Five members of the Tran family emigrated to the United States in 2003, living in a series of HRB homes as they built their businesses, careers, and families. Today, there are three generations, 21 family members, and three restaurants—all on Bainbridge Island.
You may not know the Tran family by name, but if you live on Bainbridge Island, you almost certainly know their work: Emmy’s Vege House, a decades-old Asian take-out stand at the corner of Madison and Winslow Way; Green Pot Deli, a newcomer to the Pavilion specializing in pho and banh mi; and the trendy Yoyo Poke which opened just this year at Winslow Green. Before expanding into the restaurant business, however, the Trans, who emigrated from Vietnam in 2003, spent many years building their new lives. They cleaned at local establishments, waited tables, and studied, and they enjoyed the island’s safe and welcoming community, excellent schools, and affordable housing provided by HRB.
Em Tran, the owner of Emmy’s Vege House, brought her brother, his wife and three of his five children to Washington, luring them in part with jobs. Nguyệt cooked at the restaurant during the day and then at night joined her older son, San, at Island Fitness to clean. For a couple years, the younger son, Khánh, also worked at the gym but later switched to Blackbird Bakery, where he cleaned with his father, Thành, and ended up staying 12 years. Beginning in 2005, Thành also operated Thành’s Alterations, primarily sewing for a pillow company and in 2015 for Far Bank Enterprises, the Bainbridge-based manufacturer of fly-fishing products, until a stroke forced him to retire two years later. The daughter, Vân, worked at Subi.
“My dad always says, ‘Work hard and you will have something in the future,’” explains Khánh. “We were a little different,” he says of the family’s decision not to open nail salons, a common business choice among Vietnamese immigrants. “We always studied. We made a good income.” Thành listens quietly beside Khánh at the kitchen table during this interview, relying on his son to tell the family story and when asked, easily filling in names, addresses, and dates in Vietnamese.
Khánh had not wanted to leave his family and friends in Vietnam, but his views softened over time. The greetings by strangers as he walked home from school surprised and gladdened him, helping to separate in his mind the government that waged war in his country from its people. He found comfort at Bainbridge High School in the ESL program where he studied with students from Russia, Iran, Korea, and China and a teacher who empathized with her students’ struggle to learn a new language. He laughs when he recalls the impossibility of an American Studies class, an unfamiliar subject in an unfamiliar language. Math, however, was an oasis where a foreign language did not impede his native skill. He had been a top student at his old school in a small town a 3 ½ hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, and he excelled here too.
After a few months in Silverdale with Aunt Em, the Tran family lived in a series of HRB rental homes: Island Terrace and Island Home for two years each and finally, a little yellow cottage called Sadie Woodman House, where they stayed for eight years. During that time, the three children attended Seattle Central College. Khánh continued to the University of Washington, where he double majored in math and computer science and where his brother graduated in electrical engineering. Khánh recalls how essential it was to have that affordable rent, especially since he could not work full time as a student and often did not have even $500 in the bank. His commute, which took him along the elevated walkway to and from the ferry in Seattle, so often lined with homeless encampments, became a daily gratitude.
Over time, the family grew, its roots extending deeper into Bainbridge soil: there are now three generations totaling 26 members, 21 of whom live on the island. Vân owns and operates Green Pot Deli; Khánh’s older sister, Linh, who arrived in 2014 from Vietnam, took over Emmy’s Vege House; his wife recently opened Yoyo Poke; and San bought a home on High School Road (the oldest brother, Phố who just came to the U.S. last December, has since moved to Tennessee for work). The elder Trans, Khánh, his younger sister and their families live together in a large yellow house that Khánh bought. Five boisterous grandchildren keep Nguyệt busy. Today they interrupt their play to survey the interview taking place in the kitchen, Khánh’s young sons darting in to feed him goldfish crackers and burrow in his lap and Vân’s children laughing and squeezing onto the couch to join an impromptu photo shoot.
When asked if he was proud of his children, Thành’s answer needs no translation. But the pride and appreciation run both ways. “He is a good father to me,” Khánh says. He boasts that his father taught himself graphic design software so he could create logos for the family restaurants. At Green Pot Deli, leaves entwine the letter G, which tapers to a pink lotus blossom. At Yoyo Poke, a bowl with chopsticks rests on the curved back of a contented fish, a smile just barely discernable.
Twenty years ago, the family’s financial sponsor, Rev. Marilyn Brandenburg, gave Khánh, his brother, and sister jackets to wear to their new American high school. Today, Khánh is far from the lanky teen who arrived speaking only a few words of English and with a view of America tinged by his country’s history of war. He is a 37-year-old software engineer and graduate of the University of Washington, a married man with two sons, and a Bainbridge Island homeowner. The jacket still fits, and Khánh wears it on occasion despite the faded colors and stains that attest to heavy use, his fingers easily locating the repairs performed by his father, who is not only the family sage and artist, but its tailor too.
A message from Thành Tran:
Our success today is partly due to our own efforts but is also in large part due to the many people who helped us not only materially, but also with English, our education, and work. We are very grateful for that. It is not possible to name all of them individually. Therefore, through this article, we would like to convey to all of you our sincere thanks and our deepest gratitude.
The Tran family outside Island Home in 2005: San, Thành, Nguyệt, Vân and Khánh (Photograph by Joel Sackett)