Karina Tong grew up in Crosstown and is the owner of Gloss Nail Bar, coming to Concourse in May 2017. Here, in her own words, is her story of her family’s immigration to and immersion in the Crosstown community.

My family immigrated to Memphis from Vietnam on September 23, 1978. I was six years old. This street— Cleveland— and this part of town has been our life ever since my family came to the States.

When we came here, my father’s first job was as a social worker for the United States Catholic Charities (USCC), which was located on Cleveland and responsible for helping hundreds of Asian families immigrate to the United States. Dad’s job was to get these families get settled into Memphis. He helped people get their homes, get their children into school, get government assistance— whatever they needed.

 Karina with her family in Vietnam.

Karina with her family in Vietnam.

Mother didn’t speak any English, so she cleaned houses for a living. Back then, there wasn’t any way to get Asian food in Memphis, but the bigger cities, like Oklahoma City and Chicago, had things like rice, soy sauce, fish sauce. So my mother would drive the 8 hours to Oklahoma City and buy rice to bring back to Memphis to distribute it amongst the Asians in the neighborhood. She started selling it out of our house. We sold rice to Cambodian people, Laotians, Thais, Vietnamese— there was such a big need for it because of the amount of immigrants the USCC had brought in.

My mom started the first Asian market in the city with about $1500 and a van that someone sold to her for $700.

After a year and a half of selling Asian groceries out of our home, my mother started cleaning house once a week for a man named Nathan Greenblatt, who owned the Crosstown Curb Market. When he found out what she was doing and how great the need was for the community, he said, “I have this space available in my center. Do you want to rent it?”

At that time— 1980— we had only been in America for about a year and a half. My mother was very doubtful about going into business when we were so new to the country, but yet, it seemed like the right move to make because there was such a high demand.

 Karina's mother and father in Memphis.

Karina's mother and father in Memphis.

So my mom started the first Asian market in the city with about $1500 and a van that someone sold to her for $700. She would drive that eight hours to Oklahoma City every single Thursday, pack the van up with Asian groceries, and bring it back here. The original store in the Curb Market was only about 700 sq ft, so we just had a few shelves. But every time someone would vacate space at the Market, our landlord, Mr. Greenblatt, would expand our space. By the time Kroger took the Curb Market over, we were up to 2000 sq ft.

 Karina inside the Viet Hoa Food Market on Cleveland.

Karina inside the Viet Hoa Food Market on Cleveland.

When the Curb Market closed, our landlord offered my mother a space in the next center up the road at 78 N. Cleveland, which he ended up selling to her. Still, my mother sought a way to expand further. She had this vision where she wanted to diversify our market to make it more international to appeal to American shoppers, Hispanic shoppers, etc. Even back then, she had that vision. So when a piece of land at 40 N. Cleveland came up for sale in 1987, she bought it. This is where the Viet Hoa Asian Market has sat ever since.

Beyond the market, my parents also built the first Vietnamese Buddhist Temple at 1368 Jefferson in 1985, because they felt there was a need for that, too. There was such a large Asian community that had built up behind our market in all of those apartment buildings and people could just walk to the temple. We had all the prayers and rituals every Sunday.

 The Vietnamese Buddhist Temple on Jefferson.

The Vietnamese Buddhist Temple on Jefferson.

Because we were some of the first few Vietnamese families here, everyone still knows us and we know everyone. To this day, our market is an Asian community staple because everyone stops here first. They’ll ask where to go, where to eat, what’s good. Everyone comes here.

I’ve seen this building since I came to the States when I was six years old. I walked up those stairs into Sears Crosstown at least once a week. I can still remember the two old ladies that used to work at the counter, in their gray skirts and jackets. I was so little. I remember looking around in awe at all these things being offered to you. All these beautiful things.

We’re grateful for everything that has been offered to us here in this city. We’re grateful to Memphis.

My daughter now lives in a house 3 doors down from Concourse. One day she told me, “Mom, they’re doing something in that Sears building.” I said, “No, they can’t be. It’s too big.” She said, “No, Mom, seriously. There are people coming in and out of it every day, working on it! There are people in there!” I was still skeptical, but when I found out that leasing was open for the building, I scheduled a tour.

When I walked up those steps, all those feelings I’d had as a six year old came rushing back. I love the fact that they kept the building in tact and I’m thankful that someone has the vision, ability, and drive to make all this happen. I walked in and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Once May 13th comes and people are able to walk in the building and see what’s happening, then the small businesses will start to open back up around in the area in Crosstown. People will come back.

 Karina's mother at Cleveland and Jefferson.

Karina's mother at Cleveland and Jefferson.

Because of my parents, my sisters and I grew up with a mind for business and always knew what was in demand. That’s why I started my first nail salon in 1995. When I first started, it was more of a cosmetic thing— come in, get what you need done, and then leave. Today, nails are so competitive that you have to offer more. People come in for an escape. They want more of an experience, more of a “treat yourself” thing. Gloss creates that experience for our customers. I feel like it will be great for people who live in the building or work in the building. But even those people who, say, are dropping a family member off at the doctor— they can come in while they wait and just sit back and relax.

Crosstown was my mom’s heart. She loved Memphis, she loved this street, this part of town. “We’ve been given the American dream”— that’s what my mother always said to us. We started a business out of a van, out of our home, and today, I have a daughter that’s a doctor, a son that’s a photographer, two kids in college, and my youngest attends one of the best schools in the city, just a mile up the road from where I grew up. We are living the American dream.

We’re grateful for everything that has been offered to us here in this city. We’re grateful to Memphis.