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A culture takes root in Tampa

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By MARLENE SOKOL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003

NORTH TAMPA -- If Tampa had a Chinatown, where would it be?

Try Waters and Armenia avenues.

Sounds like a stretch, but it isn't. Not if you've sampled the iced coffee at Cafe Linh. Not if you've smelled the fresh fish at Din Ho Supermarket.

"This is becoming a little Chinatown," says Max Nguyen, and he's not even in the decidedly ethnic Evershine Square, where young men sit for hours over cigarettes and Chinese chess.

Nguyen, a self-described "boat person" who made America his home in 1982, runs his dry cleaning shop slightly south, in a place called the Waters & Armenia Plaza.

Normally a bleak-looking center anchored by a Winn-Dixie, it sparkled on Sunday.

Firecrackers exploded as lion dancers and martial artists wowed a small crowd.

Smells of incense and sulfur mingled peculiarly with Popeye's chicken from a nearby drive-through.

Children, some in native garments and others in clothes from The Gap, took turns playing drums and cymbals.

Mai Ly, whose family has a nail salon in the center, wore silver heels and a beautiful, two-piece Chinese dress.

Her family is actually Vietnamese.

No problem: The day was exceedingly multicultural, from the African-American lion dancer and Italian-American Kung Fu master, to the random spectators who praised the event in Spanish.

"There is so much Asia right here," said Dena Alimuddin, blonde-haired owner of the Coral Reef Aquarium shop and my unofficial tour guide.

Alimuddin had invited the press, fearing we might overlook the Chinese New Year, what with all the excitement over Gasparilla and the Super Bowl.

She comes to Asian culture by marriage, describing her husband as "displaced Chinese from Indonesia."

Their sons, Justin and Joshua, study martial arts in Brandon at Arthur D'Agostino's studio.

Hence the appearance Sunday of D'Agostino's crew in full lion dress. In and out of the stores they pranced, taunted by a smiling Buddha played by Alimuddin's younger son, Joshua.

"He is chasing the bad luck out of all of our buildings," Alimuddin explained. "Everything bad that happened last year is now erased."

Nail shop owner Bao Nguyen (no relation to the dry cleaner) helped organize the event, which the merchants assembled in a few short weeks.

"Next year it will be even bigger," said Nguyen, as she hung lettuce and little money bags from the doorways for the lion to bite.

Call it a businesswoman's superstition, or maybe enthusiasm for her adopted culture. But Alimuddin seemed genuinely worried that the lion might reject the money, or fail to bite the lettuce -- which symbolizes life and rebirth, and must be scattered among the crowd.

"Don't worry," she said, lest anyone share her anxiety. "They never miss."

Back in Asia, the celebration would be as big as Christmas. It would last weeks, said Max Nguyen, the dry cleaner. Dancers would pile high on top of one another, reaching maybe 30 feet for the money. "They have to work for it," he said.

Though he poked fun at the event by hanging Ritz crackers in his doorway, Nguyen was not about to insult the sentiment.

"Oriental people are very superstitious," he said.

And he's counting his blessings. Business is good, after a rocky start seven years ago. Married last year, he now has a 9-month-old son.

"It was a good year for a boy," Nguyen said, referring to the Chinese calendar. He started to explain the complicated cycles. Then he gave up. Advised me, instead, to watch kung fu movies.

That probably won't happen.

But I did heed Dena Alimuddin's message, that Tampa is rich in many cultures, each with its own gifts to share.

"I'll tell you what you saw out there," D'Agostino said. "You saw America."

To all, a happy Year of the Goat.

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