Eight minutes into “Ho Sweet Home,” the pilot episode of HBO Max’s House of Ho, Judy Ho announces to her family over Sunday brunch that she intends to divorce her absent husband. Fighting back tears, the mother of three explains that her decision was based on what was best for her kids. Her own parents, Binh and Hue Ho, have no words of comfort to share. “You tell me to support that? I won’t,” responds patriarch Binh, a former penniless refugee from Vietnam who’s now a successful Houston banker. It’s a scene that cuts deep for those from immigrant families who’ve found themselves trapped between old-country collectivism and a more liberal, choose-your-own-happiness American ethos.
This intergenerational clash of cultures forms the dramatic undercurrent of the eight-episode docuseries, billed as a sort of Crazy Rich Asians meets Keeping Up With the Kardashians, with a Texas twist. Set in Houston’s posh, leafy River Oaks neighborhood—home to the likes of Senator Ted Cruz and Lakewood pastor Joel Osteen—the show, which premiered earlier month, centers on the pampered albeit high-pressure lives of Binh and Hue’s American-born children. It quickly becomes clear that the women in the family face several challenges that the men do not. “My brothers are named Washington and Reagan,” Judy, a lawyer, explains. “I was a disappointment because I was a girl, so I’m named Judy.” First-born son and heir Washington, by contrast, is seen in the first few episodes as a functioning alcoholic whose idea of work is spending daddy’s money, yet who stands poised to inherit the keys to the kingdom. He’s coddled by his mother and supported by his long-suffering wife, Lesley, a pharmacist who had a humble upbringing in Oklahoma, which she describes as “very country” and not “cosmopolitan like Houston.” (Reagan, the younger brother and most nonconformist sibling, appears only briefly in the series.)
The Hos’ Succession-style family dynamic and conspicuous wealth is no doubt well-packaged for reality TV—depictions of their new money lifestyle come replete with sports cars, private jets, horse races, nice Champagne, and high-stakes poker games. But their rags-to-riches rise is still a rarity among Vietnamese Americans. What’s more, the show never really contextualizes the Hos within Houston’s larger Vietnamese community, which is concentrated in neighborhoods such as Alief and Chinatown. It also glosses over more tricky subject matter including class, race, and politics: much of the filming took place last year, before Vietnamese Americans came into the national spotlight in 2020 for their criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and their outsized support of Donald Trump.
Nonetheless, House of Ho deserves some credit as a platform for elevating Vietnamese voices and issues. As a Vietnamese American from Houston, I was initially skeptical but easily breezed through the series—a first-of-its-kind mainstream spotlight for our culture outside the context of the Vietnam War. The Ho family also offers viewers a rarely seen yet increasingly common image of Texas—one of diversity, especially in Houston, which is home to the nation’s third-largest Vietnamese population. And despite its predictable reality show format, the series balances forced depictions of wealth and obviously scripted dialogue with enough of raw, unglamorous truths of Vietnamese American life to be compelling.
The influence of the book turned film Crazy Rich Asians is apparent in House of Ho’s overall premise, in that it depicts well-off, traditionally minded Asian parents meddling in the lives and marriages of their grown children. But in contrast to the old-money Young family of Singapore, the Hos are refugees who built a hardscrabble life from the ground up. The fact that Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan is incidentally also a Houstonian who attended Clear Lake High School illuminates just how broad and diverse the term “Asian” or even “Asian American” can be in Houston alone.
But despite the fact that the Hos accumulated all of their wealth in a few decades, we don’t get much background on the family business beyond vague mentions of “banking and investments.” The show moves swiftly past the details of Binh and Hue’s refugee backstory, too. Instead, we’re subjected to several scripted scenes that are meant to prove just how rich the Hos are and that end up feeling gauche and cliché. For a totally staged underground high-stakes poker game, Cousin Sammy, Washington’s confidant and “assistant,” arrives in a full-length fur coat. In Houston, Texas! Then there’s the jet that Hue, Judy, and Lesley take to Dallas (a three-and-a-half-hour drive) for a shopping trip. It costs $5,000 to charter a jet, and that’s a lot of money to spend when you’re not having much fun.
Still, it’s at the intersections of “rich people problems,” “Catholic problems,” and “Asian tiger mom stereotype problems” that the show offers its most nuanced and incisive commentary. With the societal pressures associated with affluence, the Asian notions of guilt and shame, and centuries-old Confucian patriarchal structures, it’s easy to see why the Ho kids struggle with happiness. Even when Judy reveals that she has a new boyfriend, Binh and Hue are shocked, going so far as to ask Judy to make amends with her husband—despite the fact that she was deeply unhappy in her marriage. In a rare moment of expressing emotion, matriarch Hue switches to Vietnamese, the language she clearly feels more comfortable in, and hits at the heart of her concern over the divorce. “In the Vietnamese culture, when you get divorced, the way the community looks at your family is not good,” she sighs, her voice cracking tearfully. “It’s very hard for me.”
While Binh and Hue appear to hold Judy responsible for the failure in her marriage, the blame for Washington’s marital issues falls squarely on his wife, Lesley, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the series. Despite being a working mom raising the couple’s two kids, aptly named Roosevelt and Lincoln, Lesley is also expected to play the role of the traditional Vietnamese wife in keeping her husband on the straight and narrow—which is hard, given his struggles with alcohol. Throughout the series, we watch as Washington lies to Lesley, gaslights her, and, in a one standout scene, tells Sammy that his marriage to her was initially an “insurance policy” approved by his parents. Yet when Lesley breaks down and asks Washington’s family to help keep him accountable for his alcoholism, Hue suggests that the problems have arisen because he doesn’t like the food the hired cook prepares. “When she cooks, you should try to help her a little bit to make him happy,” she tells Lesley. It’s a tough moment to watch.
Between Judy’s divorce and Lesley’s marital struggles, I found myself rooting for that potential moment of shared empowerment between the two that never quite comes. In one on-camera interview, Judy says she’s conflicted about whether to support her brother, and by extension her family, or to empathize with Lesley, with whom she shares the common struggle of an absent, unconcerned husband. But even after a damning secret in Washington and Lesley’s marriage is revealed, Lesley ultimately chooses to fully embrace her role as a dutiful Ho. At one point, she even admonishes Judy for wanting to bring her new beau to a Lunar New Year party, saying: “I don’t know why Judy feels like she has to push her opinions onto her parents—I’m completely different than that.” Judy, meanwhile, is able to pay her divorce lawyer after accepting financial help from her parents, including a new house that Binh builds for her and her kids. Family over feminism, it seems, is the choice one must make to keep their fortunes.
House of Ho warrants at least a quick look, though. From scenes of the family frying egg rolls to bottles of Dom Pérignon and the paper lanterns and dragon dances of the Lunar New Year party, it’s refreshing to see Vietnamese American culture represented in its most nostalgic and elemental parts. In the sixth episode, “New Year, New Ho,” Judy and Lesley even head to popular Chinatown boutique Danny Nguyen Couture for their custom-made áo dài, or traditional Vietnamese dress. And who can forget the breakout supporting character of Binh’s purple-haired youngest sister, Aunt Tina? She represents the distinctly Vietnamese archetype of the fun, gossip-loving auntie who can drink you under the table. Watching her, I’m reminded of the times I’ve been saved from a tense confrontation with my parents by my own Aunt Tina figures.
In a recent interview with Salon, Judy revealed that one year after production, things are looking up for the Hos: her own romance with Nate is blossoming, Washington remains sober, and Binh and Hue are “more proactive about their relationships with their children.” It’s a wonder to me that this is true, given that, as Judy says in the interview, her parents were apparently ambushed into filming the series, which they initially thought was about the American dream: given their fixation on reputation and image, weren’t they unhappy having their dirty laundry aired out on HBO Max? Either way, I’m taking an optimistic view here—perhaps for my own sake—that we as third-culture kids can change our parents, make compromises, and carve out some sort of balance between worlds that we can live with.