BY VY TRINH AND JENNY GOLDSBERRY
Read until the very end to see how you can help a local museum keep a collection of stories just like the ones you’re about to read.
Just because Asian American and Pacific Islander month is over, it doesn’t mean we’ve stopped appreciating their stories of triumphs. This month, we at Connection Publishing want to highlight some very important histories that happened right here. Read until the very end to see how you can help a local museum keep a collection of stories just like the ones you’re about to read.
The first Asian immigrants came to the area thanks to the railroad. Chinese workers made the journey halfway across the world to build the transcontinental railroad. They were there when the Golden Spike was hammered in Ogden to mark the final touch on the railroad; once it was complete, they helped build stations along the railroad. Ogden Union Station was only the second building in the area, and it was largely built thanks to the help of these Chinese immigrants who stayed to see the project through.
Some workers stayed in the foreign state of Utah for good. The Union Station Museum has kept a record of some of these early first-generation Asian people in the area. Some sold tableware and others sold cuisine, but all of their early merchandise reflected their home country’s culture. Many stayed at the Marion Hotel while they ran their businesses along 25th street. You can visit the museum and read about the stories of these first entrepreneurs. In this article, we’ll focus on contemporary examples of successful people in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
THU NGUYEN left Vietnam to move to the United States years ago. She and her husband raised two children and put them both through college. Eventually, they saved up enough of their hard-earned cash to open their own business, which had been their dream from the beginning. They opened a nail salon in Roy, Utah. First, it was called TJ Nails, but now, it’s known as Royal Nail and Lashes. She has a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit. Her name is Thu, pronounced “like the number two,” she often tells clients. One time, someone asked her, “You’re number two? Then who’s number one?” Thu thought quickly on her feet and replied, “The customer is number one!” While it started as a joke, it’s also her business practice.
Lately, more and more salons have moved into the area since Thu started her business, which was the first of its kind. She’s had many opportunities to move, to try and avoid competition, but she welcomes others to follow in her footsteps. Since she feels lucky to have “made it,” she won’t stand in the way of someone else having the same opportunity. Plus, her salon has been around for 20 years now. “I want my customers to know that I’m not going anywhere,” Thu says, so she won’t move from her location at 1916 West 5600 South. Her customers are loyal too and have stayed with her through minor moves around the town and salon renovations. In fact, it was actually a client of Thu’s that recommended her to be highlighted in this issue. Thu loves Roy because Roy loves her back. She says she won’t be retiring soon either, because she would just miss her customers. Her hours are limited, so you’ll have to schedule an appointment with her weeks in advance.
JULIE VO WEIGHT is the daughter of two biracial parents. Both her mother and her father were born to Vietnamese mothers and absent American fathers, who were serving in the US military. As a result, her parents were bullied for having single mothers and faced racism for being mixed race. The only way they survived all the criticism was by working really hard. Eventually, they moved to Utah with their two youngest children, Julie and her brother Tony.
In North Ogden, Julie’s mom continued to work while raising her children. She is Julie’s greatest inspiration because she gave her daughter greater opportunities by moving to a new country. When Julie turned 18, her mom asked her what she wanted to do with her life. She said that she wanted to serve in the military. Her mom was surprised but supported her choice completely. Julie joined the National Guard soon after. While serving, she also received her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Just like her mom, Julie applied her strong work ethic to her service and is currently First Lieutenant for the Army National Guard and Agent for the Major crimes unit with the State Bureau of Investigations. Julie is very young for her rank but also very deserving.
Her brother, Tony, also chose to serve in the military. Both of their parents are the result of war, but they serve to show their patriotism for this country. Now, Julie gives back to the country that gave her so much opportunity as an immigrant child.
KEVIN NGUYEN immigrated to the states five years ago from Vietnam. At first, he was very frustrated with his entry-level job. He knew he couldn’t afford to go to college in the U.S. with his pay. One particularly frustrating day, he came home from work early, and on his way, he saw an eighteen wheeler with an advertisement for the National Guard on the side. The ad said the National Guard could help pay for college, which was just what he needed. After only a year in the country, he met with a recruiter and signed a contract.
After six months of initial military training, Kevin began studying finance at Weber State University. His original plan was to transfer to the University of Utah after a year, but he liked WSU so much he ended up staying the full four years. Not only did he never pay a penny for tuition, but his housing was also covered. He also got an ROTC minor. In the summers, he went to more army training. They sent him to places like Fort Knox or Fort Bragg to train. While he balanced his military duties, he was also a fantastic student with a 3.98 grade point average. “I spent all four years in the library and in the gyms,” Kevin jokes. He often helped his struggling classmates study too. His study habits paid off, literally. Kevin earned scholarships that financed study abroad programs in Japan and Korea. Now, he’s recently graduated, stationed in Florida, and on his way to second lieutenant.
BENJAMIN FONUA lived in Syracuse for 15 years, but he’s been selling plates for over seven years. Back in 2014, he was working as Weber County corrections assistant, but he knew he wanted to start his own business. His parents immigrated from Tonga in the 70s. Ever since he could remember, they ran their own landscaping business. So, he longed to follow in their footsteps. Then, one day at one of their neighborhood cookouts, someone suggested to Benjamin that he start selling his shredded pork, macaroni salad, and chicken plates. Sharing food came natural to him because it was part of his cultural traditions.
However, he was hesitant to start a business around it. “Running a restaurant was the last thing I thought I’d be doing,” he says. He tested the waters anyway, selling his first plates at Heritage Days. Then, it became a second job, where he’d visit various farmer’s markets on his day off to sell more plates. Eventually, he leased a storefront, running the business with his wife and daughter. He named it Leila’s Luau after his daughter. Next, they tried out a food truck. In the end, they went for a brick-and-mortar location at 2107 West 1700 South. It opened at the tail end of 2019, which surprisingly turned out to be a blessing.
2020 hit a lot of industries hard, but the food truck particularly suffered. Meanwhile, at the brick-and-mortar, the Syracuse community got behind them and supported them through the pandemic. Plus, Benjamin felt like his newest installment was truest to his culture. Growing up, family celebrations were enriched with food. Weddings, graduations, and even funerals are centered around food. With a food truck, customers came for the food, but with a restaurant, customers stayed for the conversation.
“That’s been one of the best things about getting into a brick-and-mortar,” Benjamin says. “I get to know their families. Something I would never be able to do with a food truck.” They’ve been doing so well now, they’ve hired employees, mostly from Syracuse High School.
HENRICK LE moved to Utah in 2001 after being born and raised in Vietnam. At the time, he didn’t even speak English. He hit the ground running and started school. He remembers his first day he went to class instead of lunch. His teacher tried to explain to him it was lunchtime, but he didn’t understand and simply smiled back. So, his teacher took him by the hand into the lunchroom. That left an impression on Henrick because in Vietnam teachers weren’t so friendly.
As he made more friends, he wanted to be a part of American culture. Henrick thought a great way to embrace the culture and community would be to join the military. His own grandfather was a Major in the South Vietnamese Army. Growing up, his grandpa told him war stories that inspired Henrick to follow in his footsteps.
“If my grandpa can do it, I can too,” he told himself. So, he improved his English and signed a contract with Army National Guard in 2009, and now he serves in 4th ID MCP-OD under 204th Maneuver Brigade of the Utah National Guard. His mentors helped him study English and go to college.
Once, his mom asked him, “Why don’t you study hard and be a businessman instead?” That just wasn’t what he wanted. “I’m serving my community in a different way,” he told her. “I want to be successful in the military with the flag on my shoulder. That’s my dream come true.” Henrick has also found a sense of camaraderie, because now he knows what unity really means. His unit is his family, and he’s proud he chose to serve alongside them. They are a counterpart to the 4th infantry division too, so he’s connected with people serving in the Army overseas. His unit was deployed with 4th Infantry Division in 2019 to support the Resolution Support Mission in Afghanistan.
Now, he’s a captain in the National Guard. He has a wife and five-year-old daughter, and they live together in Roy. “Without them, I would be unable to serve the country and the community,” Henrick says.
To close, we at Connection Publishing are asking for your help on behalf of the Union Station Museum. Curator Holly Andrew is in the process of creating an exhibit called “Ogden at its Core,” to tell the stories of early residents. Lately, her focus has been on the Asian immigrants. She’d like to solicit your help to understand their personal histories. So, if you think you can help her, drop by the Union Station Museum to share what you know.
VISIT HOLLY ANDREW at the Union Station Museum today to share your Asian American heritage. She needs help recording the personal histories of folks she currently only has the names for.