“Her family was well off, so they lined a boat with bars of gold and left. But pirates attacked the boat,” says Anne Shen Chao ’74, relating the story of a friend who fled Saigon in the 1970s, after the Vietnam War. “[She] saw both her parents killed by the pirates, but she … [survived and] was sent to live with relatives in the United States.”
Anne explains that her friend’s elder sister (who at the time was studying at the Sorbonne) left school to move to the U.S. so that she could raise her younger sibling. That younger sibling—Anne’s friend—today lives in Houston and works as a physician.
This remarkable story is just one of hundreds in the Houston Asian American Archive at Rice University, an oral history collection about the lives of Asian Americans living in the Houston area, which Anne founded in 2010. The archive, which contains over 400 interviews and counting, helps to foster a deeper understanding of Houston’s immigrant history and guards against historical erasure. “We want to make sure that Asian American contributions are included in the narrative of Texas history,” Anne says.
Anne’s route to Rice was circuitous. The daughter of a Taiwanese diplomat, she was raised in Congo, Australia, Taiwan, and Washington, D.C. While that made her a global citizen, she says it obscured her understanding of her own cultural history. That’s why, at Wellesley, she studied modern China, and was particularly engaged by learning about the politics of the 1920s, an era dominated by two political factions, Communists and Nationalists. “Though the parties had opposing views, [many of its members] were dear to each other,” Anne says. These cross-party friendships touched her heart.
While at Wellesley, Anne met her husband, Albert Chao, who is now the CEO of Westlake Chemical Corp. After they were married, she chose to stay at home and raise their son and daughter, though she aspired to a career in academia. More than 20 years later, she returned to school, earning her Ph.D. at Rice and writing her thesis on Chen Duxiu, co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party.
“He was a rebel,” she says. “He believed in [the possibility] of utopia.” She adds that he was kicked out of the party because of infighting and his opposition to directives from Russian advisers. Chen Duxiu eventually fell into poverty, but he never wavered from his ideals, Anne says. If he were alive today, she thinks he would be delighting in social media, and “educating young people to do good things without sacrificing [their] principles.”
Anne, who has taught classes about China at Rice, currently devotes most of her time to collecting material for the archives. She shares its stories in lectures and presentations, including the story of the Gee family, a large, extended Chinese American family living in Houston.
The Gees arrived from China beginning in the early 1900s and their motto was, “You can stay with me until you get on your feet,” Anne says. Over time, the family’s influence grew citywide. The Gees helped integrate Houston’s restaurants during the Civil Rights movement, and now they play an important role in providing free health clinics and immigration rights advocacy in the city.
Anne mentions another resource she has included in the archive: Daya, a hotline that provides a culturally specific, grassroots support network for South Asians living in Houston who are affected by domestic violence.
In addition to her academic and archival pursuits, Anne is engaged in philanthropic efforts such as supporting the Houston Ballet and major art museums. She also serves on the Wellesley College Board of Trustees, and made a gift to enable the creation of the new Anne Shen Chao ’74 Office of Student Success, which brings together Wellesley’s network of people and programs to support first-generation students and students from other underrepresented groups.
Anne notes with pride that she remains close with her Wellesley friends; they talk often and teach one other, she says. “You kind of understand each other’s worldview, and everyone’s gone through so much now that it’s great to have this kind of group cohort that you can always turn to.”