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New Haven encourages business boost for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

Million Asian Market owner Zhi Yong Wang speaks during a press conference outside his store. The New Haven Night Market starts Friday and will offer products and information about the Asian American population in New Haven.
Eddy Martinez
Connecticut Public
Million Asian Market owner Zhi Yong Wang speaks during a press conference outside his store. The New Haven Night Market starts Friday and will offer products and information about the Asian American population in New Haven.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz are encouraging New Haven residents to support small businesses in the Elm City, owned by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Elicker and Bysiewicz toured the Million Asian Market in the city’s “Ninth Square” district to shop in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“They've got so much beautiful fresh produce, and I grew up on a farm. So I'm kind of picky about my vegetables,” Bysiewicz said.

Christine Kim, co-founder of Asian American and Pacific Islanders of Greater New Haven (AAPI), an Asian American advocacy organization, said coming to the grocery store isn’t just about supporting a local business.

She said it’s also about supporting other Asian Americans who have set up roots in the city and continue to persevere despite xenophobia as a result of the pandemic.

Kim started AAPI New Haven in 2020, just as the business shutdowns started, which led to a spike in hate crimes and bigotry against Asian Americans.

“We are a new Asian collective in New Haven that started two years ago to connect and provide voice and visibility to the growing pan-Asian community here,” Kim said.

Starting a group wasn’t easy. She said the city government had asked for pan-Asian groups to communicate with, only to realize there wasn’t one, since many Asian ethnic groups had their own distinct advocacy organizations.

Kim said Asian American residents in Connecticut didn’t have the same advantages like others in New York and California, where Asian Americans make up a sizable part of the population.

“In places like Connecticut, where the population has historically been small yet is growing exponentially, there hasn't been that kind of organization,” Kim said.

Bysiewicz said the Asian American population is one of the fastest growing in the state. Part of that growth is reflected in cities like New Haven, where the Million Asian Market was founded nearly 14 years ago. New Haven County saw a 24% in the Asian population since the 2010 census, slightly lower than the 27% increase statewide. But when combined with Asian Americans who also have mixed ethnic backgrounds, the percentage changes to 27%, compared to the state’s over 30% increase. That’s similar to the 30% increase in the statewide Latino population during that time period.

Yet the statewide Asian American population is still small, at slightly below 6%, according to the2020 Census.

Kim walked around and encouraged officials to try products at the market, owned by a husband and wife duo, Lorri Xu and Zhi Yong Wang, both originally from Beijing, China.

Xu said starting her business was hard at first. It was difficult to find customers at the time, noting the first four years were especially hard.

The pandemic didn’t help.

“After COVID-19, business (went) down,” Xu said.

Xu beckoned at Elicker to take complementary Asian soft drinks from a refrigerator nearby, Elicker declined, first in English, then in Mandarin, which he learned as a Foreign Service Officer. Other customers also stopped by, the shop was packed with snacks and foodstuffs from not only China, but Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries.

The market doesn’t just offer products. It also reinforces her sense of heritage, she said.

“I come here almost every week, they see me every week with me and my kids, to feed my family, to feed my heritage and what I love,” Kim said.

Elicker and others came by to also announce the start of the New Haven Night Market, which beings Friday. Kim said AAPI New Haven will have a kiosk that will offer products and educational material about the local Asian American community.

Kim wants to bring attention to local Asian American owned markets for another reason. She wants to create a photo essay of AAPI owned businesses, but so far, it’s still a work in progress.

“We just hope to keep on telling stories in the AAPI community to each other, and to the broader world,” she said. “Because we know that stories are the things that we need to keep on telling each other to create better understanding, and community.”

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