THERE'S a saying in Britain that if a grocery store fails, it needs only a family of Asians to take it over to make it succeed. Today, all over Britain, Indian and Pakistani families are running restaurants, drug stores, sub-post offices, and grocery stores.
Asians are Britain's latest economic success story. They are proof that in spite of high unemployment, people can start from scratch and succeed in business.
Former bus conductors and maintenance workers in cities like London and Glasgow have picked themselves up from the blighted areas of Southall and Gorbals, and moved into such well-to-do areas as Wimbledon and Pollokshields.
Once regarded as being automatically supporters of the British Labour Party, which is traditionally regarded as fighting for the working man, the Asian political allegiance is now more variable. Smartly suited, turbaned Sikhs can be spotted in the front rows at Conservative Party conferences.
So conspicuous has the Asian community become here in Birmingham that more than 1,600 Singhs are listed in the local telephone directory -- and that accounts only for the Singhs who have telephones.
The Handsworth area of Birmingham, recent scene of urban violence, is a little bit of Bombay in Britain. The smell of curry lingers in the streets, and Indian films are advertised on posterboards, not in English, but in Hindi and Urdu. Here Asians own 90 percent of the shops.
Take the examples of Rishnal, Nerinder, and Rajinder.
Rishnal Singh started work at 14. Now, at 22, he drives a 450 SEL Mercedes Benz worth $32,500. Together with his 4 brothers he owns an Indian restaurant, a fish and chips shop, and an electric-cycle factory. His uncle now owns six drug stores.
Rishnal lives in one of the more affluent areas of Birmingham, untouched by the recent violence which erupted in Handsworth.
Nerinder, who declines to give his real name because his store was attacked in the recent Handsworth riot and fears further reprisals, is also 22. Like Rishnal, he also started work at 14. He and his younger brother Rajinder (17) put in just as many hours of work as Rishnal.
Says Nerinder, ``We do about 16 hours a day Sunday to Saturday. Seven days a week. It gets to you . . . .''
Rishnal, Nerinder, and Rajinder are virtual stereotypes of Britain's Asian community. They start young. They work hard. They usually forgo vacations. Those already in business extend loans to start others in business. After several years Indians who have worked with these building blocks have gained substantial assets.
``You can make money in this country if you want to,'' says Nerinder. Everybody starts from scratch. My old man came here with nothing. Everything is possible.''
Nerinder's ``old man'' came from the Punjab in India 30 years ago. He started work in the mills in Yorkshire before spending 13 years as a bus driver in Glasgow. Today he owns three stores, two of them video shops.
Ask Nerinder and Rajinder if they have any brothers and sisters and Nerinder replies: ``Two sisters. They are taking care of one of the other stores.'' Father meanwhile is charging around supervising all three stores.
As Asians they don't feel they have to make any cultural adjustments. There's no sense whatever of any cultural confusion or national identity problems.
``We don't go around saying we're Asian or we're British. We believe in our Indian culture and we're proud of our parents and where they come from,'' Nerinder says.
When rioting erupted in Handsworth his plate glass store window was smashed in. Days after the riot Nerinder and Rajinder were still sweeping up shards.
``That's the only thing we really don't like. The jealousy of the blacks. Otherwise we get on great. We love it here,'' he says interrupting his conversation to pick up a cordless phone and order new stocks.
When 400 youths, most of them blacks, went on a rampage earlier this month and burned, damaged, or looted 70 shops, white, black, and Asian stores felt the fury of the riot. But most of the damage was inflicted on Asian stores. The ill will that this created prompted Indian representatives on the Birmingham City Community Relations Council to charge that black council members had failed to condemn the violence.
Suggestions that the riot was racially inspired and directed principally at Asian shops has been discounted by some community relations workers.
Yet the owner of one white store that sells sporting equipment on Lozells Road thinks it is too much of a coincidence that the rioters attacked Asian stores on either side of him but left his store untouched as well as a white garage down the street.
Several Asian shopkeepers said their own success contrasted sharply with the high unemployment of blacks in the Handsworth area. Unemployment among blacks is sometimes as high as 50 percent.
The Asian community is divided over the causes of the riot. One shopkeeper who had his clothing store cleaned out by the rioters says, ``The main reason for the rioting was unemployment.'' But many Asian shopkeepers who adopt a rather self-righteous approach to work echoed the view that if the blacks only worked as hard as they did they could make a living.
Nerinder claims he knows ``a lot of blacks who are unemployed and who are quite happy without feeling they have to riot. Its just an excuse for looting.''
Blacks disagree, saying they have tried so often for jobs that don't materialize, they've now given up. Surveys show that only four out of 100 blacks in Handsworth can expect to land a job within four months of leaving school. For blacks, the presence of reasonably prosperous Asians in the community poses another problem: the perception of whites who see the Asians as hard working and the blacks as idle.
A white woman in her 70s who lives on Carpenter's Road says, ``You've got to hand it to the Asians. They do work. That's the problem with the blacks.''
Asians say that relations with whites in Handsworth are good. But the multi-racial accord has its geographic and social boundaries. ``It's different if you move into Solihull. That's one of the posh white areas. They don't feel we belong there,'' says Nerinder, although he admits he knows of well-to-do Asians who have encountered no racism at all in subrubs like Solihull.
Yet for Nerinder and many young British-born Asians the challenge for Britain's Asian community is how to win acceptance among blacks in poorer areas and approval from whites in the upscale suburbs.