Report shows that Phila. Asian Americans defy stereotypes

Helen Gym , board member of Asian Americans United, discusses a report on Asian Americans in Phila. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Helen Gym , board member of Asian Americans United, discusses a report on Asian Americans in Phila. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: February 07, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Often highly skilled and high-achieving, Asian immigrants are frequently portrayed as America's "model minorities" - cliched as hardworking greengrocers or math-whiz entrepreneurs.

But a new report on Asian Americans in Philadelphia released Wednesday challenges the stereotypes with a complex portrait of a community comprising more than two dozen countries of origin, and mixed levels of comfort and attainment.

Disaggregating Asians by their ethnicities, the report finds pockets of poverty, gaps in education, trouble securing affordable housing, and other critical needs.

It also finds the potential for growing electoral power as the advocates for Asians in Philadelphia focus on raising their rates of naturalized citizenship, voter registration, and participation in elections.

The report, drawn from census, employment, and business data, and produced by local Asian advocacy groups in collaboration with the national nonprofit group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, looked at the state of Asian Americans in Philadelphia, with separate sections produced by immigrant advocates in Boston and New York City.

"Asian American communities are often stratified on the extreme ends of the spectrum, especially with regards to wealth and educational access," said Helen Gym, a board member of Philadelphia's Asian Americans United (AAU).

The tradition of lumping all the Asian ethnic groups into one category and calling it "Asian," said Gym, "masks" their demographic differences and the range of ways they experience the city.

The Center City reception to release the report drew representatives from the Mayor Nutter's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, organizers from the city's Bhutanese, Burmese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, and Korean communities, and David Oh, Philadelphia's first City Council member of Asian descent.

Tiffany Hwang, executive director of Gov. Corbett's Advisory Commission on Asian American Affairs, said in an interview that the report "provides those of us in government with important data sets that we can take back" to policy discussions in Harrisburg. She said she planned to share its findings with the governor.

Among the highlights:

About 107,000 Asian Americans reside in Philadelphia, including 64,000 who are foreign-born. The city's Asian population grew 43 percent from 2000 to 2010, compared with 1 percent growth for the overall population over the same period.

About 1,000 Bangladeshis live in the city and their population grew the fastest, up 400 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Also growing fast: hundreds of recently arrived refugees from Burma, and Nepalis from Bhutan.

Among the Asian ethnic groups, Chinese own the most businesses, Koreans employ the most people, and Indian-owned businesses dispensed the most in total payroll, about $99 million a year, according to a 2007 survey of business owners.

At the same time, the number Asians living in poverty grew 52 percent between 2007 and 2011, about double the rate of growth for the population as a whole.

"Contrary to the myth of Asian Americans as the 'model minority,' " said AAU executive director Ellen Somekawa, "the data we see in Philadelphia calls upon us to seriously rethink our investments in this community. We need to consider investments in poverty, in education, and affordable housing. ... This conversation is just the beginning."



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