State's Asian population fastest-growing racial group
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 11, 2002

Hernán Rozemberg

They excel academically, but they seldom become CEOs. They have proliferated as small-business owners, but they miss out on opportunities for their businesses to grow.

Many of them see themselves as Americans yet don't truly feel part of mainstream America.

They are thousands of Asians, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders who call Arizona home, and they are the state's fastest-growing racial group.

Yet there are vast differences among Asian nationalities and ethnicities, and real progress won't come about until they can speak as one community, leaders say.

"We need to get it together," said Tony Kao, 52, who immigrated to Phoenix from Taiwan in 1983 and owns three restaurants in the Valley.

"We've been real good about paying attention to our families, our kids and our jobs. But we've got to expand our horizons. Nobody knows we even exist in Arizona, and that has to change," Kao said.

The state's Asian and Pacific Islander population grew from 55,206 in 1990 to 98,969 last year, up 80 percent, according to the U.S. census. Nationally, the group ballooned from 7.2 million to 10.6 million.

The kind of change Kao wants is expected to get a jump-start Saturday, when representatives of several Asian groups will gather in Phoenix to establish a community agenda.

The town hall meeting, which isn't open to the public, will include keynote speaker John Tsu, chairman of the presidential advisory commission on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Four top issues facing Asians and Asian-Americans in Arizona will be taken up at the meeting: education, immigration, economic development and health.

Such bread-and-butter concerns have been the focus for people like Madeline Ong-Sakata for decades. She and other veteran Asian activists put on a similar gathering in 1988, hoping it would finally put Asians on the Arizona map.

Though the session reaped some success - an Asian-American studies program was created at Arizona State University - there's still wide disappointment with the Asian community's societal slog.

"We haven't improved that much," said Ong-Sakata, 61, executive director of the Asian Chamber of Commerce in Phoenix. The plight goes back to her father's days in the 1940s, when he became the first Asian-American public officer holder after being elected to the Arizona House of Representatives.

A top priority continues to be the dismantling of Asian stereotypes.

Major language and cultural practices impede Asians' ability to flow into many levels of mainstream society. The result, community leaders say, is that many Asians end up needing help but don't dare tell anyone about it.

Countless stories have frustrated Kelly Hsu. A private doctor who lives and works in Ahwatukee, she'll lead the health and aging panel at the town hall.

"There's a myth out there that all Asians are prosperous, healthy and educated," Hsu said. "Yet a lot of us are under the poverty line. A lot of us haven't gone to college."

Depression and other mental health problems are rampant in some Asian groups, but they are rarely talked about, Hsu said.

The cultural tradition among many Asians to solve matters independently has created further obstacles for those trying to fit into the mainstream.

Asian students rarely take leadership positions on campus, the ripple effect being subsequent difficulties climbing the corporate ladder, said Vic Camua, a Filipino entrepreneur in Phoenix.

Camua lamented that countless Asian business ventures don't tap into local, regional and national programs just waiting for their call.

"A lot of us don't know about the Small Business Administration or even just basic bank loans," said Camua, 60, owner of Phoenix-based Pause Inc., which brings workers from the Philippines here.

"We also need better access to government contracts and to corporate America," he added.

A large chunk of Arizona's Asian population is made up of immigrants. As foreigners, they've always worried about the welcome mat being pulled out from under them.

That feeling intensified after the terrorist attacks in September, which ushered a blitz on immigrants, increasing their fear of persecution.

"Many Asians out there are in need of understanding how the immigration system has been affected by the terrorist attacks," said Kalpana Batni, an immigrant from India who leads the Arizona Asian-American Association. She'll moderate the town hall's immigration workshop.

Although unifying Arizona's numerous Asian groups is a priority for town hall organizers, deeply rooted differences, from religion to politics, aren't likely to dissipate soon.

But they probably won't stand in the way of progress if all groups go after the same objective, leaders say.

"We need to be included in the debate," said Ong-Sakata, who edits and publishes the Asian Sun-News, the voice of the Asian Chamber of Commerce.

We'll always have to prove our Americanism. People still ask us, 'Where are you really from?' Hopefully someday that won't happen anymore."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8480.