April 19, 2011 at 1:00 am

Asian-Americans settle in Metro Detroit enclaves

Ann Liao of Troy leads students in a dance class at the Chinese Community Center in Madison Heights. Chinese families began arriving in Detroit in the late 19th century. (Kiya Gibbons / Special to The Detroit News)

Upen Saparia followed his brother from India to Michigan 10 years ago after a brief stop in Canada, and since then, the computer contractor has never been out of work or worried about losing his job.

"I like everything, except winter, everything in Michigan," said Saparia, 38, of Rochester Hills, who also owns a full-service Indian grocery store in Troy. "The people are great, and it's the land of opportunity."

The economic downturn of the past decade may have brought unemployment and plummeting housing values to some Metro Detroiters, but Asian-Americans see nothing but opportunity here.

The combined Asian-American population in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties grew 37 percent between 2000 and 2010 — from 100,792 to 138,075, according to U.S. census figures released last month.

The rise slightly outpaced the Hispanic population, which rose by nearly one-third from 118,641 to 156,275 in the tri-county area.

Nearly half of the area's Asian-Americans live in Oakland County, where almost 23 percent of residents are black, Asian or Hispanic. These numbers reflect the region's increasing diversity.

"Everybody comes because of the auto industry — that was the sum of it at the beginning," said Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit, a public policy think tank. "And immigrants are creating a third of the high-tech businesses and they're located in Oakland County."

Many of the communities that have seen significant Asian growth offer a diverse populace, good schools, low crime rates and jobs.

In Novi, the Asian-American population more than doubled from 4,091 in 2000 to 8,756 in 2010, census figures show. Almost one in five residents of Troy is Asian. The same is true for Hamtramck.

In Northville Township, where the median household income is nearly $102,000, the number of Asian-Americans grew 260 percent from 891 to 3,205 people. The Asian-American population rose 46 percent to nearly 6,200 residents in Warren. In Rochester Hills, Asian-Americans account for more than 10 percent of the population, growing 61 percent in the past decade.

"People tend to live where others recommend or where there's a strong sense of community," said Tom Costello, president of the Detroit-based Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, a nonprofit that seeks to foster understanding among people of diverse racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. "That's what anybody wants."

Using 'social networks'

The Asian population growth spurt likely can be attributed to the typical migration patterns of any social group, said Sarah Swider, a Wayne State University sociologist who specializes in Asian immigration, labor relations and gender issues.

"Migrants tend to use their social networks to migrate — the enclave effect sets in," Swider said.

Asian-American immigrants are leaving traditional gateway cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., for places like Metro Detroit with a relatively lower cost of living and high-tech job opportunities, Swider said

Sterling Heights resident Merry Wu, a Taiwanese-American, arrived in Michigan 10 years ago with her husband, a General Motors mechanical engineer. They are both naturalized U.S. citizens.

"It was really easy to find work. Most of the reason is the job opportunity in the auto industry," Wu said. "And the living quality definitely is better than (Taiwan), because housing is very expensive there and here it's cheaper."

Curtis Chin, board president of Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific Americans for Progress and a fourth-generation Detroiter, produced in 2009 a documentary — "Vincent Who?" — about 26-year-old Chinese-American Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in 1982 in Detroit by two white autoworkers angry about the rise of Japanese auto sales in the United States. Chin's murder launched the Asian-American civil rights movement, some say.

Curtis Chin, who is unrelated to Vincent, said Asian-Americans want the same quality of life as all Americans.

"I think Asian-Americans are like any community. They're looking for jobs and good schools," he said.

Swider said many Asians have entered Michigan through its universities, which compete for Asian students who often pay full tuition with help from their governments or families. She said she expects the trend to continue.

The State Department issues visas to students from foreign countries to attend U.S. universities, but they are required to return home after graduation unless they're granted a work visa, sponsored by their employer.

"Universities have been very successful at reaching out to foreign students," Metzger said. "They're highly desirous of an education."

Across the United States, 50 percent of Asian-Americans age 25 and older have a bachelor's degree or higher, nearly double the number of all college-educated Americans 25 and older, according to a 2008 U.S. census American Community Survey. By 2050, the Asian-American population is expected to grow from 16 million to 40.6 million.

Continuing a tradition

Roland Hwang, a 61-year-old attorney and Northville resident who was born in Detroit, said immigrants come to the state to study and look for work. For his family, education in general and a University of Michigan degree, in particular, were a continuation of a tradition.

Hwang, a third-generation U-M alumnus whose family is from China, said he believes many Asian immigrants, who are often highly educated or study here, know they can find work in the automotive capital. His father was an engineer at Ford Motor Co.

"While the manufacturing sector has taken a hit in the last few years, they still have to design the product. They still have to research the product. It's that segment — the engineers, the researchers, the scientists — that are coming," Hwang said.

But Hwang said people of Asian descent still sometimes worry about anti-Asian sentiment that surfaces from time to time, as in the 1980s Vincent Chin case and, more recently, when auto plant layoffs and a high U.S. trade deficit gave rise to "Buy American" campaigns. Community alliances and organizations continue to grapple with these issues, he said.

Still, the region has enjoyed a strong Asian presence dating to the late 19th century, when Chinese families began arriving in Detroit and set up the city's Chinatown.

And Henry Ford recruited Chinese workers from Hawaii to work in his auto plants in the early 20th century, while others came later in the 1930s, and some started laundries.

'We grew up here'

For the most part, Asian-Americans feel a strong and justifiable sense of belonging in Michigan, said Shirley Yee, a 46-year-old Detroit native who grew up on the east side, where her grandfather ran his laundry on Warren for almost 50 years until it closed in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Yee, an administrative assistant at the Chinese Cultural Center in Madison Heights, said she believes her grandfather may have been drawn by the city's thriving Chinatown when he left mainland China looking for a better life.

She remembers the hot steam and good times her family shared during the days of running the laundry business, but has since zig-zagged her way north, living in Eastpointe, Southfield, Novi and West Bloomfield before settling in Troy to be closer to her siblings.

Michigan is home, she said.

"We grew up here," she said, "and felt like our roots were here."


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