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Making Change: Asian Business Boom

See Also: Celebrating the Year of the Dog (Web Exclusive)

Much of the paint has worn away, and the message isn't as clear as it was 40 years ago, but you can still make out the words on the back of a building near E. 18th and Rockwell, just outside of downtown Cleveland. "Welcome to China Town," it says. But, Alex Duong says "Asia Town" is more accurate these days.

Alex Duong: They're not just from China, they might be from Southeast Asia, Vietnam, or Thailand.

Duong's family has been catering to that more diverse ethnic mix since 1987, when they opened the Asia Food Company, a few blocks away at East 31st and St. Clair. Then, five years later, they opened Siam Café, down the street. While the restaurant is popular with a wide cross-section of Greater Clevelanders, the Asia Food Company caters largely to the region's Asian community, who come down each weekend for specialty items they can't get at suburban stores.

Alex Duong: It's like a one-day event, where they come to each market and it's almost a social occasion. It's a pretty close-knit community.

That sense of community and loyalty may be responsible for the striking sales figures revealed in a recent census report. From 1997 to 2002, Northeast Ohio's Asian-owned firms had a 58% sales growth. That's over seven times the national average for Asian business sales growth during those five years. The local economic impact during that period was nearly two billion dollars. Those are the sorts of numbers that the Immigrant and Minority Business Alliance likes to brag about.

After a recent meeting, the Alliance's co-chair, Rose Zitiello, said the Asian business stats were no surprise.

Rose Zitiello: It's pretty much supporting everything we've been advocating.

Zitiello has a west side perspective of the Asian business boom. She's a resident of the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, which is home to a substantial Indo-Chinese community.

Rose Zitiello: In the early 80s, when we started seeing Southeast Asians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese immigrating to Cleveland, they were being settled here by various churches. I live on West 69th street, which is a former Italian enclave, so the church thought, "Hey, immigrants lived here before, why not now?"

Soon, the new residents established their own restaurant, Mihn Ahn. Next came a Vietnamese grocery store... a laundromat... and more restaurants. And this ethnic business core continues to grow. Giahoa Ryan is re-habbing a building at West 52nd and Detroit. She left Vietnam 30 years ago, after the war, and settled first in Lorain, before discovering the Vietnamese community on Cleveland's west side.

Giahoa Ryan: I told Councilman Matt Zone that I would like to find a building to turn into a cultural center so that people can begin to learn about us.

Ryan says the building she found was a mess. A former furniture store and bingo hall, the structure had become a boarded-up eyesore in the community. She financed the purchase and renovation of the property by taking out a second mortgage on her home. The city found funds to help fix the heating and air conditioning, plus she used the "sweat equity" of family members to scrub and sand the place back to life, revealing a classic tin ceiling and hardwood floors. Ryan lives by a simple work ethic.

Giahoa Ryan: I've been here for over 30 years. Never one day off work. Never one day to collect unemployment. No housing assistance of any kind. I brought over 40 family members over, and I told them none of them are allowed to go do that. If they do that, I immediately send them back to Vietnam.

Joe Meisner is an American Vietnam veteran who now helps with the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees.

Joe Meisner: We were all immigrants at some point, and that's what will help the city again build it's strength. We need to have more people coming from more places in the world, coming here to Cleveland to settle down. They would become home owners, they would become business owners, starting up small businesses, whether a bakery, a restaurant or whatever. They would find employment, and they would also provide employment.

Meanwhile, back on the east side, Alex Duong's family is looking to expand their businesses further in the old China Town neighborhood.

Alex Duong: We're going to be doing Asia Town Center, which is a 115,000 square foot mixed use retail center, which will eventually house our new building.

And in a true nod to ethnic diversity, they've been entertaining bids for a... Hispanic market. David C. Barnett, 90.3.