking up—after almost a year of unemployment he had found a job as a carpenter with another furniture manufacturer in April 1990. He had walked out in November when some of the other workers had made fun of his broken English, but when his boss learned the reason some months later, he offered Chung his job back. For the past few weeks he had been working again, happy with his job. Now he let it go.
On Thursday Chung called Chi again. He was calm but told his nephew that Hue had left him and had started divorce proceedings; she wanted custody of the two youngest children. Chung told Chi that he missed him an asked why he didn’t come over more often. In truth, Chung had grown weary of his uncle’s drinking, but he agreed to a visit.
Chung had been hitting the beer pretty hard when Chi arrived at the apartment. The two men sat in the small living room and talked idly, and with his own youthful preoccupations Chi did not sense anything amiss when Chung asked him to take care of his grandmother when Chung could not be there for her. Sure, Chi told him. Chung smiled, chatted some more, and then told Chi that there were important papers in a brown paper bag in his brother-in-law Tuyen’s apartment should he ever need them; inside were the payment schedule for his parents’ cemetery plot, ten ounces of gold, and $500 in cash. The conversation ebbed, and Chi decided it was time to leave. When he got up, Chung did something his nephew had never seen him do, even when his father had died. He started to cry.
Meanwhile, Vu Lam Hue had left Houston with Duong, heading for a reunion of Gia Kiem students in Atlanta. They fell into the kind of masquerade lovers do: Duong told friends that he and Hue were married. Perhaps he hoped it would soon be true. He had told his wife he was going to Atlanta to find a job, only to call her from there to ask for a divorce.
Hue was on the phone too, and she was growing more and more alarmed. The couple was staying in the home of an old Air Force buddy of Duong’s who later provided an account of the next few days in a letter to Xay Dung that ran a few weeks after the murders.
According to the letter, Hue made her first call home on Tuesday night. Chung picked up the phone and told her he had quit his job and intended to find a hit man to kill her and her boyfriend. He also said he had transferred all his money to her younger brother. Hue then put in a call to Tuyen, who took Chung’s side. He told her that he had the money—and it would be used to buy her coffin. Frantic, Hue tried to explain that she had been terrified of Chung and that even her eldest daughter had agreed that she should leave for a while.
When Hue called Chung on Wednesday night, he told her that the children had begged him not to kill her. He promised not to kill her if she would come home right away—though, he told her, he still intended to kill her lover. According to the letter, Hue refused. “If you’re going to kill him, then you have to kill both of us,” she told him, adding that she planned to tell her attorney about his threats. Chung was unmoved. If the police come, he told her, he’d shoot them too.
Hue pleaded with him to be reasonable. Why couldn’t they separate for the sake of the children? Chung refused. His solution, according to the letter, was this: One of them should die.
“In the old days I married you because my parents forced me to marry you,” she told him. “I cannot live like this anymore.” Once again she asked for a separation, and once again Chung’s answer was venomous; he would kill both Hue and her lover. “If you come to Houston, people will find both of your corpses in three days,” Chung told his wife. “If you are somewhere in America, both of you will die in two weeks.”
Again Hue begged to be released from the marriage. “Why can’t we solve this peacefully, divorce each other like other couples in America do?”
Chung cursed her. “If you do that,” he told her, “then you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
The next day, Chung worked with speed and precision to make good on his promise. He took his children to K mart, and when they got inside, he sent the girls to look for clothes while he took his son to buy a camera. Another customer was ahead of him, and when Chung broke into the conversation, the customer whirled around and angrily ordered Chung to wait his turn. The girls appeared, eager to show off their new clothes; Chung scowled and told them the clothes were too small and sent them back for larger sizes. Chung then bought the Polaroid after learning how to use it and took his family home. That day he also bought a case of beer and a .45 automatic. Calmly, he told the salesman he wanted it for protection and asked the location of the nearest shooting range.
Sometime that day Chung also wrote two notes. One was to his employer. He said he was sorry he had never been able to meet the owners of the company to thank them for allowing him to work there. It was, he said, the best job he had had in America. He also wrote a note with instructions to Tuyen and a postscript to Hue: “From now on I return to you the freedom you wanted—wishing you much happiness.”
Then, with dinner ready and a day’s drinking behind him, he called his children to the table, where his wife’s place was empty. He took several portraits, and then he executed the perfect punishment to torture their mother forever.
Close to five hundred people crowded into Notre Dame Catholic Church for the funerals. The principal of Sharpstown High School had announced that any student wishing to attend the service would receive an excused absence, and so the pews were full of juniors and seniors who had been friends of Hong’s and Yen’s. Their teachers went too, sharing the cramped space with hundreds of somber Vietnamese.
Hue had tried to leave Atlanta on Thursday, but flight schedules and thunderstorms had delayed her departure for one more day. She reached Tuyen’s apartment on Friday, and he gave her the news. She thought he was joking. Now, after fainting on her way into the church, she drifted through the funeral like a wraith, accepting the condolences of the children’s friends and teachers.
But from many Vietnamese there was only scorn. Chi, as Chung’s eldest male relative in America, was now in charge. Wanting revenge, he refused to let her put on the traditional white Vietnamese funeral robe or join in the processional until she admitted her affair.
“Did you do it?” he demanded, knowing the answer. “If you did something, don’t try to bury it, because if you try to bury it, I will bury you.”
Hue looked at the ground and whispered, “Yes.”
How long had it been going on, Chi wanted to know.
“Eight months,” she told him.
Chi wasn’t the only person with retribution on his mind. As Hue stepped toward each open casket to stroke the faces of her children, many Vietnamese around her stepped away. When she placed the wedding ring the funeral director had removed from Chung back on his finger, some of them sneered. Finally, an elderly Vietnamese man came to her pew, and, pointing in her direction, blamed Hue for the deaths of her children. In the end, she had to be helped out of the church.
Several days later a student from the high school came to the apartment to give Hue a plaque meant for Yen—she had been chosen Junior of the Month a few weeks before. Hue studied the award and then turned to the girl. “What future do I have now?” she asked.
It is, perhaps, the one Chung wanted for her. The priest at Notre Dame is Hue’s protector now; he turns away the curious by declaring that she sees no one, does not read newspapers, watch television, or go out. Duong seems to have vanished from Hue’s heart; her only activities now seem to be volunteering at the church and visiting the cemetery.
As with any inexplicable event, people have invented stories and morals to make this one more comprehensible. Americans lapse into stereotypes—they say that Orientals do not value life as we do, or that perhaps Chung felt there was simply no hope for the children with both mother and father gone, and so he took them with him to his next life. The Vietnamese tend to blame the pleasures and the pressures of life in the U.S. “They are both victims of the Western disease,” said one who knew the story of Chung and Hue. “They forgot why they came to America.”
Finally, there are people, many of them teenagers, who do not understand why the children did not run from their father, if they died willingly, obedient to the end, or whether, perhaps, they sacrificed themselves to save their mother’s life. It is a question that could provide hours of haunting speculation, but the truth is this: They faced a man possessed of a lethal anger and a gun that could kill as fast as he could squeeze the trigger.
As of early fall, the Vus’ apartment had not been rented. A priest was brought in to bless the place; the bullet holes were patched and new carpet laid. Often, while the repairs were being made, Hue came by. For a while she busied herself by going through the children’s things. After they were given to the church, she took to wandering back to her tiny garden on the strip of dirt between the patio and the wooden fence, to tear a leaf from the herbs she had planted. Sometimes she came just to roam through the empty apartment. Finally, the manager told her she had to stop. He wanted her to know that, in this country, that simply wasn’t done.