You might’ve been to Asia Town Center or Asia Plaza and tasted some of the great food, but Asian culture has helped shape Cleveland long before the tasty staples you know today.
The first records of Asian Clevelanders date to the 1860s when Chinese and Japanese came from California and Chicago in search of economic opportunity and to escape discrimination. They settled in Public Square and quickly became entrepreneurs, opening restaurants and grocery stores. However, the 1882 Chinese Act kept them from bringing their wives and children with them, slowing population growth.
In the 1940s, the exclusionary act was repealed, and more Chinese immigrants came to Cleveland after their country’s communist takeover. The population slowly swelled and the area of Rockwell Avenue between E. 21st and E. 24th Streets became known as Chinatown.
Today, red columns adorn Emperors Palace, a Chinese restaurant best known for its dim sum. The building is wrapped in gold and red features inside and out. Across the street, white statues of Zodiac animals line the street.
The social movement of the '60s saw a cultural and economic shift in the community which spread outward from Chinatown. Peter Wang, founder of the Chinese-American Cultural Association, offered tuition-free classes in Chinese at public libraries. At the same time, large grocery store Sam Wah Yick Kee Company delivered merchandise to 50 Chinese restaurants in Greater Cleveland and about 30 more downstate and around Pittsburgh.
Community outreach grew across cultures and to the greater populations of Cleveland. In 1975, Laurence Chang produced two TV programs on "Values and Institutions of Chinese Culture," which were broadcast locally. By the 1980s, The China Music Project was bringing musicians from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong and held concerts with traditional Chinese music.
At Cleveland History Center, photos of Sam Wah Yick Kee Company and more Cleveland Asian history can be found.
Immigration drastically changed in the 50s, 60s and 70s with different populations creating their own networks. In 1964, the India Association of Cleveland officially started with many foreign-born students as members. These South Asian immigrant populations lived in Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. Japanese populations found residences in Hough and Glenville. In 1966, the Korean-American Association of Greater Cleveland was formed.
In 1967, a Filipino population increase led to the founding of the Philippine American Society of Ohio. However, the Association of Philippine Physicians of Ohio may be better known today. 1972 saw the beginning of the Association of Philippine Physicians of Ohio which sends local doctors, nurses, and paramedics back for a week to the Philippines on medical and surgical missions.
The Vietnamese Buddhist Association of Cleveland renovated a building on Franklin Avenue in 1987, making a permanent temple and home for Buddhists.
To support this burgeoning Asian market and create a place of commerce and community for all Clevelanders of Asian descent, Asia Plaza opened in 1988. Today, it sits in the heart of AsiaTown with several restaurants and retail outlets, easily accessible by public transportation.
As diversity grew and the population changed, old Chinatown faded and a new one sprung up on St. Clair and Payne Avenues between E. 30th and E. 40th Streets. By the 1990s, this new Chinatown had grown so much - with residents from Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand – that it also outgrew its name, and became known as AsiaTown.
Asia Town Center opened in 2008 in an effort to continue the district’s economic growth. In 2010, the Cleveland Asian Festival held its first event to highlight their businesses and diverse cultures. In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the May festival brings the community together with food, music and cultural traditions.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Asian Services in Action (ASIA) led two federally-authorized health clinics in Cleveland and Akron. Originally founded in 1995, ASIA opened a health clinic in Asia Plaza in 2019 and became one of the largest human services agencies in Ohio’s Asian community. They provide vaccines, health screenings, behavioral health screenings, substance abuse help, and acupuncture.
The Cleveland Cultural Gardens at Rockefeller Park is our city’s way of celebrating the many heritages of Clevelanders. Installations include flags, statues of notable people from those nations, or memorial icons. If possible, plants native to the nation are grown as well. While it has taken longer for some dedications to be completed and other gardens are still being developed, progress for Asian Americans started in 1985, when the City of Taipei in Taiwan dedicated a bronze Confucius and marble garden to the Cleveland Cultural Gardens.
The Cultural Gardens celebrate and are inclusive of Southeast, South, Central and West Asian communities. In 2005, India was dedicated in 2005 with a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. In 2008, the Azerbaijanni Cultural Garden was established by frequent visitors to Cleveland, though the garden is temporarily closed. Dedicated in 2010, the Armenian Garden features “vesica piscis,” a sacred geometric symbol. The Syrian Garden was originally set aside in 1929, but not formally developed and dedicated until 2011.
Over at the Turkish Garden, planning is still underway to include an image of the Turkish flag—with its crescent moon and a star—on a large stone. It was, however, officially dedicated in 2016 with tulips planted there. Vietnam’s planned 2020 dedication was put on hold, yet volunteers broke ground in July to get the project underway. The Lebanese Garden is still in progress with development dating back to 2017.
The Asian population has continued to grow and expand its definition with this Arabic enclave filled with imported goods and home-style cooking by immigrants and refugees. While some second- and third-generation communities came from the west like Iraqi families from Detroit, others came more directly: in 2022, Cleveland welcomed over 600 Afghan refugees.
Restaurants and shops have popped up around West 117th Street and Lorain Avenue. Grocers focus on Middle Eastern imports and halal items; places like Assad’s Bakery sells hummus and pita bread. This new section of Cleveland intermingles with the nearby Hispanic community or La Villa Hispana, and some Albanian and Israeli shops.