Pan-asian panoply 

East is East and West is West, and here the twain meet in a community of diverse cultures. East is east and west is west and the twain are meeting in Central Florida. From Orlando's original Asian commercial district in Colonialtown, to the one-time cattle kingdom of Kissimmee, to Longwood's burgeoning business sector, the Pan-Asian population is making itself felt.

Ask most Americans what countries comprise Pan-Asia and the answer likely would be China, Japan and Vietnam. In reality, Asia contains 49 countries, including Russia, Israel and the Philippines.

There are settlers in Central Florida from about half the countries in Asia -- an estimated 150,000 living in greater Orlando. Their impact in the business community is varied and, interestingly, depends to a degree on their country of origin. Asian cultures, too, are diverse, rich with subtleties.

"Americans tend to lump us together," says Lita Martija, a native of the Philippines and long-time Orlando resident. An activist in the Asian business community, Martija was the founding president of the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, in 1986, and is publisher and owner of Orient Magazine, headquartered in Longwood. In June she was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Asian Business Women.

She entered the business world as a way to deal with grief after her husband of 26 years, popular Central Florida physician Dr. Rod Martija, died in 1993 of a brain tumor. "One day somebody asked me if there was any way they could access the Asian-American population in this town. Well, there wasn't. I said to myself, ‘now there's a need; why not meet it?'

"I had a journalism degree and had been involved with the Asian Heritage Council, so I thought maybe I could do it."

Do it she did. Starting out in her garage, with her kitchen table doubling for conferences, Martija set out to create a slick, first-class magazine devoted to Asian culture. In those days -- the summer of 1994 -- she sold the ads, did the layout, editing and most of the writing. By the end of that first year, her publication had won a media-of-the-year award, and in 1995 was chosen by the Downtown Orlando Partnership for a small business award.

"Asian cultural differences can be seen clearly, in what each chooses as commerce," says Martija. "The Vietnamese, for example, are mostly small business people -- restaurants, groceries, gift shops. They're not into big, conglomerate hotels yet, but they are beginning to be involved in the management of them."

Actually, six local Kobé restaurants of a Japanese chain are owned by Vietnamese.

Indeed, the Vietnamese have been building a solid business enclave in Colonialtown, at Colonial and Mills avenues, for 20 years, with many owning multiple venues.

Long Phan and his wife, Quy Do, watch as a son-in-law carries trays of banh tec -- banana, mung bean and sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf -- through the aisles of their popular Tien Hung market.

"We arrive Orlando in July 1983, with our eight children. In 30 days we open a business, not the grocery here, but a tailor shop," says Phan, a master tailor who taught the skill in Saigon and has authored a book on the subject; some of the costumes in "Star Trek, The Movie" are his work. Now, 10 grandchildren later, he owns three tailor shops, two restaurants and Tien Hung.

Nearby, Dong-A-Market, a Vietnamese grocery-plus-anything-you can-think-of-store, is run by a Vietnamese family but owned by a Chinese investor. The place is a sensory overload. Pungent, exotic aromas settle in the close aisles that lead past shelves spilling with thousands of goods wrapped in the lovely label art of the Far East. Here is a tin of white gourd with Chinese soy; there, icicle radishes. Over there is seaweed with sesame and dry shredded pork and roasted eel. Beside the register are salted duck eggs, 60 cents each, said to transform the American notion of a quiche. Near the eggs, Genuine Facial Lotion promises to whiten your skin, and Ironman Chinese noodles promote health. In the back are the latest Saigon Production videos.

Above all this is the nasal, sing-song sweet soprano of the language, happy talk between old women, between sisters, lapsing into English with Asian-American customers in business suits.

"It has been in business for 12 years, the store," says Kim Chau, the thirtysomething daughter of the nearby non-English-speaking man who nods and grins broadly at his daughter's interrogator.

"When we come, we have nothing. That's it. Work or go back. So we worked hard, continue to work hard. All the young people in my family have their college degrees now. In this country, if you work hard, you make it."

Work. It is the theme heard again and again and again among Asians.

"That is because Asians are not the welfare kind; it's not the mentality of most," says Martija. "It's evident in how we take care of our own. We don't have nursing homes, for example. Here in Orlando there aren't residential Asian neighborhoods as such, but we are clannish and have a tendency to have big homes. That way we can have three generations of one family in one home, to help each other. There may be a dozen under one roof, and they do very well with very little -- as long as they're together."

About 15,000 Vietnamese live in Central Florida. Most are Buddhists. The first came in the mid-'70s, after escaping the communists by boat, or when the federal government deemed Orlando a relocation destination for refugees airlifted to the States after the fall of South Vietnam. Many were in concentration camps as political prisoners. Since 1990, a humanitarian agreement between the two countries has allowed family members of those already here to emigrate.

General practitioner Dr. Hoi Van Do is president of the Vietnamese Associa- tion. He says that the organization strives to keep national culture alive.

"We try to keep the children speaking Vietnamese at home when they are young. It will assure they are bilingual; language is most important to culture, and, after all, they learn English automatically.

"Too," he says, "we have celebrations like the lunar new year and Trung Thu in mid-autumn, when the moon is very bright and round and the adults light candles and the children sing and play. Also, the old among us keep tradition with clothes, but the young are going more American."

The majority of Vietnamese here are homeowners, Dr. Do says, because "[t]hey strive to own their own home and work very, very hard to do so. They pay it off very quickly -- usually after five or ten years -- because the whole family lives together and pays on the mortgage. To us, the family is everything. So, you lend money, help to do everything, try your best to help solve each other's problems."

Surprisingly, there are few Japanese in Central Florida who are small business owners. Martija, arguably one of the area's most knowledgeable in Asian-American affairs, says that "[w]hat happens is that some big outfit from Japan -- although a limited number -- will come to establish a company, and they'll bring Japanese-speaking management with them. That is a problem when it comes to hiring and doing business here, for even among the relatively few Japanese who've lived here a long time, the language is only spoken at cultural events; most have been here long enough that they now speak and think in English. Some are second-generation. So, what happens is that although somebody may look every inch Japanese, they don't know how to speak a word of the language. Consequently, there's often a need for people to have access to a translator. It's a problem; even their [business and cultural] associations keep fizzling out."

What is not fizzling out is the emergence of Kissimmee's Asian community. At a glance, the trend seems incredulous, given the town's traditional range-ridin' good-ole-white-boy-reputation.

"In the last 10 years, Kissimmee has become a hotbed for minorities," says Cruz Costello, director of minority business for the city's Chamber of Commerce.

"First, property here has been more accessible and affordable. Also, a lot of them were coming from densely populated places and were looking for less involvement with the mainstream community. Fewer neighbors. At the same time, they'd hear that Kissimmee, Florida was a place that Asians and Latins were moving to; in an effort to be close to their own people, they'd come.

"A good example is the medical field. Take nurses. At Florida Hospital- Kissimmee, most of them are Asians. One moves here, gets a job, writes home about it, relatives or friends who are nurses do everything they can to join her.

"There are also a number of Chinese doctors. Medicine -- from physicians to medical laboratories -- is the profession where you'll find most Chinese who settle in Central Florida."

At this point, Costello does not see a strong politically-influential Asian community in Kissimmee. "Unlike the Latins who, in this last election, became extremely vocal and elected a county commissioner and had a strong voice in the sheriff's race, Asians are not politically inclined. They are still psychically-connected to repression and try to stay as far away from politics as possible, including contributions to local campaigns. They have made it a point to just get here, huddle together as a group and work hard to be successful."

Dr. Dao Fang Li, a Chinese acupuncturist, is an example. Li moved to Florida from Shanghai in 1991 to escape, not embrace, politics.

"In China, the traditional philosophy does not involve politics but a peaceful mind. We are taught not to be concerned with things outside ourselves. Let the outside world keep everything of the outside world. If you want to try to be perfect, it is yourself you must always criticize."

Li, a Ph.D., first came to the United States via an invitation from the California and Florida acupuncture associations to lecture on acupuncture as a cancer treatment. In 1991, he came for good and went to work teaching acupuncture and practicing in a Clearwater professional school. Dr. Li has been in Kissimmee for a year and four months, and says it is not in his private life where he has experienced prejudice.

"Every American acts like a friend, makes me and my wife a very warm environment of welcome here. At Chinese New Year, we have a party and many Americans come. One chief man in the police station presented a Chinese party, and I was very surprised.

"However, I have met reaction not from my patients, but from American doctors, a bias against traditional Chinese medicine."

Asian family life also is tested in America in ways their forefathers never dreamed. Some traditions rooted in Asian culture are slowly but surely withering on the vine in American soil. Sexism, for instance, has changed significantly as increasing numbers of Asian women have as much power in their homes as their husbands and are not as submissive as they once were.

Another family issue: child-rearing. Asian children growing up in American culture tend to challenge traditional authority.

"Oh, my God, it has been very hard," says Tom Tran, owner of Tran's Electronics in Kissimmee. "My wife, she's American, so our children see value in both places. Me, I don't go that I am 100 percent right, but I can not agree 100 percent with American culture -- or mine. So, it came down that I had to mix it up, teach my children to grow half and half.

"It has been very hard for me to raise children here. The way is not the way I have been raised. Very tough to maintain discipline. They listen a little bit, though, and turned out to be real good kids."

The language issue also is a tricky one. "The current trend among younger parents is to push for their kids to learn their home language first. At one time being a minority was a stigma. It's taken a lot of education to realize that someone who is multi-cultural has an edge. Being able to speak other languages increases that edge," says Costello.

"The second-generation, Americanized Asian, or other minority, child is discovering the importance of having multi-cultural aspects to their personality. The strength that comes with being a minority will give them a strength to deal with other issues. For example, if I can overcome being a minority female in the white male, redneck-dominated society of Osecola County, I can overcome anything."

Yet Costello is quick to add, "A lot of people call Kissimmee Cow Town, but now it is cosmopolitan. It has transcended the Florida cracker atmosphere such that there is now an international community."

Meanwhile, Central Florida representation from smaller Asian countries -- Laos, for example -- seems to be dwindling. The Laotian Association no longer has a working telephone number and immigrants from that country are not moving into the area. The few who are here struggle to organize and promote their culture.

"We used to have a temple, then lost it because of a lawsuit from neighbors who didn't want it in their neighborhood," says Song Hoang, a Harcourt-Brace software engineer. "Then we looked for a piece of property on which to build a temple and found one with a Realtor who was supposed to buy it on our behalf.

"He asked for $45,000 in escrow, because such a small temple had no credit history. The people who come to worship, though, brought the small money they had and put that down until we had collected it. However, the realtor then disappeared with our money. The temple lost confidence after that. Now we rent an apartment place in Longwood. The whole thing has sadden us."

The small Laotian community relies on traditional holiday celebrations to keep its culture viable, says Hoang. "We try to make it like it was back home, but we need a place where we can teach the children our language, like we did in the temple. After all, culture is what one misses the most. It's why we look forward to the Laotian New Year, in April, to worship and celebrate with the food and music and dance of home."

"I guess what I'd hope the public could learn about our Asian American community is how positively we are involved in the community at large, the arts, government and civic organizations," says Filipino Pacita DeMacali, newly-elected president of the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce and a recent appointee to the city of Orlando's Certification Board.

She points to To-Lan Trinh-Lee, a Vietnamese woman, who made the short list of finalists from a field of over 300 for the position of district administrator in the state Department of Children and Families, and to Rana Tiwari, an attorney who sits on many boards in the area and is deeply involved in the arts.

Meanwhile, an Asian-American event this spring, on the shores of Kissimmee's Lake Toho, quietly underscored the everlasting connection between the peoples of the two continents: the unveiling and dedication of a monument that depicts a Filipino woman giving a cup of water to two American survivors of Corregidor and Bataan. It is a scene taken from a true story. Although the three were immediately beheaded -- the woman for offering the water, the soldiers for accepting -- the monument portrays not the atrocity, but the act of kindness that transcended the boundaries of race to touch the culture of Man.

More by Dee Rivers


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