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Asian American communities grow in St. Louis

In 2014, Rick Shang moved to St. Louis for the first time as he pursued a Ph.D. in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology at the Washington University. In 2018, Shang founded his startup, Vulpes, and settled in St. Louis.

“This is the picture that St. Louis should broadcast to other cities or countries,” Shang told St. Louis Public Radio (STLPR) . “There is innovation, there is capital. But more importantly there is availability of resources that are open to startup founders like me.”

Shang is one of the around 22,000 Asians who moved to St. Louis in the last decade. As a whole, the region’s population has grown minimally, increasing at a low 1.2% between 2010 and 2020 according to STLPR as many move out of the city. However, the Asian population has grown by 37%, increasing in each of the region’s 14 counties. In three counties in particular—St. Louis, St. Charles County, and St. Louis County—Asian residents make up around 5% of the total population.

Educational opportunities are often pinpointed as a major motivator for Asian people to move to the region. St. Louis is home to a number of top-tier universities, such as Washington University in St. Louis, where Asian students make up 38.4% of the school’s population.

However, the focus on education obscures other motivations for Asians moving to the region. Thi Nguyen, who moved to St. Louis in 2017, was impressed by the region’s potentials for civic engagement and commitments to social justice. Her family volunteers with local Black urban farmers, who are addressing the problem of food insecurity and accessibility throughout St. Louis. “My kids, we wanted to have them meet people of all different backgrounds, to give them a chance to make up their minds about people,” Nguyen said.

Shayn Prapaisilp, the chief operating officer for the STJ Group Holdings, also moved back to the city in 2014 after being impressed by the region’s political and social changes.

“I think a lot of young people who may have left St. Louis with the perception that it was kind of a dead-end,” he told STLPR. “Now with the culmination of so many things, it was the right time to move back.”

Furthermore, the monolithic nature of the Census fails to show the diversity within the Asian people who have moved to the region for a large variety of reasons. As consequence, Asian communities in St. Louis are often underserved as they face a number of difficulties adjusting to a new region that often do not have many Asian families. As Missouri Asian American Youth Foundation Founder Caroline Fan tells STLPR, this can result in Asian populations being ignored or unheard by local government, and unable to access government services due to language barriers.

“There’s a danger where you lump everyone together and don’t disaggregate the data,” Fan said. “It only presents a very flat picture, it’s not a 3D or nuanced picture. There are needs that are not being captured and not being addressed.”

These concerns have been magnified by the sharp increase in anti-Asian racism and violence across the country, and within St. Louis in particular. In March 2021, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Branson-based representative Brian Seitz had used the term “Chinese virus” in a House discussion. Local Asian American groups such as the Organization of Chinese Americans in St. Louis and the St. Louis Asian American Chamber of Commerce condemned Seitz’s words as “simply unacceptable” in a statement after the incident.

In an Op-Ed for AsAmNews, Junnie Bae and Min Liu reported that the St. Louis youth group Asian American Civic Scholars had, found that 70% of high school students had “encountered or observed anti-Asian hate incidents.” This type of racist rhetoric still occurs today, such as the recent viral video of St. Louis TV anchor Michelle Li being criticized for “being very Asian.”

However, the true extent of anti-Asian racism in St. Louis remains unknown. In a press conference at St. Louis’s City Hall covered by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Fan notes that local hate crime statistics fail to capture the true extent of anti-Asian racism due to underreporting from the community.

“It’s been difficult for people to come forward, for people to even talk
amongst ourselves about how scared we are,” Fan told the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch. “What we’re doing here today is breaking the silence.”

The local Asian American community, aided by groups such as the Asian American Youth Foundation and local government officials, is determined to fight for the support. Bret Narayan, St. Louis’s first Asian American Alderman per KSDK 5 On Your Side, introduced a resolution condemning racist rhetoric and the rise in violence against Asian people, which passed unanimously. Narayan has hoped the resolution will convince more Asian victims of hate crimes to report, providing better data on anti-Asian crimes in the area.

“A lot of people in minority communities have hesitated to come forward after they’ve been victimized,” said Narayan. “It’s been so ingrained in some of these communities to just keep your head down and keep on working.”

The increasing political visibility and fight against racism has become especially important for Asian Americans, no matter what reason they are drawn to St. Louis for. In the wake of hate crimes such as the 2021 shooting in Atlanta, residents such as Prapaisilip have felt the urge to express solidarity with the broader Asian American community. Feast magazine reported that his restaurant, Chao Baan, donated 10% of its sales to organizations fighting anti-Asian racism for the month after the Atlanta murders in March.

“While my family feels grateful for the support from the St. Louis community over the last three decades, Asian American communities across our country have been marginalized, discriminated against, and even killed for far too long,” Prapaislip told Feast. “It’s important for us to support the vital work of organizations who are fighting for the rights of Asian Americans and marginalized groups across the country.”

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