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Asian-Americans Driving New Economic Growth In Southern Nevada

<p>"Journey to the West" statue that dominates the Las Vegas Chinatown Plaza.</p>
Las Vegas Photography/Flickr

"Journey to the West" statue that dominates the Las Vegas Chinatown Plaza.

(Editor's note: This discussion originally aired Aug. 21, 2020)

It was some 25 years ago that developer James Chen reasoned he could lure Asian travelers off the Strip with high-quality food prepared as it is in Asia. 

And done right, he guessed it would entice a good number of Southern California’s Asian population to move here.

Thus began Chinatown Plaza, which grew into city-block-after-block of stores brought to Las Vegas from Asian cultures around the world: They came for the steaming bowls of savory Vietnamese pho, sizzling platters of Korean barbecue, and the sweet crackle of Peking duck.

About the same time, the valley’s health-care industry suffered a severe shortage of nurses and the Clark County School District needed teachers and support staff to serve its growing student population.  Both turned to Asia, particularly The Philippines, to fill many of those jobs.

Fast forward 25 years and the nexus of entrepreneurial design and public service have contributed to a boom in the Asian population here. 

According to the latest census, more than 220,000 Asian Americans live in Las Vegas today, triple the numbers from two decades ago. In fact, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in our region.

With them, they’ve brought a close-knit community and a real sense of purpose. But in the face of the pandemic, they’ve also been victimized by discrimination and racism.


On the Asian American community:

Duy Nguyen: “I think there still is some challenges that our entire community is facing because Asian and Pacific Islander community is often referred to as a monolith, as all one group, and there is not a lot of distinction. Everybody has the same language or the same culture, which we know, through the census, that is false. We have about 28 different cultures and ethnicities with that census in 2010. And we are the fastest growing.”

Health care workers and economic growth:

Sonny Vinuya: “First of all, not just the medical field but also small business itself. Asian small business has grown by 5,000 over the past five to six years. Right now, we’re close to about 22,000 Asian-owned businesses in Nevada, over 300 alone in the Chinatown corridor. Now, we have – we call it the Chinatown Two over on Rainbow [Blvd.] and 215 and there is also a bunch of Asian restaurants also opening up over on Eastern [Ave.] by Henderson. It’s been great and steady growth.”

On COVID-19 backlash:

Vida Lin: “I’ve heard restaurants and businesses. When it first happened they would not go to some of the Asian establishments. They felt like if they met us they or they talked to us they would get the disease. There was a lot of education that had to be done.”

On President Donald Trump using terms like “Kung Flu” and “Chinese flu”:

Nguyen: “On a personal level, I just think as the leader of the country that’s a pretty ignorant statement. I don’t care if you’re the president or just leading a message to a wider audience, I think that just shows that we have a lot of learning to do in this country. I think that was a straight-on racist statement from the president of the United States, which should not be coming from him. I think the challenge from us is that we have to be able to stand up to rhetoric like that and be able to say, ‘Mr. President that is not the right thing to say.’”

Vinuya: I just wanted to thank a lot of our leaders who have really supported us through this. A couple of them have even said, ‘Hey, I understand your businesses are suffering from this so why don’t we meet in a Chinese restaurant so I can show my constituents that I’m not afraid to meet in public.”

On COVID-19 impact on Chinatown:

Lin: “For a lot of the small businesses, it really has affected them a lot. Will they have a job? Are they ready to open for business? Are people coming in? When they started in the beginning, the essential workers, we had to make sure that we educate our community in their languages what are the essential workers and what are not. What kind of business would be open. We started Phase One we also had to do the translation. We’re very fortunate at Asian Community Development Council that we have bilingual staff that can help with the translation of languages. That educational piece is really important for our community.”

On how the Asian American community reacted:

Lin: "The community in Nevada we should be very proud of, especially in Clark County. When we had a shortage of masks, the [Nevada Chinese Association] donated 40,000 disposable masks in the hospital to make sure they go service. There’s a lot of things that our community does to help in many ways that nobody talks about.

I wanted to make sure that people understand that even though we’re going through this COVID-19 we’re going through it together. What we need to is come together and help each other out and support each other and not be divided. Because this disease, this virus this pandemic affects all of us and the best way is to come together, be calm, stay safe and need to do what we need to do to help each other.”

Sonny – “There was a lot of help that came out, which is great. And Vida talking about coming together, I have just got to say there’s a lot of institutions or government institutions here in Nevada that really helped out – county, of course, you’ve got the city, workforce development and the other chambers really got together to get a lot of our small businesses help.”

On forms of racism against Asian Americans in Southern Nevada

Jean Munson: “We are a thriving and large community and in the word ‘thriving’ sometimes we are assigned the model minority and that means we are always succeeding, which can kind of be hard to define in our community because that isn’t the case like Huey was saying weren’t a monolith”

On the harm of Asian stereotypes:

Munson: “It doesn’t help us see how other Asian Americans may be suffering in our community. What if they don’t have access to business ownership programs? Or what if they don’t have access to translation because we automatically think they’re thriving.”

On Asian Americans and Black Lives Matter:

Munson: "The Asian American activism that coincides with BLM that is currently happening is a lot of it is happening in social media formats. We’re seeing more concentrated on Instagram that makes academic information really digestible in terms of race history. We’re also seeing a lot more content shelving podcasts to disseminate these difficult conversations around race. So, Asian Americans innovating the way in which we can support by also being very cognizant that there is pandemic going on.”

“We have a lot of education that has to distributed, especially how our histories have intersected, like how we have helped each other in the past. We’re talking way back into the war, way back into civil rights, that’s not popular knowledge to people and so we hang on to stereotypes about each other that create a division between us.”

Nguyen: “I think race is very much a wedge issue and I think at this point in our country and where everything is with this global pandemic this whole minority piece that Jean was talking about and having that as the forefront of API community does pit us against other minority communities.”

Lin: “One thing unique about Las Vegas or unique about Nevada is we're a melting pot. One thing that we do well is we work together with the other groups and we have to. We have to work with the Latinos. We have to work with the Blacks and we have done that. I think the new movement is when we come together we are much more powerful.”

Changes to immigration policy impact on the Asian American community:

Dee Sull: It certainly has affected them negatively. I think all immigration whether it be legal or undocumented, which is a large portion as well out there, but even documented where you’re trying to bring the family member has been targeted severally by the Trump administration. You can try to do things the right way, but people just cannot effectuate.

Sull: “For Nevada, the Asian-American experience has been very important in many ways. In small businesses, in the medical field, teaching, investment and growth, it’s pretty impressive. This is quite a melting pot here, quite the Americana for a lot of people.”

On activism in the younger generation of Asian Americans

Lin: “My family came in years ago when we had the [Chinese] Exclusion Act, just before that happened. So I know that they have been very afraid or scared – don’t say much, stay under the radar, don’t get in trouble… as a child remember that we could only buy or live in certain areas, that we had to be in the back of the bus. We experienced that and I can tell you I don’t want my children to experience that. I have taught my kids to say, ‘we are American. We belong here. We built this country.”

Sull: I think the younger generation… they are educating even the older ones. I think there is activism that has been going on quite a bit with the disparity of economics, whether it's being Asian or Black, they see the political divide that has happened and there is a mobilization that is going on in the Asian community to get out the vote and show and demonstrate that we are an active participant in the political culture of America.

On the November election

Nguyen: “One API Nevada the group I represent is really trying to change that stereotypical image about the Asian maybe only care about one thing. So, I think all of us can agree that when people talk about Asian they’re like, ‘They all just care about education.' But we are not a monolith or a single-issue community.”

“We realized it has to do with health care, it has to do with immigration, it has to do with workforce development. There is an Asian and Pacific Islander angle on all of these issues. Our job at One API Nevada is to raise that profile. ACDC works on getting folks out to vote we want folks to realize that you can’t just check one box and say, ‘we had one event with the Asian community and we’re done.’”


Host Sonja Swanson/Chris Smith/Desert Companion 

Sonny Vinuya, President-Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce/Chris Smith/Desert Companion

Vida Lin, President,-Asian Community Development Council

Duy Nguyen, President, One APIA Nevada

This is part two of our series on race and racism in Southern Nevada by looking at the Asian American experience. This series is made possible with support from Wynn Las Vegas. 



Duy Nguyen, President, One APIA Nevada;  Vida Lin, President, Asian Community Development Council;  Sonny Vinuya, President-Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce;  Jean Munson, program director, Women's Research Institute of Nevada at UNLV;  Dee Sull, immigration attorney

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.