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Asian-American Coalition Seeks to Forge Unity : Communities: An immediate goal is to overcome divisions and help businesses recover from riots. The long-term agenda for the diverse group is undecided.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Asian-American groups in Los Angeles have formed the first broad-based coalition among their usually divided communities, establishing an organization called Asian Pacific Americans for a New L.A.

Setting the agenda for the diverse coalition is expected to be a contentious process. But its organizer, Stewart Kwoh, a Chinese-American, said the group is significant because the Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Cambodian communities usually have pursued separate goals. Divided by language, culture and economic gaps, they usually have little contact with one another.

The immediate goals of the coalition--formally created at a meeting Wednesday evening--include getting relief to small-business people who suffered losses in the recent riots and improving communications among Asian communities and between Asian-Americans, blacks, Latinos and Anglos.

The group includes representatives from social service agencies, business, politics and education. “Its a network that’s unprecedented,” said Kwoh, president of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

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The coalition plans to form a joint committee to meet with Rebuild L.A. Chairman Peter V. Ueberroth next month, hoping its collective voice will have some clout. “Asian-Americans will have a stronger voice together than if (we remain as) separate communities,” said Jon Park, a Korean-American owner of a data-processing firm who is working with the coalition.

Organization of the coalition was spurred, Kwoh said, by “a real desperation” on the part of Asian-Americans, who recently have felt politically powerless, abandoned by city officials and the police and ignored by the media. Although there are nearly 1 million people of Asian descent in Los Angeles County--about the same as the number of blacks--there are few Asian-American elected officials. There are no Asian-Americans in the California Legislature.

In the past, Asian-Americans often have failed to join in political causes. In last year’s special election in the 46th Assembly District, which encompasses Koreatown and a Filipino neighborhood to its northeast, a Korean-American, a Filipino-American and a Japanese-American ran against one another for the Democratic nomination. Barbara Friedman, a white woman, won the nomination and the election.

“We could not bring the three communities to agree on one candidate. Each had its own aspirations,” said Arthur Takei, a Japanese-American union administrator who participated in the formation of the coalition.

Unlike Latinos and blacks, who tend to vote heavily Democratic, Asian-Americans typically split their votes between Democratic and Republican candidates. Asians also tend to live scattered among other populations, for the most part not forming geographically defined residential enclaves where they command a majority of votes.

Like Asian-Americans, Latinos come from many different countries. But even if their dialects differ, they share a common language. Though the recent influx of Central Americans has changed the face of the Spanish-speaking community, Mexican-Americans remain 75% of the county’s Latino population.

By contrast, no single Asian-American ethnicity is dominant. Those of Chinese and Filipino descent each make up about a quarter of the county’s Asian-American population. Koreans and Japanese each constitute about 15%. And no fewer than 11 other ethnicities make up the rest of the census category “Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.”

Although some Asian-Americans, especially Japanese-Americans, have lived in Los Angeles for generations, many groups are recent immigrants who cannot speak one another’s languages and do not understand one another’s habits.

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South Korea, for example, is as far from Cambodia as France is from Nigeria; the countries’ languages and alphabets are completely unrelated. While many Koreans came as immigrants, usually with some accumulated capital, Cambodians came penniless, as refugees. While Japanese-Americans had the highest median household income of any ethnic group in Los Angeles County, according to 1980 census figures, Vietnamese had the lowest--just $9,600, far lower than blacks. Such data is not yet available from the 1990 census.

So although the communities’ needs are diverse, non-Asians often lump them together.

The coalition organizers said they hope to overcome their differences to pursue common goals.

Discussions of policy goals “are all over the place,” Kwoh said. “We’re not trying to represent everybody. You’d get in trouble saying that. This is a forum to bring people together.”

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