Lee Pa lost his parents at age 10 while living in Seoul, Korea. He remembers washing dishes at a Seoul restaurant to support himself at age 11.
“I was too small to reach the sink, so the owner got an apple crate for me to stand on,” said Pa, who is Chinese. “I know what it’s like to be cold and with no food.”
By age 31, Pa made his way to the United States and worked in restaurants, becoming a chef and eventually starting his own restaurant. Now 63, Pa owns Happy China on Olive Boulevard in and lives in Town and Country.
Although Asians have settled in St. Louis since the mid-19th century, Pa immigrated to St. Louis relatively early compared to other Asians in the area.
The 2010 U.S. Census states the Maryland Heights and Creve Couer areas have added numerous Asian residents since 2000. About 10.4 percent of Maryland Heights and 10.1 percent of the Creve Coeur population is Asian–either Indian, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Japanese or other Asian ethnicities.
Asian Pop. 2010 Asian Pop. 2000
St. Louis County 3.5% 2.2%
Clayton 10.8% 5.6%
Maryland Heights 10.4% 7.1%
Creve Coeur 10.1% 5.5%
Chesterfield 8.6% 5.6%
Ballwin 5.6% 3.3%
"The dream country"
Asian immigrants in the 21st century come to the United States for the same reason European immigrants came in the 19th century.
“Opportunity, democracy, lifestyle, human rights,” said Eric Huang, director of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and owner of EMJ Insurance Co.
“It’s better here in all those areas. You don’t hear people wanting to immigrate to Russia or to Vietnam--even though companies may shift their jobs to those areas because of the low pay rate those countries,” Huang said.
“They all want to come over here, even if they don’t know the language,” Huang said.
“It’s the dream country,” he said. “You work hard, you succeed. You don’t work hard, it’s a tough place.”
For some South Asian Indian people, immigration may be the only way to better their lives. India has an active caste system, a social stratification that makes it difficult for those on the lower rungs to improve their lot in life.
“That is somewhat true,” said Srinivas Yerragunta, owner of Priyaa Indian Cuisine in Maryland Heights.
Increasingly, Asians settling in St. Louis are choosing to live in Creve Coeur, Maryland Heights and Clayton more than most other St. Louis County locations.
Getting schooled in America
“Yes, for first-generation Asian immigrants, they came to be educated, for a bachelor’s, master’s or a doctorate degree,” Huang said.
If they stay in the United States, their primary goal becomes ensuring that their children are well educated, he said.
“Indian people view education as more important,” Yerragunta said. “Everybody gives preference to education. Indian people look to see which school district is better.”
So many end up living in the Rockwood and , he said.
Each area with higher Asian populations is also known for having some of the top public school districts in the St. Louis area: the Parkway, Clayton and Rockwood districts.
“They want to be sure their children go to the best schools possible,” Huang said. “They want to be sure their children are able to stand up in society so they are not looked down upon for black hair, brown eyes.”
Typically, Asian students score well above white students on standardized tests. It’s a statewide and national phenomenon.
“Asian parents impress on their children the importance of doing well in school. They must do well in school or they will not succeed,” Huang said.
Their children mostly get the message.
“I had a really tough load in high school—AP (advanced placement) and honors classes—as well as doing all kinds of activities just to be well rounded and to make sure I’d get into a good college,” said Nimisha Patel, of Maryland Heights.
“It was stressful because my day was packed. I also danced and ran track,” she said.
Although education levels determine where they work, a lack of education doesn’t necessarily mean Asian people won’t succeed.
Those who can master the language often go on to get master’s or doctorate degrees in the sciences, medical fields or high technology. Those who can’t master the language or can’t afford a college education often start their own businesses instead, Huang said.
“You don’t need good language skills to work in a restaurant kitchen,” he said.
“I work too hard,” said Pa, who puts in 16-hour days at his Happy China restaurant in Creve Coeur. “I don’t have education, so I have to work hard. I don’t want my children to work this hard, so I want them to get a good education.”
Asian people are like anyone else moving to a new area, Yerragunta said.
“They look for low crime rate and good schools,” he said. “The Maryland Heights city people take care of things here. There’s not much violence in this area. That’s most important for Indian people.”
There’s a large number of apartments, including Whispering Hollow, West Pointe, Woodhollow and Ridge Pointe. Yerragunta moved from California to St. Louis in 2001 because there were plenty of Indian people, but no South Indian restaurants at the time, he said.
“When we came here, there were many Indian bachelors living in the apartments,” Yerragunta said. “Business here was very good.”
The area is close to busy commercial areas and a lot of traffic, yet the homes are affordable, Huang said. There are large employers such as and MasterCard, which employ many international workers.
They come and start businesses, as Yerragunta and Pa did, providing jobs for others. They become doctors, nurses and engineers, and have advanced software and IT positions.
And many give back to the community.
Each year, Pa donates and dishes out pan after pan of Chinese food for underprivileged families at the Gieson Family Christmas celebration in North County.
Nearly every day, he gives food left over from his buffet to homeless shelters or feeding stations.
“To waste food is bad,” Pa said. “I remember what it’s like to be cold with no food.”