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Asian population up in small cities

A new University of Massachusetts study reveals that Asian-Americans are flocking to Greater Boston, particularly the working-class enclaves of Lynn and Malden, where they make up a rapidly growing and diverse segment of the population.

The Asian-Americans settling in the cities that flank Boston include both rich and poor, young and old, white-collar professionals and manual laborers, according to a report released two weeks ago by the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

They are a mix of immigrants from India and Vietnam, newly arrived refugees from Cambodia who now live in Lynn, and well-educated, second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans who moved to Malden from Boston and other larger cities, according to the report, ''Asian Americans in Metro Boston: Growth, Diversity, and Complexity."

''What we're seeing is that while the Asian-American community had traditionally been heavily centered in major urban areas -- Boston, Lowell, and Worcester -- where we're seeing the most significant growth now is in the ring of cities just beyond those urban centers, places like Malden, Lynn, and, in more modest numbers, Revere," said Paul Watanabe, lead author of the UMass report and director of the school's Institute for Asian-American Studies. He added that Mal-ASIANS, Page 14den and Lynn are now among the 10 Massachusetts cities with the largest Asian populations.

The 2000 US Census figures show the Asian community makes up 7.7 percent of the population in Lynn, up from 3.7 in 1990. In Malden, the population grew to 14.5 percent from 5.2 over a decade.

The UMass study shows that while the number of Asians living in the Greater Boston region increased 70 percent in the 1990s, the Asian population in Malden soared 181 percent, from 2,805 residents in 1990 to 7,882 in 2000, with 4,504 Chinese making up 57 percent of the Asian population of the city. The newly arrived Asian-Americans in Malden also include 876 Vietnamese residents (an increase of 187 percent) and 696 new Indian immigrants (a jump of 262 percent).

During the same period, Lynn's Asian population grew more than 91 percent, from 2,993 residents in 1990 to 5,730 in 2000. The largest Asian subgroup in Lynn is Cambodian. By 2000, 3,050 Cambodians had settled in the North Shore's largest city, accounting for 53 percent of Lynn's Asian population. Like Malden, Lynn also experienced a large influx of Vietnamese- and Indian-Americans. The Vietnamese population swelled 192 percent in the 1990s, to 1,112 residents in 2000, while the Indian population jumped 264 percent, from 97 residents in 1990 to 353 a decade later, US Census figures show.

Groups show diversityWith such rapid growth comes the economic and social diversity seen among other racial groups in the state's urban centers, Watanabe said.

''For this group, as is true for most ethnic groups, the picture is mixed," Watanabe said. ''The one thing we've tried to show in this study is that you cannot capture this group, which includes more than 15 subgroups, by using any kind of aggregate data because they occupy all segments of the socioeconomic spectrum."

Within the Asian community, incomes varied widely in 2000, with Indians having an annual median household income of $72,000, and Cambodians earning $38,000, the lowest median family income of any Asian subgroup, according to the UMass study. In addition, Asians were twice as likely as the general population to be living in poverty in 2000, particularly those Asians living in cities such as Lynn, and to some extent Malden, Watanabe noted. At the same time, however, almost 20 percent of Asians were enrolled in college or graduate programs, compared with 9 percent of the total population, the study shows.

For Jenifer Henry, a community outreach coordinator for the City of Malden, the study confirms what she already suspected, that the Asian-American community is extremely diverse. ''The newer immigrants come here looking for work," Henry said. ''They've established themselves here and are doing quite well, but still there are many Asian immigrants living in Malden who are low-income and in need of public assistance."

Anna Nguyen, 68, and her family illustrate the diversity of the Asian community in Malden. While Nguyen, who immigrated to Malden from Vietnam eight years ago and speaks limited English, relies on food stamps to buy groceries and MassHealth to pay her medical bills, her daughter and son-in-law receive no public services. Both have full-time jobs -- he is an independent subcontractor in the construction business; she holds an office job -- and together the couple owns a three-family home. Nguyen, who became a US citizen last July, rents a small apartment from them.

''I left Vietnam because I wanted to leave the Viet Cong and come to the United States; it was my dream for many years," Nguyen said through an interpreter, An Tran, who works for the Vietnamese American Civic Association.

The Dorchester-based agency runs a satellite office in Malden one day a week, and in partnership with six other service organizations helps provide a range of educational and social services at the New American Center in Lynn, with support from the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants. The Vietnamese American Civic Association is one of many groups operating in Boston's ring cities in an effort to help immigrants like Nguyen learn English, find housing, secure jobs, and become citizens.

Malden is also home to an advocacy group, the Malden Asian Pacific American Coalition, which strives to support the Asian community and foster cultural understanding; the Tri-City Community Action Program Inc., an antipoverty agency that works closely with the Asian-American community, providing basic needs such as fuel assistance; and the Great Wall Center, a nonprofit multiservice center. Its services include a Chinese-speaking domestic violence program and a volunteer-driven employment service.

The Immigrant Learning Center also is located in Malden, and offers free English classes for immigrant and refugee adults who speak more than 40 languages. From July to December 2003, the learning center served 448 students, according to Kathy Smith, director of development, who noted that the largest Asian populations were from China (65 students) and Vietnam (21 students).

Efforts to organizeIn Lynn, a group of Cambodian-Americans is trying to form a new organization, the Khmer Association of the North Shore, to address issues many members of their community face: housing, education, and access to health care. Founders of the group began meeting in November, according to Vanna Lam, 26.

''We're applying for grants right now, and hope to become affiliated with other organizations," said Lam, who immigrated to Atlanta from a Thai refugee camp in 1987 and moved to Lynn in 1996. These days, Lam, a nurse at the Lynn Community Health Center, spends one day each week at the Sangkhikaram Buddhist temple, the religious and social center of the Cambodian community in Lynn, to help the elderly manage medications. Soon, she hopes, she will be able to offer even more services, through the Khmer Association.

Breaking down barriersAs the Asian-American community grows in cities like Lynn and Malden, such grass-roots organizations will become vital to serve a diverse population with complex needs, Watanabe said. The community shares neither a single language, nor a single cultural bond, making it difficult to address social ills, economic challenges, and the lack of political empowerment.

Mei Hung, executive director of the Chinese Culture Connection in Malden, said understanding and respect will help break down barriers and foster social change. To that end, Hung is working to educate the community in Chinese culture, teaching youngsters in the Malden public schools about the ancient art of calligraphy, brush painting, and the Chinese language.

''The program is designed to fit in with our curriculum, but an important side product has been the development of a cultural understanding," said Joan A. Connolly, superintendent of the Malden schools. ''Before the program came to the schools, the Chinese students who did not speak English well were isolated. After the program was introduced, the children started taking more interest in their Asian peers."

While the program offers children a glimpse of the cultural diversity that exists within their city, much work still needs to be done. ''As long as our community lacks representation in the mainstream, our stories will not be told, and many of our issues will not be addressed," said Richard W.P. Cheng, director of the Great Wall Center.

A social worker and Hong Kong native, Cheng was the first Asian-American to run for office in Malden. Although he lost his bid for an at-large council seat in 2001, Cheng is hopeful that an Asian-American soon will win an elected position in Malden.

Already, a small but growing number of Asian-Americans are serving in office in other Massachusetts communities, and Malden voters appear ready to embrace an Asian-American candidate, Cheng said. ''I think people are willing to embrace diversity, to recognize the newer Malden community."

Brenda J. Buote can be reached at 

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