Published March 14. 2011 4:00AM Updated March 14. 2011 11:38AM
Norwich - Jian Zhang, 20, moved from China to Norwich last year with his mother and young sister to join their father.
"He wanted his family to be with him," Zhang said of his father, who works at King Wah restaurant on West Main Street.
The Zhangs are not alone. In 2000, Asians accounted for 2.1 percent of the Norwich population. Ten years later, that number is 7.7 percent, according to U.S. Census figures released last week.
Zhang, who started learning English in high school in China, is continuing to learn the language at the Norwich Regional Adult Education Center. He hopes to go to college in the United States and study business. His mother is in the first-level English language class, while Zhang is in a higher-level class. His 10-year-old sister, he said, is struggling to learn English at the John M. Moriarty School in Norwich.
Zhang said economic opportunities in America still far surpass any in China. His father could work hard in China and not earn enough to buy one phone. Here, he said, "he can buy two phones."
Students at the adult education center nodded their heads in acknowledgment of the recent headline that the Asian population in Connecticut has increased by 64 percent over the past 10 years, with totals in Norwich topping the region and likely contributing to the city's new status as most populous in New London County.
Several Asian students in the English program - including ones from China, Bangladesh and the Philippines - moved to Norwich within the past 10 years for the same reasons cited by Census officials: jobs and family ties.
Lured by jobs at casinos, Pfizer
John Wong, founder and president of the Chinese and American Cultural Assistance Association based in Montville, said the Census numbers did not surprise him. Wong said the manufacturing economy in New York's Chinatown crashed after Sept. 11, 2001, and here, the casinos were expanding, especially at Mohegan Sun, with its new hotel.
While in Norwich, Montville and surrounding towns, the Asian influx was the result of casino jobs, he said, in Groton, jobs at Electric Boat and Pfizer Inc. attracted new Asian residents. He estimated that 90 percent of the Asians living in East Lyme came to work at Pfizer.
Wong founded the association in 2007 to provide language assistance to new Asian residents and to help local police and governments with translation services. The association recently hosted a Chinese New Year celebration at St. Bernard High School in Montville that drew several hundred people. Wong was pleased that for the first time in three years, more non-Asians attended, raising awareness of Asian culture locally.
Li Ying "Linda" Yuan moved to New York from China about 20 years ago and then to Norwich in 2003 to work at the Foxwoods Resort Casino as a dealer. Yuan said she can earn more money at Foxwoods than at her former job at a hotel in New York, although the health benefits were better at the hotel.
Her husband, who drove a limousine in New York, also is a dealer at Foxwoods. The couple bought a house on Thames Street near the Norwich police station. Certified to deal several games, Yuan has survived Foxwoods layoffs. She said she likes the Norwich area and hopes to "stay here to retirement."
Hui Ling Wu, 41, also is a dealer at Foxwoods. She moved here from Taiwan in 2009 to join her husband, who had been living in the United States for 30 years. The couple met during one of her husband's frequent vacations to Taiwan.
Wu said life in Norwich is "very different," and she was nervous at first because the English she had learned in school was rusty from disuse. She found a second home at Adult Ed.
"I really appreciate this school," she said. "I feel it helped a lot of people, because we have a lot of trouble with English, and we don't have the confidence speaking."
William Goba, teacher of the high-intermediate English class that Wu attends, told his students they should take heart in the Census report. Employers throughout the region are going to realize it will be to their advantage to hire bilingual and even trilingual employees to serve immigrant families who have moved here.
Goba said the intermediate class is designed to prepare students to take the next steps in their lives, whether that's high school credit classes, college or better jobs. Many students said they learned to read and write English in their homelands, but struggle with speaking and understanding spoken English.
Since 2004, the percentage of Asian students in the English program at Norwich Regional Adult Education has fluctuated from the current 42 percent to the high of 58 percent in 2007, Adult Education Director Mary Berry said. The school last year moved to a smaller building, forcing smaller classes with morning and afternoon sessions, which is difficult for many working students.
Asian gardens, restaurants
The Census numbers were certainly no surprise in Norwich, where Asians, especially Chinese, have had a cultural presence, with Asian gardens engulfing tiny urban lawns in summer and tai chi classes welcoming all comers at the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park at Norwich Harbor.
Downtown is dotted with new Asian restaurants, including Miss Saigon, Kong Foo Vegetarian Bistro and Red House Asian Cuisine & Sushi Bar - all occupying buildings owned by firms controlled by downtown developer Janny Lam, who is Chinese.
Since the late 1990s, Lam has bought and renovated numerous residential and commercial properties in Norwich, renting many spaces to Asian residents and businesses.
The newest restaurant, Kong Foo, is managed by Lam's brother, Silvio Lam, and his wife, Judy Lam. The restaurant recently became the first certified dairy kosher restaurant in eastern Connecticut.
Judy Lam said the restaurant has seen more American patrons than Chinese customers. She said most Chinese are not vegetarian, and they don't eat out as often as Americans. Silvio and Judy Lam moved to Norwich in 2009 and have felt welcomed. The couple's 8-year-old daughter attends the Samuel Huntington School. They also believe in Janny Lam's efforts to revitalize downtown.
"She's trying to make downtown happen," Judy Lam said.
Red House, in the Lerou building next door to Otis Library, opened in 2008 and sees about half Asian and half American patrons, manager Min Lin said. Lin moved from New York to Groton in 2006 and now also has an apartment upstairs from Red House for those who have long workdays. His wife and his father live in Groton. He plans to stay for the long term, and hopes downtown Norwich will see better times.
"It's the right location," he said, "between the two casinos, with the bus station and the courthouse. It's a nice, beautiful town."