On April 21, Maine Center for Economic Policy, or MECEP, released its report “Asians in the Maine Economy: Opportunities for Growth.” I was privileged to serve on the project’s advisory board.
The study is significant and timely, particularly in light of the xenophobic pronouncements from some Augusta policymakers. I refer to the anti-immigration legislation recently submitted by Rep. Kathleen Chase, LD 1496, as well as the immigration status executive order Gov. Paul LePage issued earlier this year.
These kinds of policy proposals are grounded in ignorance and negative stereotyping of immigrants. Such nativist policy thinking is wrongheaded and must be reversed.
Immigrants built America and Maine. For example, the St. John Valley Acadians and Mount Desert’s Italian stonecutters have contributed mightily to Maine’s heritage.
The Asian immigrants profiled in MECEP’s study represent a rich tapestry of skills, talents and aspirations that can and will enrich the social and economic fabric of our state. They have overcome great obstacles to succeed in a wide range of businesses and professions. In an increasingly competitive global economy, Maine should send a welcoming message to our immigrant communities.
The presence of Asians in Maine can be traced back to 1870. Chinese immigrants first settled in Portland, Lewiston, Augusta and Bangor. After the Second World War and the repeal of Chinese exclusion laws, Maine experienced a new generation of Chinese immigrants.
Dr. Chen K. Chai joined the senior research staff of The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. Among his many research contributions, he studied the link between amyloidosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
Many Bangor residents will remember Tommy and Janet (Mamma) Sing who ran Sing’s Polynesian Restaurant at the Penobscot Plaza for more than 30 years. Tommy served in the China-Burma-India theater with the U.S. Army Air Corps before settling in Maine. Most of their descendants — four children, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren — still live in the state.
Maine’s Asian community is also extremely diverse. Refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos resettled in Maine during the 1970s and 1980s. Pronsavanh Soutthivong, co-owner of Bangkok Restaurant in Ellsworth, came to America at age 19 — after spending two years in a refugee camp. While working hard to raise their own children, she and her husband also donated money to help build a school for children in Laos.
Aspiration for greater educational and economic opportunity drives Asian immigration to this country. For many of the Asians profiled in this report, the University of Maine system was a first stop on their Maine journey. Ruky Somasundera from Sri Lanka came to study at the University of Maine at Farmington and is now a computer systems engineer at Bank of America in Bangor.
Suzhong Tian and Jing Zhang from China studied at UMaine Orono and Husson College. The couple were instrumental in founding the Chinese Learning and Cultural Center in Bangor and helping Bangor develop educational and trade exchange programs with Harbin, a major economic center in northeastern China.
When I first moved to Maine in the late 1960s, there was little Asian presence here. The state had a recorded population of only 185 Asians in 1950. By 1990, however, the number reached 6,450. Maine’s Asian population doubled during the 1990s and increased another 49 percent in the past decade. The 2010 census counted 13,517 Asians, roughly 1 percent of Maine’s total population.
Notwithstanding this minuscule percentage in the overall population, Maine’s Asian immigrants represent a potentially significant asset to the state’s economic development. In 2007, for example, Maine’s 1,143 Asian-owned businesses had sales and receipts of $284 million and employed 2,543 people. According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, the 2009 buying power of Asians in Maine totaled $307 million, an increase of 277 percent from 1990.
Following MECEP’s 2009 report on the Hispanic population in Maine, this new Asian report reaffirms that immigrants are a valuable resource for our state’s economy and have an indispensable role to play in its future. Let us join hands and work together to build a socially and economic vibrant Maine for the 21st century.
Bob Ho of Mount Desert Island is retired from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. He now helps his wife, Nancy, run the Kimball Shop and Boutique in Northeast Harbor.