Milford center puts focus on Asian American culture

MILFORD — For Shirley Chock and Xiaoley Cheng, the New England Asian American Culture Center will be more than just a home for Tai-Chi or Kung Fu classes. It will be a place to learn more about the Asian culture.

With the prejudice many in the Asian American community have faced the past few years, Chock, who founded the center along with Chen, says it is crucial to have a space where people can come together to learn about their culture.

“Right now, we are already community leaders with Kung Fu and Tai-Chi, those are two things that bring people of all cultures together,” she said. “If you come to the classes, you will see they are very multi-cultural, and we wanted the opportunity to expand beyond the classes we are currently providing.”

The Center, located at 49 Research Drive, was created by Chen, who operates Wu Dang Kung Fu Academy with her husband, Master Jack Guo, and Chock, owner of Aiping Tai Chi.

Recently, the Connecticut General Assembly passed Raised Bill No. 5282, which requires, among other things, AAPI studies to be implemented into the state curriculum by the 2025-26 school year.

Attorney General William Tong said there is a long history of Asian American accomplishments in Connecticut that educators should be proud to teach.

“Students should know about Meriden resident Joseph Pierce who fought in the Civil War as the highest ranked Chinese American in the Union Army,” he said. “Students should know about Yale graduate Yung Wing, who in 1854 became the first Chinese student ever to graduate from an American university.”

With the implementation of AAPI studies in schools, Chock said they would be able to host field trips dedicated to illustrating Asian American history.

“There aren't that many places where you can fit so many people in one space and lead them through cultural programs,” she said. “This will also be an opportunity for non-native Chinese people learning Chinese to learn more because language is only one part, but if you don’t understand the context or culture behind the language, then you won’t understand the language as well.

“This will be an opportunity for the people who are learning Chinese at school to get a deeper understanding of the origins of the language, which is culture,” Chock added.

Besides the language itself, Cheng said they are also providing other programs like calligraphy, singing, and dancing.

New England Asian American Culture Center will hold a ribbon cutting on Aug. 19 at 11 a.m.

“There are many things we can do here,” said Chock. “We can offer cinema night, where people can come and watch Asian cinema together, we can provide workshops on dance and other cultural things. We can also have weekly programming for people in the Asian American community to have this a place where they can feel comfortable, and identify with their culture and bring their friends to share in the culture.”

Before Chock and Cheng could realize the dream of sharing their culture with the community, they had to look for a larger building that could fit both businesses and have enough space for community events. They found a home for their businesses at 49 Research Drive.

“Milford is more open and more connected to the outside,” said Cheng. “I know more Asian businesses have started to locate in Milford.”

“Milford is starting to become a hub for the Asian American community,” added Chock.

Milford has seen Asian businesses such as The Whale Tea, originally from Najin, Singapore, with some 300 locations in China, recently open in the city, and Asian Spirits.

“There is a contingency of Asian community in the area that are excited about having all these amenities in the area that reflect their culture,” said Julie Nash, economic development director. “It’s nice to have the diversity in Milford to lend to the culture that we are striving for daily.”

Nash said it is great for economic development to have diversity and culture in the city.

“You don’t want to go to a city or town that doesn't have the options that we have had and are growing,” she said. “One of the things people love when growing to New York City or Boston is to go to Little Italy or Chinatown. Those cities thrive because of the culture and diversity they offer. So we can have, not the same because we are much smaller, but to have that as options to have that in the city of Milford we are super lucky, that, we attracting those kinds of businesses.”

In the 2010 U.S. Census, the number of people in the state who identified as Asian were 157,088.

“I believe why Asian owners are choosing to open their businesses in Milford is because the Asian population is growing in the city,” said Cheng.

“In Connecticut, Asian-Americans are the largest growing minority or ethnic group in Connecticut, when we look at the census data,” said Chock. “It makes sense that you are seeing more Asian businesses opening up because this is the population that is growing the fastest.”

According to the 2020 Census, 172,455 people identified as Asian and in New Haven County, that number was 37,520. The cities with the most Asian population, according to the Census in New Haven County, are New Haven, with 9,176; Hamden, with 3,491; Milford, with 2,861 and West Haven, with 2,709. Other nearby cities, such as Bridgeport, have an Asian population of 4,141, and Orange has an Asian population of 1,465.

“They have the market, and now they need to meet the demands of the community,” said Cheng.

However, Chock pointed out that it’s not only Asians who are coming to support Asian businesses.

“If you come to my Tai Chi classes, you will see that they are extremely diverse,” she said.

Cheng said Kung Fu and Tai Chi help people of various age groups mentally and physically. Also Youth who qualify for the American National Team can not only represent the country in international championships but they can also add it to their college admission.

Through the New England Asian American Cultural Center, Chock said they will be able to accommodate people’s lifestyles better by offering more programming.

“People’s lifestyles have changed after COVID-19, and we have to adapt to people’s new lifestyles and schedules,” she said. “So fewer and fewer people can just go to weekly classes, so in this center, we now have an opportunity to expand what we offer, where we can do more event-based and experience programming that can be more accommodating to people’s lifestyles.”

With their businesses, Chock said they were limited to what they could do, but by establishing the non-profit, they hope to reach many more people.

“We can apply for grant funding to provide these experiences and activities to more people,” she said. “We are also bringing in technology to allow online programming and accommodate people’s changing needs and time.”