Op-ed: Mr. Chau’s decades of service to San Jose
Mr. Chau in the back work area of Chau’s Auto Repair Center. Photo courtesy of Son Chau.

After over three decades of service, Chau’s Auto Repair Center, formerly known as Chau’s Automotive at 1470 West San Carlos Street, has closed permanently. My family’s shop is soon to be demolished for the construction of a new luxury hotel where it stands now.

My family came to the U.S. as refugees following the Vietnam War that ended in 1975. They along with almost a million others left their country as “boat people.” On the peninsula, north of San Jose, they first resettled in East Palo Alto. Here, they became neighbors to existing residents, poor and working-class Black families. They together lived in Section 8 housing, down the street from Silicon Valley’s hubs for higher education and venture capital, Stanford University and Sandhill Road.

Residents later were asked to leave because the building, too, was soon to be demolished. What my family and their Black neighbors had shared: This was not their first time experiencing displacement. Decades later, IKEA made its way to where their complex once stood. My mother and father then moved several times, working various odd jobs in domestic help and lumber service.

Mr. Chau and family in the early 1980s resettling in their home in East Palo Alto. Photo courtesy of Son Chau.

In the mid 1980s, my family replanted their roots in San Jose, a result of their perseverance and help from government programs. They saved enough to purchase a home in Willow Glen, supporting a family of seven, including my grandma, my three older brothers and me. Nearby, they opened Chau’s Automotive in Buena Vista, a predominantly working-class Latinx neighborhood and multicultural commercial district.

Chau’s Auto Repair Center, formerly Viet Long Auto Repair and Body. Photo courtesy of Son Chau.

Through the shop, my father, Mr. Chau, seized the opportunity to rebuild his community and identity after having left Thốt Nốt, his hometown, a small city located near the Mekong Delta bordering Cambodia. He would proudly share, “While other kids learned how to solve math problems, I learned with my father how to fix a vehicle’s electrical components.” He would continue, “Residents in our small town all knew me as ‘Tư Thợ Điện’ (Fourth Brother Electrician).”

Like many small businesses run by immigrants, each member of the family worked to help make the shop successful. My mother would bring lunch each day. My three brothers would service cars alongside my dad. And I would publicize the shop online to increase its social media presence among younger and tech-savvy customers.

Over the decades, Mr. Chau formed friendships with small businesses along West San Carlos Street and with his customers whose origins would span across Mexico, El Salvador, South Korea, Portugal and Ethiopia. In the local Vietnamese community, he built partnerships with Vietnamese residents from East San Jose, who would drive across town to support Mr. Chau. “Regardless of where my customers are from, we share the same destination: a secure and fulfilling life,” he would say.

The sign in front of Chau’s Auto Repair Center at 1470 West San Carlos Street in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Son Chau.

As time progressed, Mr. Chau noticed that Buena Vista was changing. Small businesses around him, for instance, were forced to close permanently. And his friends and customers, likewise, moved out of the South Bay altogether. He noticed more construction of high-rise luxury housing marketed to younger, high-earning tech workers. Mr. Chau began to realize that it was a matter of time until his shop would be next to close.

On July 1, Mr. Chau received a 30-day notice by his landlord. And Chau’s Auto Repair Center closed its doors permanently on Aug. 6. This experience, once again, was reminiscent of what he had faced almost four decades earlier at his housing complex in East Palo Alto on which IKEA stands today.

As Mr. Chau’s youngest son, I write to share my family’s journey that includes our shop’s legacy. I am grateful that my brothers and I each received a university education. I am the biggest beneficiary, as the first in the family to have earned a master’s degree. In the words of my father, our family has “reached our destination.”

I see that our neighbors, our friends and our customers continue striving to reach their destinations, whether it’s here in San Jose or elsewhere. I believe that my father, Mr. Chau, and his peers along West San Carlos Street have demonstrated what a vibrant, multicultural community can look like. Their stories teach us the value of inclusion and respect, beyond the monetary value associated with a plot of land or an enterprise.

Storefront of Chau’s Auto Repair Center at 1470 West San Carlos Street in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Son Chau.

My family’s journey, certainly, was all but a straight road. Reflecting where I have come, I am learning that it is not displacement that defines us. Rather, it is the resiliency in the face of challenging times that does. My family, like many here in San Jose, will continue to be resilient now and through the generations.

We send our sincere appreciation to our friends and customers who have made Chau’s Auto Repair Center an extension of our home in the community.

Son Chau is a philanthropic professional serving the Bay Area’s donors and nonprofits.

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