Those debating Houston’s status as an international mecca should look no further than the bilingual street signs on Bellaire Boulevard.

While Chinatown’s miles-long stretch is known for its authentic restaurants, boba tea shops and numerous banks, it also features dozens of street signs in Chinese and Vietnamese.

The history of Houston’s bilingual signs dates back decades and is filled with dissent and failed efforts. It’s also a testament to the city’s growth and diversity.


Corner of Corporate Drive and Clarewood Dr. street signs, Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Houston.


Marie D. De Jesús/Staff photographer

Workers hanging a “Walk of Honor” sign honoring military leaders of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at corner of Bellaire Boulevard and Boone Road in Houston. International Management District will be hoisting "Walk of Honor" signs at five intersections in Asian Town, where many Vietnamese Americans reside, shop and do business.

Workers hanging a “Walk of Honor” sign honoring military leaders of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at corner of Bellaire Boulevard and Boone Road in Houston. International Management District will be hoisting “Walk of Honor” signs at five intersections in Asian Town, where many Vietnamese Americans reside, shop and do business.


Yi-Chin Lee/Staff photographer

Bellaire Boulevard sign at Corporate Road, Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Houston.

Bellaire Boulevard sign at Corporate Road, Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Houston.


Marie D. De Jesús/Staff photographer

Hai Bá Trung street sign, Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Houston.

Hai Bá Trung street sign, Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Houston.


Marie D. De Jesús/Staff photographer

Chinatown, along Bellaire Boulevard in southwest Houston, features many bilingual street signs in Mandarin and Vietnamese. (Marie D. De Jesús and Yi-Chin Lee/Staff photographers)

The first signs

“New Chinatown” was born in 1983 when Hong Kong native T.D. Wong and his nephew Kenneth Li partnered with a Chinese investor to develop a retail shopping center at Bellaire and Ranchester Drive. They named it Diho Plaza.

Soon after the plaza’s development, the area flourished into one of the South’s largest Asian business districts. Houston also saw tremendous growth in its Asian population, which rose nearly 76 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to U.S. Census data.

Due to the influx of Asian immigrants in the area and their commercial stake in the city, many residents and business owners called for street signs with Chinese characters to help them easily navigate around. 

With the goal of showing the world how international Houston is, Li and his uncle teamed up with other business owners in 1993 to raise money for the signs.

Their efforts got a major boost from then-Mayor Bob Lanier, who strongly supported the idea.

In October 1993, 13 street signs were installed along the two-mile stretch from Fondren Road to Beltway 8.

They were laid out horizontally, contrary to the China’s traditional vertical style, and given phonetic meanings associated with virtue or good luck, Li said.

Houston City Councilmember Gordon Quan, left, receives a handwritten sign with the words "Chinatown" in Chinese characters made by Chinese Consul General Hu Yeshun during a press conference announcing a master plan to revitalize the city's original Chinatown, just east of downtown Houston, Thursday, June 5, 2003.

Houston City Councilmember Gordon Quan, left, receives a handwritten sign with the words “Chinatown” in Chinese characters made by Chinese Consul General Hu Yeshun during a press conference announcing a master plan to revitalize the city’s original Chinatown, just east of downtown Houston, Thursday, June 5, 2003.

Ben DeSoto/Houston Chronicle

Fierce opposition

Although a few Chinese signs were already installed in downtown Houston in the 1980s, the Bellaire community faced its fair share of opposition when the new ones were installed, Li says. “Not everyone liked the concept.”

Li recalled death threats being directed at Grace Feng, the woman who crafted the proposal. “They said she’s a communist.”

Other residents said at the time they didn’t think the city should make exceptions for a single ethnic group, according to the Chronicle archives.

“There may be Chinese who live here, but there are a lot of Americans, a lot of Mexicans, a lot of Blacks,” said 18-year old Kimberly Adcock to the Chronicle shortly after the signs were installed. “There aren’t signs in Spanish. Why can’t it be even?”

Martha Wong, the first Asian American elected to Houston City Council, said she thinks many feared the English signs were disappearing and didn’t understand the true reasons Asian residents wanted the signs.

“Sometimes I think Asians have a problem explaining what they want to do and they just kind of do it,” Wong said. “But that’s something that Asians have done for many years. If you wanted something done, you had to do it yourself.”

The signs were primarily for the convenience of Asian immigrants and newcomers moving to the area struggling to speak English, Li said. They never had plans to replace the English ones. 

“We not only respect our culture we respect the local culture,” Li said. “English is the first language. Chinese is close to our culture. We didn’t want to change the name. We didn’t want to dominate. We just wanted to have a supplement to these signs.”

Ensuing efforts

Chinatown’s economic triumph influenced efforts to erect similar street signs elsewhere in the city. Those were also met with challenges.

In 1998, Jason Yoo spearheaded an effort to erect Korean translations of 17 street signs in Spring Branch. Despite fervent support from then-Mayor Lee Brown, Yoo backed out suddenly after facing a flurry of petitions, planned protests and public hearings.

“I just decided I didn’t want to cause any more problems in the city or the community,” Yoo said. “We just wanted harmony because we are neighbors and we pay the same taxes as everyone else.”

Former city councilman Bruce Tatro was among the project’s most vocal detractors, objecting to the signs being approved administratively instead of by city council, according to Chronicle archives.

Tatro also fought against a long-awaited separate project to install Vietnamese street signs in Midtown.

After years of activist efforts, 15 dark blue signs were set to be installed near Milam Street in 1998. The project was about halfway done when Tatro claimed it had been inadequately researched.

Despite the delay and Tatro’s opposition, the project eventually reached completion.

“It was a sign that the community accepted us,” said Vietnamese American lawyer Trang Tran, who helped organize the effort. “The government accepted us. The city accepted us.”

Hai Bá Trung street sign, Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Houston.
Hai Bá Trung street sign, Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Houston.Marie D. De Jesús/Staff photographer

Unfortunately, it was short-lived.

Most of the signs were pulled down during road construction and never replaced, despite promises from the city, Tran said. 

“They put the English ones back up, but not the Vietnamese toppers,” he said. “It’s disappointing.”

While very few of the Vietnamese signs remain today, drivers can spot Hai Ba Trung along Midtown’s West Gray Street. It was named after the Trung sisters, military leaders and a queen of Vietnam who led a rebellion against Chinese forces in a first-century battle. 

Tran says developers wanted to make the area more appealing and gentrified, but sacrificed part of the area’s culture.

“The memories are gone, and they don’t appreciate the architecture or the history behind it. I don’t think they appreciated that having some ethnicity in that area improves the residence experience. Why make it look like everything else?”

Bellaire street translations in Mandarin


Bellaire Boulevard: “Bai Li” means “hundreds of benefits”

Clarewood: “Wu De” means “martial arts virtue”

Townpark: “Gong Yuan” means “public park”

Harwin and Gessner: “Hao Yun” and “Ji Shun” respectively both mean “good luck”

West Office: “Xi Fu” means “office on west side” 

Point West: “Peng Lai” could translate to the island of Taiwan, or to a like-named island in China

Ranchester: “Lian Jie” means “to be honest in performing one’s official duties”

Sovereign: “Shi Lin” means “officialdom”

Beltway 8: “Ba Hao” translates to “Highway 8”

Wilcrest: “Wei Dao” or “traditional moral principles” 

The translations were originally shared with the Chronicle from University of Houston Center for Asian American Studies director, Yali Zou.