Coleman to Asian community: ‘Our stories are the same’


“St. Paul has always been a city of immigrants,” says Mayor Chris Coleman, “a real melting pot. Instead of coming from parts of Europe our immigrants are coming from Central and South America, Asia and East Africa. It’s still the same basic story but the needs have changed.”

The Twin Cities’ metro area has the highest percentage of Asians in the inner United States. St. Paul alone has the largest Hmong population in the country.

Of course, Asian immigrants, although not in the number seen today, have always been part of the Minnesota scene. On May 31, 1876, the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran this editorial: “The people of Saint Paul can’t see why the Californians should fret so much about the Chinese. In this city (Saint Paul) they conduct themselves in the most unexceptionable manner . . .. Give the Orientals a chance.”

The first Chinese immigrants came to Minnesota in the mid 1870s. In 1882 the Chinese exclusion act was passed by Congress and the Chinese population declined throughout the country, but not in Minnesota where it grew as Chinese came to escape the prejudices of the West Coast.

Seventy-eight years after that editorial ran, Pioneer Press columnist Howard Kahn wrote in his Paul Light column of the plight of Army Sergeant and Japanese American Frank Yanari and his wife Kimi, who tried to find a place to live but couldn’t, because, “Saint Paulites won’t rent them living quarters. Even apartment buildings with ‘vacancy’ signs turned them down.”

Sergeant Yanari was a member of the Army Military Intelligence Service Language School, stationed at Fort Snelling. Kami and he were married at the historic Fort Snelling chapel and would have been able to live off base if they had a home to go to.

Kahn’s crusade connected with people and soon the Yanaris found a home. Anti-Japanese sentiment was high throughout the country during World War II, including Minnesota. There were, though, Minnesotans like Kahn and people who read his column who opened their hearts to the Yanaris.

It was kind of like what Colonel Kai E. Rasmussen, the commander of the school had in mind in selecting a new location for the school. The Twin Cities area not only had room physically, he said, but also room in the people’s hearts.

The school started at the Presidio of San Francisco in 1941 with a student body of Japanese American soldiers learning the Japanese language, both spoken and written, in case of a war with Japan. The war came and because of the Japanese American soldiers stationed there, Californians became nervous and the school was moved, first to the Twin Cities suburb of Savage and later to Fort Snelling.

Six thousand soldier-students went through the school and are credited with cutting the war in the Pacific by two years. In 1946 the school was moved to California and while most of the soldiers, their families and friends returned to their West Coast homes many others decided to stay in the Twin Cities and start a new life and a new community.

Although the Japanese community is important to the strength of the Twin City Asian population, it’s not the largest. Hmong, Vietnamese, Asian Indian, Chinese, Korean, Laotian, Filipino and Cambodian communities, in that order, are larger. From the Japanese community, though, came the Saint Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee, the first such relationship between an Asian and an American city. Out of that relationship came the Global Harmony Labyrinth in Como Park, the placement of Minnesota sculptor Paul Granlund’s Constellation Earth in Nagasaki Peace Park, the Como Ordway Japanese Memorial Garden and much more.

Coleman calls the Ordway garden, designed by Nagasaki Master Gardener Masami Matsuda “One of the unknown treasures of the Twin Cities. It’s such a wonderful place, it’s my sister’s favorite place in the city of Saint Paul.”

It’s not only a beautiful garden that holds Coleman to the Asian community it’s the people in the community and their unselfish contributions to city, state and country. He is optimistic about the opening of the new Asian Pacific Cultural Center on University Avenue in Saint Paul. Asian communities can learn about each other’s culture and non-Asians can learn about the vital Asian communities of Minnesota.

Coleman has made high position appointments to Asians. Hmong American Vallay Varro is his education policy director. Korean American John Choi is the new city attorney, and the first Asian to hold that post.

“This administration,” says Choi, “has done a wonderful job in reaching out to the Asian community and I think that is reflected in the administration that Mayor Coleman put together.”

Coleman, looking at past European immigration, says, “We’re really not that (different) our stories are the same. … My grandmother came over from Ireland in 1920 — a pretty war torn country, with the hope that she would go back some day. She never did. If you took the names off the country, it’s the same story for the Hmong population right now. They fought a war in the country where they were being persecuted and came to Saint Paul for safety and a new life. It’s the same story with different parts of the story line.”