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

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