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Asian concentration upward bound

St. Petersburg's Asian population increases almost 70 percent for the state's largest urban concentration.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001

St. Petersburg's Asian population increases almost 70 percent for the state's largest urban concentration.

ST. PETERSBURG -- At the Asian family center, a dozen people originally from Vietnam and Cambodia watch and wait for their English class to begin.

High school break-dancers are spinning on their heads and practicing the windmill, a leg- and arm-slicing move so quick, their bodies barely touch the ground. A few feet away, a group of young girls kick their legs and spin around, perfecting a routine for an upcoming Filipino festival.

It's an increasingly common scene in St. Petersburg, now home to the state's largest municipal Asian population. But on this day, it's starting to annoy Muking T. Tasi, who needs to begin teaching an English class.

"What do you want?" says Tasi, the Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center's director of operations. "You played from 2 to 5 (p.m.). That's not enough? We have classes."

The teens, part of an Asian community that has increased 67 percent, to 6,640, in St. Petersburg in the past 10 years, sulk, then saunter off disappointed. Tasi gets to work.

Only Jacksonville, which counts all of Duval County in its figures, has a larger Asian population than St. Petersburg. Tampa, with 6,527 people who declared themselves Asian on the 2000 census, is just behind.

Although census figures do not yet show where these Asians come from, Bun Hap Prak, executive director of the Asian FACE Center on First Avenue N, thinks he knows. They send their children to his facility for after-school care and come by for help to become citizens and find jobs.

By Prak's estimate, about 60 percent are Vietnamese, 25 percent are Laotian and 10 percent are Cambodian. Another 5 percent come from other Asian countries, such as China, Thailand and India.

One need only take a drive down U.S. 19 or on Haines Road to see the grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses popping up around town to serve this blossoming population.

In St. Petersburg, you can order a travel ticket, buy a computer, groceries, videos and compact discs, even life insurance, from stores run by the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Chinese, Thai and others of Asian descent. There is an Asian preschool, an Asian pool hall, even karaoke at a Vietnamese restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights.

The immigration boom from Southeast Asia that followed the Vietnam War brought more than 1.3-million refugees to the United States in the late 1970s, but has cooled in recent years. Experts say they suspect much of the increase in the Tampa Bay area's Asian population comes from movement within the United States.

The weather, and family, drew Hoa Van Phan here from Moline, Ill. He owned his own grocery for most of the past 20 years and opened up a grocery at 450 34th St. N two years ago. While doing research to open his store, he found 14 groceries serving that community in the St. Petersburg area.

"If you can open up 14 Oriental stores, that means the Asian community is more in St. Petersburg than in other places," said Phan, who fled Vietnam in a small rented fishing boat in 1975 to Thailand.

Prak, a Cambodian, can drive streets in St. Petersburg in his Toyota minivan and tell you whether a person of Asian descent lives there based on the plants and trees in their front yards. Lemongrass. Mangos. Papaya. Lychee trees that bear white fruit with a red skin.

"There's a lot of home ownership," Prak said. "They buy homes, plant trees -- it's yours."

Prak said the Asian community lives in pockets all over the city, but one day he envisions a strong presence in an area between 16th and 34th streets and 22nd and 38th avenues N.

Many also live in Kenneth City and Pinellas Park and Clearwater.

Asians make up just 2.7 percent of St. Petersburg's population, and just 2.2 percent of Tampa's. But their numbers grew by 67 percent in St. Petersburg in the past 10 years, roughly the same growth rate as the city's Hispanic population.

In Tampa, the city's Asian population grew at a 72 percent rate, much faster than the Hispanic population, which grew by 39 percent in the past decade. There are now 58,522 Tampa residents who declare themselves Hispanic, compared with 6,527 Asians.

In Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough combined, the Asian population more than doubled in the past decade.

The cultural reach is noticeable.

"They bring a lot of cultural richness to their environments that can benefit the community a great deal," said Max Niedzwiecki of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C. "They move into impoverished neighborhoods and make them better. Vietnamese cooking is more popular than 25 years ago. Cambodian and Laotian arts are beautiful for communities to enjoy."

In St. Petersburg, one of the signs of these cultures is the Buddhist temples that have popped up around the community. Some are very subtle, a simple home on a residential street corner painted a muted orange and used on weekends by Cambodian monks for blessing templegoers.

Others are more obvious. Several Laotians pitched in several thousand dollars two years ago and purchased a two-story building on 58th Street for $249,000, said Thomas Souk, a financial planner and the temple's secretary.

It now has more than 400 worshipers who pay the mortgage and have chipped in enough money to help construct a $42,000 building where monks can perform ceremonies, another $9,000 for a few dozen brass Buddhist statues, including two 7-foot ones, and a $25,000 addition to the main building.

Prak said one of his community's major problems is getting children a head start on learning English before kindergarten. Many Asian children now stay home with elderly members of the family who speak their native language in the home, and that doesn't prepare kids for school, Prak said.

The elderly Asian population is also of concern to Niedzwiecki of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

"You may be looking at a health crisis for elderly Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese people, psychological problems, trauma-related illnesses, bad nightmares that keep them from sleeping, a lack of energy, a lack of general physical fitness," Niedzwiecki said. "All this tends to keep them more homebound . . . and many are not American citizens so they don't have access to the full social safety net."

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