Asian minority leaps ahead in Los Angeles

They have been a silent minority here, overshadowed by this sprawling city's black and Hispanic populations. Yet within the Asian community today, change is brewing. Just 10 years after they began arriving here in mushrooming numbers, Asians and Pacific islanders have become the fastest growing minority in Los Angeles.

And after a decade of relative silence, they have at least begun to find, if not yet use, their political voice.

Statistically, the Asians' tale reads like a success story. According to the most recent city tally, taken in 1977, figures show that Asians have:

* A median family income of $15,256, second only to whites who have a median income of $17,834.

* The lowest unemployment rate of any ethnic group, including whites.

* The lowest number of families on welfare.

* The lowest high school dropout rates.

* The highest percentage of college-educated individuals.

They have been dubbed Los Angeles's new middle class. But beneath the statistics and the worn stereotypes of a hard-working, undemanding race, there is another table of a community struggling hard to find its own place, its own voice, and its own power.

Since 1970, when the effects of relaxed immigration laws first began to be felt, Asians have flocked to Los Angeles by the thousands -- creating what is estimated to be the largest Asian community in the United States, outside of Hawaii.

From 1970 to 1977, city officials estimate, the numbers of Asians and Pacific islanders grew by nearly 70 percent, from approximately 100,000 to 175,000. Sources in the Asian community, however, say that figure is far too low -- and some place the current total as high as 750,000.

The immigrants come from many countries, including Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. And they come for many reasons, including politics, business, and a desire for an American university education.

Some bring thousands of dollars, others bring only what they manage to carry on their backs. Many have been professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and pharmacists; many other made their living as farmers and semiskilled workers.

Whatever their social and economic differences, however, these newcomers are bound by a common dilemma: their inability to speak English in a city where, as an Asian- American aide to Mayor Thomas Bradley puts it, "If you say bilingual, it usually means Spanish. And if you say minority, if oftentimes means Hispanic or black."

But that shared obstacle may be one of the only ties that binds these Asians. Although they may not speak english, that doesn't necessarily mean they speak the same language -- far from it, in fact.

Unlike the Hispanic and black populations, there is no one group that can be identified as Asian. According to Chris Ung, one of three liaison to the Asian community in Mr. Bradley's office, there are 22 ethnic groups -- each with its own language and culture -- within the group which the city refers to as Asians and Pacific islanders.

"People tend to say we all look alike, and therefore tend to lump us all together," she says. "But each group is very distinct. And that can be very difficult. . . . Trying to mesh those groups together is a long process."

Part of that difficulty lies in building political clout within a community where some members remain divided by longstanding cultural or historical differences.

"Asians have been fighting among themselves for I don't know how many thousands of years," says Enrique Delacruz, a Filipino who helps run an Asian work-placement program. "The Asians have just not gotten their act together. That's one of their main problems.

"We tell the refugees who come to us, 'Vietnamese is fine. But when you're in front of policymakers, think Asian, because that's where the political power is,'" he says.

But for all the stumbling blocks, there has been considerable progress -- particularly in light of the fact that there was no real push here for "yellow power" until a sense of ethnic consciousness was sparked by the 1965 Watts riots.

Back in 1968, for example, there was only one community program for Asians. Today, there are more than 50 organizations ranging from legal, social, and health services to alcohol- and drug-abuse clinics and youth centers.

While they have yet to make the political inroads already forged by the larger black and Hispanic communities, many Asians now work as aides to elected city, county, and state officials. Both the local and statewide Democratic committees have Asian wings. And Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. has two Asian liaisons, one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles.

There have been economic gains as well. Although many Asian leaders insist that the news media have hugely overplayed the "success story" image, many families -- have parlayed hard-earned savings into small businesses or "mom and pop" stores of their own.

Still, several problems persist. Some community workers, for example, worry that the pride and self-sufficiency often associated with Asians may be keeping many immigrants who need counseling or welfare from asking for help.

They also cite family strains that often arise when an Asian father, the traditional bradwinner, must turn to his wife and children for help in supporting the household.

What is more, because many parents work as much as 16 hours a day, many Asian children grow alienated from their families -- with the result that drug abuse and street gang activity are considered to be serious problems among the community's youth.

"There's a high expectation of our young people that a lot of them just can't mt," says Ron Wakabayashi, chairman of the Asian Pacific Planning Council and director of the Asian-American drug abuse program. "It creates a sense of failure that is very pervasive."

Overall, however, the tone found in interviews with a number of Asian community leaders and observers is far from pessimistic. On the contrary, they say they believe it is only a matter of time -- certainly within the coming decade -- before the Asian community both comes to grips with itself and emerges as a political force.

"In a way, we cannot be too impatient," says K. W. Lee, editor of Koreatown Weekly. "We are, in a sense only 10 years old. Look how long it took the Jews, blacks, and Hispanics to get where they are.

"What we are literally seeing here," he says, "is a textbook study of an emerging ethnic community in America."

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