Hac Tran Works to Amplify Asia On Argyle
Written by Vocalo Radio on December 8, 2022
Hac Tran fights to preserve the cultural significance of the Asia on Argyle community as the co-founder of HAIBAYÔ and a cultural specialist ambassador representing the area for the Uptown Chamber of Commerce.
Hac Tran has been firmly rooted in the Asia on Argyle community since childhood — which ultimately is what brought him back to Chicago as an advocate for preserving the area’s rich cultural identity.
Throughout Tran’s childhood, as a kid raised in the suburbs, frequent visits to Asia on Argyle with family and childhood friends weren’t just trips to his favorite noodle shop. Patroning local businesses and admiring the murals along West Argyle Street meant being a part of a bustling community of vast cultural significance in the South Asian American diaspora.
“Those small memories really, especially, impacted me,” Tran said. “If those places vanish — and a lot of places have closed — those memories fade.
I think that was really instrumental in terms of why I wanted to stay in Chicago, help my community here on Asia on Argyle.”
Historically, Uptown has been known as a culturally diverse neighborhood; Tran describes it as a “port of entry” for all kinds of cultural identities. It grew from being largely populated by Americans from the Appalachian South, Native Americans from the Midwest and Japanese Americans returning from WWII internment camps in the 1950s, to being planned as the “New Chinatown” in the 1960s and ‘70s as Chinese populations moved from Chinatown on the South Side while refugees from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia settled there in 1975 after the Vietnam War. In 2010, the area, known to many as Asia on Argyle, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Although Asia on Argyle’s gentrification had been a rising concern among local activists for years, Tran, after moving to Vietnam post-college, didn’t originally return to Chicago to help out that community. After working in Vietnamese nonprofits aiding in flood mitigation and community services, Tran decided to move back to study for a masters in urban planning when his focus again centered on the area.
“During that time… a lot of my focus and my energies pivoted towards the community that raised me in the city,” he recalled. “Argyle, that I knew, it could potentially change. It could either be a full displacement, or, if there’s people that come back and work with the community, work with business owners, and come together to represent and amplify the community that’s been here for 40+ years, we could preserve the culture.”
In the past three years alone, Tran notes, nearly 10 businesses have closed due to pandemic complications or succession issues — not to mention rent increases or construction of the Argyle CTA station. Tran knew he couldn’t stand by as the community faced threats to its identity; alongside other business owners in the area like Jennifer Phạm, who co-owns Mini Tx Pharmacy with her family, Tran started HAIBAYÔ in 2019 as a creative initiative to highlight local businesses.
“We noticed there wasn’t much of a creative space for second- and third-generation Asian American people. So we just… created this pop-up platform that started as an underground party,” he explained. “During the pandemic, we kind of pivoted towards… businesses and also the community.”
Since its founding less than four years ago, HAIBAYÔ has become its own LLC, got their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and received multiple grants. Most recently, HAIBAYÔ was the recipient of the Together We Heal Creative Place Program grant from the city of Chicago. According to the city’s DCASE website, this grant “positions artists, community leaders, and organizations to identify solutions to the challenges caused by racial, health, and economic inequities in their communities,” and “believes that creative place-based solutions can play a significant role in addressing these issues.” Tran notes the organization and other community members plan to increase cultural place-keeping through the grant within the next year.
“I’m honored to be able to actually represent this community now, as a community leader, through different facets of my work,” Tran said.
For this installment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Hac Tran discusses advocating for the preservation of cultural identity in the Asia on Argyle community through his work with HAIBAYÔ and the Uptown Chamber of Commerce.
What is HAIBAYÔ?
This started as a creative initiative to highlight and amplify the Southeast Asian diaspora culture — creative culture, like art, music, food. We’ve grown significantly over the last few years, and now we’re an LLC. I’ve been part of this community my entire life. My parents came here in ’75, after the Vietnam War. I also work at the Uptown Chamber of Commerce as a cultural specialist ambassador for this area. I’m honored to be able to actually represent this community now, as a community leader, through different facets of my work.
Are you from Chicago?
I am born in Chicago, raised in the ‘burbs. Been living here for the last 20+ years. I currently live in Portage Park. It feels like old Chicago, in many ways, but it feels like Chicago in the ’90s, this energy and this camaraderie of people that kind of coexist and live together. I really would have loved to live in Uptown, but it’s quite gentrified. The reason why I moved over there… it’s affordable, it’s diverse and not too far from… a lot of my work. And the Southeast Asian community here is on Argyle Street.
How did HAIBAYÔ start?
I had studied abroad in Vietnam, in Eastern Europe, in Hungary and Budapest. After college, I moved to Vietnam and I worked in nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations throughout the country, working with youth development, mitigation of flooding for folks within the countryside, education-based organizations. What brought me back here was actually to study masters of urban planning and international development.
But during that time, there was a kind of pivot, where I was working on Argyle and a lot of my focus and my energies pivoted towards the community that raised me in the city. It was at a critical juncture, especially with a lot of development projects.
Argyle, that I knew, it could potentially change. It could either be a full displacement, or, if there’s people that come back and work with the community, work with business owners, and come together to represent and amplify the community that’s been here for 40+ years, we could preserve the culture. That was really my research, my work pivoted towards that focus. Asia on Argyle has a lot of Chinese folk, Chinese folk from Vietnam, and also Thai, Lao, Cambodian, Vietnamese people. So it is pretty diverse. But over the last 20 years, 30 years, there’s been a lot of displacement of that community who live here. It is still kind of the hub, commercially and organizationally for this diaspora. But a lot of people have moved away, because it’s more affordable. But still, there is that kind of identity, culturally, and it’s still kind of a hub for people to come shop, eat and get services and things like that.
A lot of legacy businesses closed over the years, because of succession issues, or the pandemic really impacted them negatively. So there’s been eight to nine closures in the last three years. And thinking about, how do we kind of carry on that cultural legacy of our parents? That’s how, kind of, HAIBAYÔ started. At first, we actually just had a space — my friend, and co-founder of HAIBAYÔ, Jennifer “Nuky” Phạm, she also owns the first Vietnamese business on Argyle, it’s a pharmacy, called Mini Tx Pharmacy.
We noticed there wasn’t much of a creative space for second- and third-generation Asian American people. So we just… created this pop-up platform that started as an underground party. We do that like once a month, and that’s how we started. And during the pandemic, we kind of pivoted towards more focused on businesses and also the community, and how we can have these kind of community drives of food. Since then, we got a 501(c)(3), got grants and put on festivals.
What really, I think, took off was, last year, during May, one of our friends and community members — she’s the owner of Qideas plant shop, Ellen Duong, in response to the anti-Asian hate that occurred. We really wanted to kind of create, not like a visual, but protest in a way that was joyful. So we did like this Argyle Activation Walk, which highlighted longtime businesses. We brought in young Asian American artists and performers. We probably brought in thousands of people to the neighborhood. And from there, we just kept growing and growing and growing. And now we’re trying to find space to have a physical home for us.
Today’s the big day! Argyle Activation Walk is happening from 12pm-9pm!— Celebrate Argyle (@CelebrateArgyle) May 29, 2021
Join us as we celebrate #AAPI Heritage month on Argyle Street!
For full schedule of lined up events, visit https://t.co/hTH0H8RV6t pic.twitter.com/cvDtlC7u7O
Has Uptown always been an Asian neighborhood? What’s the history?
Uptown has always been a port of entry for many different people. There’s a lot of Appalachian white folk, Black folk from the south, there was a large Native population that called Uptown home, Japanese people after World War II and internment came here and called it home. So there’s always been this kind of mosaic of folks that call this area home. Argyle, specifically, I think in the late ’60s, there was a Tong called Hip Sing Organization [Association], which is still here on Argyle today. They had to leave Chinatown on the South Side, so they wanted to create a North Chinatown. That was right before the end of the Vietnam War. So in the late ’60s, early ’70s, it was established as a North Chinatown, and in 1975, with the end of the Vietnam War, there was a huge influx of refugees from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, that came here.
This area used to be way more bustling, tons of… people in the diaspora here every weekend, even during the week. Those memories of being part of your community, frequenting the businesses… I remember, there’s a restaurant that’s still here today, if y’all haven’t eaten it, it’s called Double Happiness. It’s a tiny noodle shop. And it’s been here for 40+ years. And it looks exactly the same, the menu is… it’s photocopied from the original, and they crossed it out and upped the price, but it’s still the original menu from like 40 years ago, and I still remember just eating there with my parents, my childhood friends, my parents’ friends, and just such an impactful thing, or life-changing thing, those small memories really, especially, impacted me when I came back from Vietnam and really influenced me to stay here. Because… those memories, if those places vanish — and a lot of places have closed — those memories fade. And it’s like… how do we kind of maintain those memories, contribute to this area and create new memories with other folk, and folk that have built this community? I think that was really instrumental in terms of why I wanted to stay in Chicago, help my community here on Asia on Argyle.
What’s in store for HAIBAYÔ?
We got another grant, through the city of Chicago, the Together We Heal Creative Place keeping grant. A lot of the project and programming is not really focused on events, but it’s more about cultural place-keeping through food, oral history telling, film, botanics and spirituality, as well as Eastern medicine and healing. That’s forthcoming in the next year. We’ve already got a grant and a pretty good team of people that we’re working with, who are also from the community.
What can the people of Uptown do to support the neighborhood, and to resist gentrification? Is it possible?
Systems’ change could be beyond our generation, after we all pass. What we can do now, I think, within the system of capitalism, in terms of combating gentrification or sustaining cultural legacies, cultural enclaves, cultural communities, I think we really want to create platforms and spaces of incubation. So thinking about strategically, how do we work with other burgeoning entrepreneurs in our diaspora to give them that platform to help them ultimately incubate their business, their creativity, working with elected officials or working with community organizers? One, it’s a place of home, right? How do we have more affordable housing? How do we fight for more affordable housing for people who can’t afford to be here?
Fundamentally, gentrification is rooted in capitalism. And, unless we think systemically about how do we offer an alternative to capitalism, a lot of this is going to be on repeat.
Hac Tran in front of “The Roots of Argyle,” which he notes is one of his favorite murals in the area. Photos by Makenzie Creden, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public Media.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Transcription, editing for length and clarity and written introduction by Morgan Ciocca
Photography by Makenzie Creden
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