In a Twist, USA’s Asians Are Heading to the Mountain West

Haya El Nasser, USA Today, July 7, 2008

Dozens of workers line up for a buffet catered by Satay Malaysian Grille, a popular Chinatown eatery here. They carry plates piled high with Asian delicacies to nine rows of long tables facing a dais.

By the time the employees savor mango-sticky-rice treats, their luncheon speakers are introduced: a local TV reporter, a former school administrator, a bank founder, a magazine publisher, a chamber of commerce executive, a local politician.

Only one is Anglo. The rest: Chinese, Japanese, Thai—all Asian Americans.

This event isn’t in Las Vegas’ Chinatown district but in a meeting room at one of the pillars of the local business establishment: Nevada Power. The lunch, held so the utility’s employees could hear voices from the Asian-American community, is a reflection of the explosive growth and rising clout of Asian Americans in Nevada and other inland Western states. They’ve become a powerful voting bloc that’s being wooed by presidential candidates—and an economic force that businesses are catering to.

This decade, the Asian population has grown at a faster rate than that of the Hispanic population in 14 states—including Nevada, Arizona and Texas—as well as Washington, D.C.

In a surprising twist to historical settlement patterns, growing numbers of Asian Americans are beginning to bail from the places that have long been their main gateways to the West: California and Washington. Wearied by the same crushing home prices, poor schools, jammed freeways and persistent crime that have sent millions of other Californians packing, Asian Americans are moving to spots in the West they hope will produce better lifestyles—namely Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The Asian migration is fueling ethnic diversity in places that have been overwhelmingly white. Since 1990, Nevada has had the most rapid growth of any state in the number of Asians and Pacific Islanders.

The number jumped 174% in the 1990s and 67% so far this decade to about 211,000, according to 2007 Census Bureau estimates. Asians now make up about 8.2% of Nevada’s 2.6 million people—a higher percentage than the national share of 5.4%. Most live here in Clark County, where Asians are the fastest-growing minority.

Arizona also is registering significant growth among Asians, a trend fueled largely by an exodus from California and Washington. They’re leaving for lower cost of living, warm climates and better job markets, a reflection of the migration patterns that have made Nevada and Arizona the nation’s fastest-growing states throughout much of the past two decades.

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That’s why First Asian Bank’s two branches cater to all Asian groups. The number “8,” a symbol of prosperity, is the first number of the bank’s branch numbers and all its customers’ account numbers (the Beijing Olympics start on 8/8/08 for the same reason). Two Texas companies have since opened banks in Las Vegas to target the Asian market.

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Real estate agents have organized “fly-and-buys” for Californians, offering them three days and two nights in Vegas to play and check out properties.

o The first national glossy magazine to target all Asian ethnicities is scheduled to be launched from Vegas in September. The monthly AsianAm will sell for $4.50, aim for an initial circulation of 700,000 and try to capture the attention of Asians ages 18 to 34, says Bessy Lee-Oh, CEO and publisher.

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Most hotels and casinos are careful not to offend Asian sensibilities. Fifteen years ago, when the MGM Grand HotelsCasino opened, guests had to enter through what appeared to be the mouth of a lion, the company’s corporate logo. Many Asian patrons were not amused. They considered walking into the mouth of a beast bad luck and avoided the casino. MGM spent millions redesigning the entrance.

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Filipinos are the largest Asian group here, at about 45%. Chinese are the next at 15%, Japanese and Koreans make up 9% each, Asian Indians and Vietnamese represent about 5% each, and other Asians make up 12%.

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California generates more Asian migrants than other states, but they’re coming from elsewhere, too.

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Las Vegas is luring Asians young and old, professional and service workers, native-born Americans and immigrants.

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