After Chris Hong bought his hardworking parents their first home of their own, they got a helping hand (and a stunning reno) from some familiar faces on HGTV.
Stepping into the household where Chris Hong grew up, a two-story home in Brooklyn, you would instantly smell his mother’s cooking (usually a Thai stir-fry of broccoli and chicken or a green curry) and hear the sounds of some of the 15 aunts, uncles, and cousins living there.
“I was a shy kid, so I didn’t mind that there was always someone around to take the attention off me,” says Chris, now 30, who shared a bed with his dad until he graduated from high school. And while he didn’t have a desk or a quiet area to do his homework, he excelled at school, as did his younger sister, Nancy. “Schoolwork was the least I could do after seeing the sacrifices our parents made every day to give us a chance at the American dream,” he says.
“We lived a simple life, never had takeout or restaurant meals—but there was always an energy in our packed house, with everyone together, and it bonded us.”
Chris’s mother, Anya, came to the U.S. in her 20s from Thailand, where her family sold meat at an open-air market. Growing up, she watched American TV and films that were dubbed into Thai, and she fell in love with the Christmas decorations. “Thailand is hot, so no one has a fireplace, but it seemed that in America, every house had a decorated fireplace, with Santa coming down the chimney,” she says.
When she arrived in America, Anya learned English and studied for her GED, then landed a job at the post office, where she clerked for 30 years before recently retiring. On her shifts, she often worked alongside a younger guy, Man Hong, a Vietnamese refugee who made it to America with all 10 of his siblings through a resettlement program. He helped Anya move into a new apartment, and she fell for him.
Anya and Man married and moved into the crowded home in Brooklyn, which they purchased with the many siblings and in-laws who would live there together. They had Chris and Nancy, while Man worked overnight shifts at the post office and Anya worked from the early morning until the kids got home from school.
“We had a shared kitchen, and my mom was scared to use the oven because she didn’t want to break it. She went to work at 6 a.m., so when we would have a bake sale in elementary school, she’d wake up at 3 a.m. and make 30 or 40 cupcakes, six at a time, in the toaster oven,” says Chris. “Even as a kid, I could see her sacrifice.”
Three decades later, Chris is a banking software developer and has long since moved out, as has his sister—but their parents were still there with the extended family. After working hard and saving for years, Chris was able to repay his parents with the greatest gift he could think of: He bought a home for himself and them, where they could bake, take long showers without someone banging on the bathroom door, and display their stamp collection. He can rest easy knowing he can care for them down the line as they age.
When she first saw the 80-plus-year-old house, which Chris bought for just over $1 million, Anya said, “It’s not bad.” (Classic immigrant parent move.) Softening, she explains, “He made me surprised. I never thought I would have our own house or a guest room for my sister when she comes to visit. I’m very proud of him.”
“Making space for both cherished sentiments and forging new memories: That’s what turning a house into a home is all about.”—Jonathan
The surprises kept coming when the family was contacted about appearing on the new HGTV show The Nate & Jeremiah Home Project. Acclaimed interior designers Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent renovated the entire main floor, which included repairing more than 14 support beams, turning a closet into a bathroom, and adding an island to the kitchen for Anya’s stir-frying and cupcake baking.
“They made the space function better, but they also helped highlight our sentimental items, like my parents’ stamp collections. And they made it feel unique by doing things like hand-drawing a design on a lampshade,” Chris says.
The best part for Anya? “I have a fireplace! I never even dreamed that would happen,” she says. The family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but she looks forward to hanging stockings as cheery decorations—and gazing into a crackling fire.
Meet the Design Duo
On the new HGTV show The Nate & Jeremiah Home Project (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT and streaming now on discovery+), husband-and-husband interior design team Jeremiah Brent (left) and Nate Berkus help families create a fresh start. “It was fantastic to be with Anya when her American dream was realized,” Berkus says. “My favorite moment was when she saw the space and looked into her son’s eyes with disbelief and gratitude.” What home means to these guys is the place where families can be themselves. For their own home, that means “the sound of our two children running on the wood floors, Nate constantly rearranging our furniture, and dance parties around our kitchen island,” says Brent.
By Sarah Z. Wexler | Anya and children photograph courtesy of the Hong family | All other photographs courtesy of HGTV