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New outlet for Asian-Americans in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 24, 2009 - On the rooftop terrace of the Moonrise Hotel, more than a dozen members of the Young Asian-American Professional Association (YAPA) watched the sun setting during a recent weeknight happy hour event.

The swanky hotel and the nonprofit organization share this in common: They both announced themselves to St. Louis this spring (Moonrise with its grand opening and YAPA with its state registration as a nonprofit).

The association is promoting itself as an all-encompassing group for young Asian-Americans in St. Louis who have lived here their whole lives, moved away and returned, or recently arrived as students or employees.

Several of the people who started the group were born in St. Louis but have lived elsewhere. Peter Chang, a banker who is from St. Louis but lived in Los Angeles and Taipei before moving back here in late 2005, is familiar with Asian-based nonprofits, having worked for one in L.A.

“Having been in a bigger city that is much more diverse and has a lot more cultural offerings and organizations that are minority-based, I felt something was missing when I moved back here,” said Chang, who is YAPA's general director.

He and his friends in St. Louis had long talked about the need for a group that could bring together the Asian-American community. Chang said that community often divides itself along ethnic lines. Ashley Hoang, the group's public relations and professional development director, added that there are organizations here geared toward particular ethnic groups, but nothing directed specifically at young professionals of all Asian backgrounds. The group already includes people who idenfity as Korean American, Chinese American, Filipino American and, as Chang self-identifies, Taiwanese-American. He was born in Granite City and has parents immigrated from Taiwan in 1969. Hoang is half Chinese, half Vietnamese.

YAPA has four objectives: cultural education, professional development, community service and social networking. It plans to hold a happy hour every third Thursday of the month at different locations around the city, as it did recently at Moonrise in University City.

For the community service component, YAPA already has partnered with Dillon International, a child-placement agency that focuses on internatinal adoptions from Asia. The young professionals group invited parents and their adoptees to attend a recent BBQ and picnic in Ballwin. Bum Yong Kim, who adopted a child from Korea came to the picnic and the happy hour event. He said he appreciates the chance to talk to group members about their experiences in St. Louis.

“There are lots of Asian organizations for the first generation, but to have one for the second generation, to network and build friendships, is a real strong need," he said.

Chang said YAPA plans to hold events to raise money for Dillon, as well as to provide help to the English-speaking families. One possibility is a big brothers/big sisters-type mentoring program in which YAPA members would be paired with the Asian-born children.

On the professional development front, YAPA plans to hold a series of workshops, the first of which was on investing advice in the recession. Chang said there are a lot of entrepreneurs in the group, which made that topic all the more timely. An upcoming dance workshop will feature the instruction of Tony Eng, a professional dance photographer who is also an experienced dancer.

The group is geared toward people in their 20s and 30s. It's free to join and is up to roughly 170 members. Chang said a small annual membership fee could be added soon. It's hard to say how many members YAPA can expect -- he cites data that 2 percent of St. Louis and St. Louis County residents are of Asian heritage.

Among the people who Hoang said have expressed interest are international students here to get advanced degrees and looking to expand their networks. Chang said these students often have trouble finding full-time work in St. Louis. One of his goals is to help them learn American customs and to get local businesses to consider hiring these students, some of whom bring with them a knowledge of the international business scene. Chang said he’s also interested in helping to bridge the cultural divide between younger and older generations of Asian-Americans.

YAPA has already proven its ability to spread the word quickly about events. The St. Louis Cardinals recently held Asian Pacific Heritage Night, one in a series of heritage nights new this year in which the team invites people of different groups to the ballpark. Because of low ticket sales, the Cardinals were prepared to cancel the event. But YAPA members persuaded the club to give them time to help promote the event. Group members rallied people from churches, businesses, Chinese newspapers and other organizations to spread the word.

“A lot of people when they found out said, ‘We can’t let this event fail,’” Chang said.

More than 165 people ended up attending the baseball night, and several YAPA members had ;their photo taken on the field before the game.