By Carol Edison
The mention of Utah doesn't normally bring to mind the smell and taste of roasted duck or spicy fish sauce, and visitors to the state don't anticipate hearing the chanting of Buddhist monks or buying brightly colored squares of handmade textiles from local craftswomen. Yet these are among the many distinctive contributions Southeast Asians made to Utah's cultural landscape during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Numbering between 8,000 and 9,000 people, Utah's Southeast Asian community is relatively small, although the group's racial distinctiveness and rapid growth have made its presence and cultural traditions particularly visible. The community originated in the 1920s and 1930s when a handful of migrant laborers from the Philippines settled in the state. For the next fifty years this small community experienced only sporadic and modest growth. But war in Southeast Asia in the 1970s changed many things, including Utah's demographics. In 1975, when a ceasefire was called in Vietnam and U.S. troops evacuated that region, a flood of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were evacuated to the United States and other western countries. During the next fifteen years, 12,000 refugees were resettled in Utah. This large influx, added to a significant number of voluntary immigrants from the Philippines and a small migration from Thailand, resulted in the phenomenal growth of the state's Southeast Asian population.

Of the 12,000 Southeast Asian refugees who came to Utah between 1975 and 1990, more than 40 percent were Vietnamese, more than 30 percent were Laotian or Hmong (from the mountains in Laos), and more than 20 percent were Cambodian. The first wave of refugees were primarily educated urban dwellers who comprised the technical, managerial, and military elite of Vietnam. The next wave was composed of roughly half Vietnamese and half rural farmers, fishermen, and mountain tribespeople from Laos and Cambodia. A third wave reflected Vietnam's expulsion of 200,000 ethnic Chinese and many thousands of Hmong tribespeople who were targeted for annihilation because of their collaboration with U.S. troops. By the early 1990s, most arriving refugees were either Amer-Asian children (fathered by U.S. troops) accompanied by family members, or individuals who had been detained in Communist reeducation camps.

Despite this large influx of Southeast Asians, 1990 census figures show that less than one-half of the 12,000 refugees sent to the Utah chose to remain. A combination of climatic, economic, and cultural factors seems to have prompted many to leave the state. Utah's cold winters and dry climate were difficult for people accustomed to tropical surroundings to adapt to, and the short duration of the state's public assistance programs failed to provide adequate time for many to develop needed language and occupational skills. As a result, some were drawn to southern California by the allure of warm weather and a more extensive public assistance program. Many others chose to move there to be reunited with family and friends, as California became a gathering place for Southeast Asian communities of all ethnicities and nationalities. By 1990 Utah's Vietnamese community numbered 2,797; the Laotian and Hmong communities were counted at 1,774 and 105, respectively; and the Cambodian community was reported at 997. Added to this refugee population of 5,673, the state's Filipinos numbered 1,905 and those from Thailand totaled 617--bringing the official 1990 total of Southeast Asians in Utah to over 8,000.

The first Southeast Asians in Utah, the Filipino migrant workers of the 1920s and 1930s, came primarily from the Ilokano region of the northern Philippines. Their numbers multiplied slowly as Mormon missionaries and U.S. military personnel returned to the state with Filipino spouses. During the 1960s Utah's Filipino population began to really grow when a lack of employment opportunities for numerous college graduates in the Philippines led to increased emigration. As large numbers of Filipinos immigrated to both Hawaii and to the mainland U. S., many chose to come to Utah because of their affiliation with the LDS Church.

By the 1990s, Utah's Filipino community resided in urban areas throughout the state, with the majority concentrated in the Salt Lake Valley. Generally well-educated, they have found employment in all sectors of the economy. Roughly one-half of them are Catholic, evidence of Spanish control of the islands that lasted until 1899, while the other half are Mormon.

The Philippines is a land of many languages and cultural traditions, and this diversity is reflected in Utah's Filipino community. As a result of this diversity and because Filipinos are geographically, economically, and religiously integrated throughout Utah society, most Utah Filipinos maintain their ties with countrymen by participating in one of several ethnic organizations. Two of the more established organizations, the Philippine-American Association of Utah (PAAU) and the Philippine-American Bayanihan Association of Utah (PABAU), actively sponsor fiestas, sports competitions, and folk dancing instruction. Folk dancing has been a particularly popular way for Utah Filipinos to express their cultural identity while teaching their children about the rich traditions of their homeland, and by the early 1990s at least four folk dance troupes had been formed to serve the needs of this growing community. Cultural identity is also expressed through the annual Filipino Day celebration on 23 July, an observance that was initiated in 1988.

Utah's Thai community is the only other Southeast Asian group that has come to the state as immigrants rather than as refugees. The small Thai population of about 150 families includes those who have come to the state to pursue higher education opportunities or who have immigrated with military spouses, as well as those professional people who chose Utah because of educational or familial ties. Though some Thais live in university communities in northern Utah, the majority of the population is concentrated in Layton, adjacent to Hill Air Force Base. Layton is also the home of Utah's only Thai Buddhist temple, a facility that is staffed by monks who are periodically sent from Thailand to serve this community. The monks offer a summertime program for children that teaches the Thai language and customs and helps perpetuate Thai culture . Although the majority of the Thai population is Buddhist, a religion they share with most of their Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian neighbors, there is a small group of approximately 100 who are affiliated with the LDS Church.

Upon their arrival in the mid-1970s, Utah's Southeast Asian refugees were initially resettled in the urban areas of northern Utah. Logan, Ogden, and Provo became the home to some, although most were placed in the Salt Lake Valley. The Guadalupe area northwest of the city center, Rose Park, the Chesterfield area on south Redwood Road, and Midvale are among those Salt Lake City neighborhoods where small concentrations of Asian refugees continue to live, most often in extended family groups, as was the custom in their homelands.

The refugees came to Utah with varied educational and occupational experience. Some, like the Hmong, were uneducated tribespeople who had lived and farmed in remote mountain areas and had limited experience with outside cultures. Others, particularly the Vietnamese, were often bureaucrats or business people who had lived and worked in large, westernized cities. Whether or not their skills could be readily transferred to this new environment, almost all of them had to deal with the challenge of learning a new language.

A mushroom farm near Fillmore initially employed more than one hundred refugees, but most did not find work within the agricultural sector. About 50 percent found employment on production lines in jobs that require manual dexterity. Many were hired by companies such as Deseret Pharmaceutical, National Semiconductor, Kimball Draperies, or Marriott Flight Services to assemble products, operate sewing machines, or process food. Some who had business experience gradually opened up markets, restaurants, and other small establishments to serve the Southeast Asian community. A number of family-operated restaurants that specialize in Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine have been particularly successful. Not only have they provided greater visibility for the refugee community within the state, they also have contributed to the general public's knowledge and appreciation of Southeast Asian culture.

The vast majority of Utah's Southeast Asian refugees are Buddhists. In rooms that are covered with imported mats and filled with the sweet smell of flowers and the sound of traditional music and chanting, they meet for weekly religious services. Three temples provide fellowship and serve the spiritual needs of the several language groups: a Laotian temple in Sandy, a Vietnamese temple in the Guadalupe neighborhood, and a Cambodian temple at the New Hope Multicultural Center. Among the most beautiful traditional observances are the annual New Year's celebrations. Some refugees converted to western religions during their camp experience or after resettling in the United States. By the early 1990s about 600 Utah refugees were affiliated with the Mormon Church, while another 200, mostly Vietnamese and a few Hmong, were members of local Catholic congregations.

Many public agencies have worked to meet the needs of the refugee population. State social services, Catholic Community Services, and volunteer organizations like the Utah Friends of the Refugees League are among the many organizations that have assisted with refugee resettlement. One non-profit agency, the Asian Association of Utah, expanded its ability to provide services to this new community by encouraging the formation of ethnic organizations and by offering each national group representation on its board of trustees. This structure proved very helpful in the dissemination of information about health and in the implementation of education programs. It has also helped some of the refugee groups maintain contact with each other and assisted them in maintaining their cultural identity by encouraging their participation in the Asian Festival, held each spring. This festival features performances, cultural displays, and food sales that highlight each of the state's distinctive Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander cultures. It provides an important opportunity not only for immigrant and refugee communities to reaffirm their cultural identity but also for Utah's larger population to gain some insight into these little-understood eastern cultures.

The majority of Utah's Southeast Asians, particularly those who were forced to leave their homelands in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, will continue to struggle for most of their lives to learn a new language, find meaningful employment, and meet the physical needs of their families and community members. However, for the second and third generations, that challenge may well be different--the challenge of blending the old ways with the new and of strengthening the connection with their unique oriental heritage. One would hope that Utah's newest Asian population will meet that challenge and maintain those cultural traditions that have already added so much color and texture to our state's cultural landscape.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.