'The immigrant and the stranger'
South Philadelphia’s Vietnamese community welcomes growing, diverse Asian population
When Kristen Hy thinks back to her childhood, she remembers playing with the children of other business owners outside her father’s South Philadelphia shop, Wing Kee China Importer Inc., every day after preschool.
The store, which her family has owned for over 20 years, is packed with rows of religious figurines, jewelry, red lanterns and other tokens that evoke her parents’ homeland. Browsing the small but crowded shop, located on Washington Avenue near South 12th Street, shoppers can find everything from Buddha statues to joss paper.
Hy’s father, who emigrated from Vietnam but is ethnically Chinese, operated various other small businesses before opening Wing Kee in the 1990s. It’s the store he’s owned the longest and Hy, 17, has helped run the place since she was a kid.
“Now I can actually reach the cash register,” she said recently.
In those days, the stretch of Washington Avenue between South 6th and 16th streets now known as Little Saigon wasn’t the lively business community it is today, her older sister, Kelly Hy, 29, recalled.
Their parents, Kelly Hy said, decided to move to Philadelphia from California after visiting a friend in the city on their honeymoon in the 1980s. At one point during their trip, the sisters’ mother wanted to buy Asian groceries but couldn’t find the sort of store where they’d find them back on the West Coast.
Her parents, Hy said, saw an opportunity to make a living serving Philadelphia’s tight-knit Vietnamese community--a group that experts say has been a cornerstone of Philadelphia’s growing and increasingly diverse Asian population.
Between 2000 and 2010, the Vietnamese population increased by almost 25 percent, while the total population of the city stayed more or less the same. The Asian population overall grew by 42 percent.
For many Asians, the influx has made Philadelphia feel more like a home, but it’s also raised new challenges for community leaders, neighborhood institutions and the city as a whole.
The growth in the Asian population has been spread out across the city, but many have settled in historically black and Italian neighborhoods of South Philadelphia. Here, signs on storefronts are written in English as well as Asian languages, and strip malls full of Vietnamese businesses are walking distance from blocks of row houses.
Of the five census tracts where the Asian population makes up a largest percentages of the greater population, three are in the southern part of the city. Areas with large Vietnamese populations are also concentrated in South Philly neighborhoods, according to census data.
Asians make up 43 percent of the foreign-born population in the city, according to 2015 census data, up from about 30 percent in 2000. By comparison, Asians make up only 30 percent of the foreign-born population nationally, according to the most recent statistics.
Narasimha (Nick) Shenoy, President of the city's Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, says the broader Asian population growth can be traced to a range of factors.
On one end, the IT and the pharmaceutical industries have been growing in the metro area and attracting more immigrants, particularly from South Asia.
Meanwhile, the city of Philadelphia attracts immigrants who open grocery stores, restaurants and other small businesses with its lower costs of living and easier access to real estate as rents have skyrocketed in places that have historically been gateways for new immigrants, like New York.
“A lot of clients have … over-spilled from New York, because the cost of living is so much cheaper here and also the investment opportunities are more tenable -- meaning they can buy a building for 100-, 200-, 300,000 [dollars], whereas in New York that’s a lot more,” said James Wang, founding member and CEO of Philadelphia-based Asian Bank. “So for a lot of the smaller business owners this is more realistic for them.”
Asian Bank employees speak Cantonese, Indonesian and Vietnamese, to better reach a population of immigrant entrepreneurs who might not have otherwise sought loans.
“It’s very much a first-generation immigrant kind of culture and community that we serve,” Wang said.
Diversity brings challenges
Alix Mariko Webb, executive director of Asian Americans United, a local community organization, said that as Philadelphia’s Asian population has grown, it’s also gotten more diverse -- a fact that has at once enriched the fabric of Asian-American life in Philadelphia and made offering services more difficult. She estimated that more than 25 different Asian ethnic groups are represented in the metro area.
“It’s really a whole different landscape than it used to be,” she said, which is part of the reason that it’s hard to pinpoint a single driving force behind the growth. “When you’re a refugee, for example, you don't choose where you go.”
Along with the Vietnamese and other southeast Asian communities, like Cambodian immigrants, in South Philly, Webb pointed to populations of recent Chinese immigrants in Northeast Philadelphia, and large populations of South Asian immigrants just outside city boundaries in Upper Darby.
The area around Washington Avenue in the southern part of the city, Webb said, has drawn Southeast Asian immigrants in past decades because of access to work in factories and food processing plants around the metro region. Since then, those communities have become more robust, as small business owners provided more of the comforts of home.
”I think often once you get some base of folks established, then others also tend to come because you want to go where you can speak your language, [and] get assistance,” she said.
Webb said the diversity in Philadelphia’s Asian population has made it a challenging community to organize. “A lot of the [individual] communities don't identify as Asian, they identify as wherever they've come from,” she said. “So it becomes really important to work to build those connections.”
This often involves finding issues and concerns that bind different ethnic populations together, Webb said, such as language access.
“These communities are hit by the same issues as any other vulnerable community...like adequate access to health care, the ability to have jobs that are safe and pay livable wages, access to a quality education,” she added.
Native Mandarin speaker Kai Tieo, 19, came to Philadelphia four years ago from China and enrolled in the English Language Learner (ELL) program for her freshman year at Furness High School in southeast Philly.
At Furness, almost half the students identify as Asian, according to data from the Philadelphia School District from the 2016-17 school year, and almost half are English Language Learners, according to district data from the ‘15-’16 school year published by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Tieo, who spoke very limited English when she started high school, was sent to Furness by the district even though she lives in north Philadelphia, because of more available ELL options at the school. Tieo remembers often having as many 10 different native languages represented in her ELL classes through the years, with friends who spoke Vietnamese, Khmer and other languages. But despite a large ELL population, she wishes the school offered more individual attention for non-English speaking students and had a better handle on its language diversity.
Language access issues have come up for other institutions as well, such as the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic church in South Philadelphia, which has several masses in different languages including Vietnamese and Indonesian.
Chính Dinh, a parishioner who’s been with the church since the 1980s, arrived to the United States in 1975 before the wave of Vietnamese refugees also leaving South Vietnam. Dinh recalled how the church responded to the demand for mass in another language back in 1988.
“Most of the Vietnamese people (were) older people,” he said. “They didn’t speak any or just very little of the language...so the priest tried to have a Vietnamese mass so they [could] understand it.”
Msgr. Hugh J. Shields has been a part of St. Thomas Aquinas for six years, but as a South Philly resident all his life, he has seen the changes in the neighborhood.
“It was originally Irish, then Italian, and then it became a mixture of Irish, Italian and German,” said Shields, himself the son of Irish immigrants.
The church’s decorations point to its Irish and Italian roots.
Past leaders of St. Thomas Aquinas built a code based on open arms for the “immigrant and the stranger in South Philadelphia,” Shields explained.
Yet that mission is not not just in faith, but also in community service. In 2013, the Church redesigned a building-- once a day care -- into the Aquinas Center, where researcher Bethany Welch to serve as its director. Such services include English classes and adult literacy programs.
“The church invited me to come … because of the constituent base in the neighborhood is so diverse,” Welch said. “Newer people are coming in because it is a rapidly redeveloping area.”
Feeling more at home
Ree Wisittasak, 38, a Thai-American nurse who’s lived near Philadelphia’s Little Saigon stretch for 20 years and used to work in several Vietnamese-owned nail salons in the area, says she shops at the nearby First Oriental Market, which stocks Vietnamese foods, every couple weeks.
Though she’s not Vietnamese herself, she’s learned some of the language since living in the area, and how to make some of the cuisine.
“Grocery stores are mixed,” she said recently, as she browsed the tea aisle of the grocery store. “I know people who are Laotian, Thai, Chinese, Cambodian who come here.”
Wisittasak came to the U.S. when she was 14, living in Pittsburgh with her family in an area with few Asian-Americans. Coming to South Philly a few years later, she remembers, she was finally able to find ingredients from her grandmother’s old Thai recipes at grocery stores like First Oriental.
“[It] felt like going back to my culture, like I was at home,” she said. “Being in South Philly makes me feel like less of a minority.”