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North Texas Asian community finds its niche

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, Reporter: In old East Dallas, not far from Baylor University, there is a pocket of land, that on any Saturday morning, sounds remarkably like a slice of life from Hanoi or Phnom Penh. These are the Asian Community Gardens, a co-op of 48 plots where immigrant families grow and sell water spinach, lemongrass and other plants from Southeast Asia. The gardens have been here 14 years, but the people who tend to them have community roots dating back a quarter century, when Saigon fell to the communists and the U.S. government chose Dallas as a resettlement area for refugees.

Ron Cowart, Former Dallas Police Officer: It was estimated by the early 1980s that approximately 5,000 or 5500 of these Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees were settled in about a quarter of a square mile area known as Little Asia.

Sprague: Ron Cowart ran the East Dallas police storefront in those days. Now, the U.S. Census says only a few dozen Asian families live here. That's probably a low estimate, but it does reflect the near exodus that has taken place as Asian immigrants head for nicer homes and better schools in the suburbs. In fact, at least 10% of the people living in Richardson, Carrollton and Plano are of Asian descent, compared to three percent in the City of Dallas. Frankie Hua's family immigrated to Dallas from Vietnam and Cambodia in 1989. They moved out to Garland three years ago.

Frankie Hua, former Little Asia resident: It's a better place. It's kinda like a quieter neighborhood and less violence I guess. We still stay in an apartment, but it's nicer, quieter...

Sprague: ...and safer than East Dallas.

Frankie: I don't know about now, but back then there's like a lot of police and too much teenager or gang shooting, fighting.

Sprague: Frankie returns to Little Asia one or two afternoons a week to take part in the Police Explorer program at the East Dallas storefront. But it's not the same.

Police officer: This is your gunshot residue kit, which hopefully we won't need that.

Sprague: There used to be dozens of Asian teens in this program, which provides leadership skills and a taste of law enforcement training. Now 21, Frankie is one of just eight participants. Ron Cowart, who launched the Explorer program as the Blue Dragons in the 1980s, is concerned about what this all means for the struggling refugee community.

Cowart: If people are leaving, if the population becomes small, their voices become weaker. And as they become weaker, they become invisible. And if they're not making demands, it makes it easier to turn your back and go elsewhere.

Sprague: Although sprawl is common in North Texas, it has not been typical of Asian-American populations in other large states. Min Zhou with the University of California at Los Angeles says historically, Asians have built vibrant urban communities.

Min Zhou, University of California at Los Angeles: The Asian immigrants who are moving to Texas are very different than the immigrants who are moving to San Francisco or New York or Los Angeles in the past because, today, the immigrants are coming form a very diverse social background. They are fairly assimilated. And they don't have to depend on an ethnic community to make a start because they already have a job. Like a lot of them are able to purchase homes on arrival. So they are able to buy into the middle class American communities.

Sprague: In North Texas, that means immigrating with high-tech visas and buying directly into the suburbs and bypassing urban ethnic enclaves. So, Asian-Americans here may assimilate faster than in other states, but they may also find it difficult to create a sense of community.

Mye Hoang, Asian Film Festival of Dallas: It's very difficult to get the word out to the Asian community because it's so spread out.

Sprague: Mye Hoang is the founder of the Asian Film Festival of Dallas.

Hoang: And a lot of Asian families move out to the suburbs and also there aren't very many ethnic publications, and if there are sometimes they move on or they change into a different publication.

Sprague: Hoang says as a result, less than half of the audience at the films she screens is Asian. She'd like to see more of a hub of Asian culture in Dallas. Emmelita de la Rosa, chairwoman of the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce, has heard the same concerns from others.

Emmelita de la Rosa, Greater Dallas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce: That's the biggest challenge that we have here in Dallas. Well, in general, Dallas is not perceived as a global city. Nothing is like New York or Chicago where they call Chinatown, so that is the biggest challenge, but we're getting there.

Sprague: There are efforts to build a more formal Chinatown in Richardson, with an Asian gateway arch. A cluster of restaurants and shops are concentrated on the east side of town. But some non-Chinese Asians say they wouldn't necessarily feel welcomed there. So the Chamber's de la Rosa and other business leaders are hoping to create a more pan-Asian identity along Harry Hines, near Royal Lane.

[Ambience of street noise]

Sprague: 600 Asian owned businesses here make up what is known as the Asian trade district. Beauty salons, insurance agencies and jewelers populate the area. But most of the stores are owned by Korean families, so for many years it's also been known as Korea Town. Charles Park is a retired tax accountant who used to office here. He says the neighborhood is getting a good reputation abroad, but it may not yet be deserved.

Charles Park, Korean community leader: I visited two or three years ago Korea and they said, I heard that Dallas has Korea Town. And, I said, yeah, you can call it Korea Town but it's not named as L.A.

Sprague: Park used to live in Los Angeles, which is now home to some 100,000 Korean-Americans. It's important to Park that the Asian Trade District in Dallas more closely resembles L.A. by developing a good hotel, a welcome sign and more Asian architecture.

Park: So I can call more comfortably that Dallas is my town culturally...

Sprague: ...and so there will be more tourism related to Dallas' Asian communities. But Asian leaders acknowledge they don't know how to accomplish this yet.

Sprague: So in the interim, they are more focused on events such as the annual Asian Festival, which drew thousands to downtown Dallas in May. Lakshmi Choudnany was one of the vendors at the Festival. She believes these gatherings indicate Asian culture has a promising future in greater Dallas.

Lakshmi Choudnany, Festival vendor: That I am seeing in evidence today. It is wonderful to be here. I have come here for the first time and I can't believe how many Asian are here. And I'm surprised that so many Caucasians and Hispanics and Blacks are also here. It's really wonderful how they embrace other cultures and it's nourishing to know that we all can thrive together.

Sprague: North Texas Asians will gather again on August 10th at Lone Star Park for the annual Anand Bazaar, sponsored by the India Association of North Texas. Organizers say this year, they're going to stress citizenship and political participation. Many Asians believe the time has come to make their voices heard. So, tomorrow on Morning Edition, we'll look at the broader push for civic leadership in Asian American communities. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.

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