South Jersey will see more Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans and other Asians observe Sunday’s start of the lunar new year than in past decades.
The region’s Asian population has grown significantly. Since 1990, it has nearly quintupled in Atlantic County and doubled in Cape May and Cumberland counties. Much of the influx has come from workers looking for casino jobs, observers said.
Explosive population growth isn’t expected to continue through this decade, however, particularly if the casino industry slump continues and unemployment rates stay high, many in the community said. Some people in the community said they believe the population may start to decline.
“Here, there are no jobs,” said Vu Phan, 47, owner of Pho Cali on Atlantic Avenue, a Vietnamese restaurant that has seen its customer base and business dwindle in recent years.
“Every year, it’s slower,” she said. “I used to be so busy.”
Phan, who lives in Egg Harbor Township, said it has been years since she has marked the start of the lunar new year with any sort of celebration. This year, she has arranged for a lion dance to be performed outside the restaurant where she will be working at 1 p.m. today — the only small luxury she will arrange for her patrons.
“No one has money to celebrate,” she said.
Only a subset of Asians — primarily those with connections to China, Vietnam and Korea — actually mark the lunar new year.
Over the past decade, the population of Atlantic County residents who reported being of Chinese descent has increased by more than 50 percent to almost 5,000 people in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Cumberland County’s population of Chinese descent has more than doubled to almost 400, and Cape May County’s has increased to nearly 200, according to the 2010 census.
Those who reported being of Vietnamese descent increased by almost 50 percent in Atlantic County, to about 3,600 people, with an additional 200 total living in Cape May and Cumberland counties, according to the census. Those reporting a Korean heritage number about 980 in Atlantic County, with about an additional 250 total in Cape May and Cumberland counties.
In some areas, community leaders have created social hubs to serve the population, such as the Hoy Sun Ning Young Benevolent Association of Atlantic City.
Fonny Lau, 63, a Hong Kong native and longtime Atlantic City business owner affiliated with the association, said that while the Chinese population has increased over the past decade, she expects it to stay stable for a time due to the depressed casino industry.
While some people have left, even those working out of state are maintaining their homes in South Jersey, she said. Others are commuting to Atlantic City for work and staying in the city for a few days out of the week.
Lau said she expects few people to celebrate the start of the new year, particularly because it falls on a weekend this year — always an inconvenient day for Atlantic City workers.
“The majority of people who work in the casinos have to work that day,” she said.
Because lunar new year celebrations technically can continue for another month, some of the festivities, including a banquet that the benevolent association has planned, are being postponed until next month.
The Holy Spirit Parish Atlantic City Church will hold a new year’s celebration for its congregants and others Tuesday. The event will be opened to everyone and is expected to draw 800 people, said the Rev. Joseph Pham, 49, the pastor.
When Pham arrived at the Catholic church 15 years ago, he continued the tradition of celebrating Mass in Vietnamese to about 200 people. Today, the audience for the weekly service has easily doubled, he said.
Tough economic conditions are making it hard for anyone to find a job in Atlantic City or elsewhere, Pham said. That, coupled with a depressed real estate market, has many of his Vietnamese congregants — most of whom own their homes — trying to wait out conditions rather than sell at a low price, Pham said.
“They stay because they have nowhere to go,” he said.
In some cases, people have moved out of state to take jobs but left a family member behind to mind the home, he said. In other cases, former casino workers have moved inland and looked for work in other industries, such as construction and nail boutiques, Pham said.
“They’re hanging on,” he said.
This lunar new year has been designated the Year of the Snake, Pham said.
“Snakes are very clever, smart and also move fast,” he said.
Pham said he intended to use the animal’s best characteristics in his message to congregants about keeping their faith in God even in tough economic times.
“It’ll be a struggle, but we have hope there,” he said.
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