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A taste of Asia in South Tampa

As a neighborhood's Asian population grows, people of many cultures are enjoying the benefits of diversity.

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001


As a neighborhood's Asian population grows, people of many cultures are enjoying the benefits of diversity.

TAMPA -- From the outside, Dobond Farmer Market looks like any other convenience store.

The windows are illuminated by neon beer signs and plastered with posters hawking cigarettes. Ice machines stand out front and a sign says the store handles money orders.

Inside is a medley of Asian cultures.

Customers stroll the cramped aisles, passing 25-pound bags of Jasmine rice, Thai eggplant, Japanese wasabi in a tube, Chinese soup mix and a Vietnamese-brand fish sauce.

It's more like an international marketplace, but one where customers can still grab potato chips, Slim Jims and hair spray.

The variety reflects the neighborhood, which has the highest concentration of Asians of any census tract in Hillsborough County.

No other part of Hillsborough has more Asians than within the boundaries of Gandy, S Dale Mabry, Manhattan and the MacDill Air Force Base, 2000 census figures show. Nearly 680 Asians live here -- almost twice as many as there were 10 years ago. They are mainly Vietnamese and Thai, but also Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Laotian and Korean.

The area has slowly transformed into a Little Asia, and people who don't live nearby are starting to venture south of Gandy Boulevard to discover it.

The owner of Dobond, Du Huynh, proudly shows off his stock, which he has built up over the past seven years.

When Huynh (pronounced hwing) bought the store from its previous owner, a Thai man, it had catered mainly to the Thai community.

Huynh, who is Vietnamese, kept the Thai products but expanded to include specialty items from other native countries.

"Where else can you get this?" Huynh asked, holding up a 2-liter bottle of Jamaican Kola Champagne. "I have a little bit of everything for everyone."

Customers can find items that range from the common, such as paper towels, Hamburger Helper and capers, to the exotic, such as tapioca pearls in coconut, dehydrated fungus, bamboo shoots, shrimp paste and salted ziganid fish from the Philippines.

Packages of incense sticks sit on a shelf above a clutter of Aim toothpaste, bath soap, car engine oil and nail polish remover.

Huynh recently added a variety of Mexican foods, such as taco sauce, at the request of his growing number of Hispanic customers.

But the majority of his clientele continues to be Asians.

While some think MacDill's military population is a big reason for the high Asian population in the area, MacDill officials say that isn't the case.

Southeast Asians originally settled in this area of South Tampa because of the affordable housing. They were new immigrants looking to become homeowners, said Kimi Springsteen, the Asian-American Affairs liaison for Hillsborough County government.

Most of them tend to be refugees who experienced the same hardships coming to America.

"They came on the same boats, went through the same tragedies," Springsteen said. "Naturally, they stick together."

They began opening up businesses to meet each other's needs, drawing more Asians to the neighborhood. Aside from the plethora of ethnic foods available, stores also carry foreign-language music CDs and videos and offer such services as $6 haircuts and $20 manicures and pedicures.

Within a 1-mile stretch, there are five Thai restaurants and a number of Asian-run nail salons with names such as Oriental Nail and Hong Kong Nail.

The owner of one Thai restaurant, Ruen Thai, used to host Asian Happy Night for his Vietnamese and Thai customers. They partied every Saturday from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., with karaoke a big draw.

Owner Hanh Nguyen, 40, stopped the parties a month ago, before the restaurant was damaged in a recent fire.

"I got no sleep," he said.

Just up the road, the owner of Thailand Restaurant, Amnuay Thambundit, keeps busy. Ninety percent of his customers are non-Asians. Civilian employees and military people from nearby MacDill take advantage of his lunch specials, as do regulars from as far away as Sarasota and New Port Richey.

For 21 years, he quietly built a customer base. Most people never ventured south of Gandy, he said, but those who did always returned for the authentic Thai dishes.

Now he is facing more competition. "Business is so good, everybody wants a part of it," he said, crediting increased traffic from nearby Home Depot and Sam's Club, which opened last year.

One of Thambundit's regular customers, Mary Pekkala, comes from Hyde Park to consume such items as beef salad, pad thai and chicken thai lo mein.

She heard about the restaurant from a friend and continues to rave about it to others.

"I tell people to come," said Pekkala, a teacher. "I also tell them not to go by the way it looks from the outside. This neighborhood is up and coming."

Keith Fekete, a mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service, said he is delivering more foreign-language magazines and more exotic herbs to the Asian households on his route than when he first started about four years ago.

"The packages have a strong scent," he said, laughing.

Residents in this neighborhood of single-family homes and neat lawns say they like the area because it is quiet, colorful and conveniently located near St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa.

Apisith Naronkchai, 55, moved into a house on Wallace Avenue four years ago. The Thai immigrant said there's no better place to live. "You can walk to the market or ride a bicycle," he said. "There's little traffic. There's a nice mix of people . . . (It's) very, very good. The best area."

Blanche Bash, 74, is one of only two people on her block along Wallace Avenue who is an original homeowner. Everyone else either moved in over the past few decades or inherited the homes from their parents.

Bash decribed the neighborhood she moved into in 1954 as "all European-Americans."

Today, she shops at Dobond.

"It acquaints us with different cultures," Bash said of the diverse makeup of her neighborhood. "That's a good thing."

At a public housing project near Robinson High School, more then 60 percent of the tenants are Vietnamese.

And on Wallace Street, there used to be a Thai temple in a converted house. But it grew so much, the temple relocated to eight acres on Palm River Road near U.S. 41.

"When I first moved here, I didn't see any Thai or Vietnamese," Thambundit said. "Now they are all over."

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