Spotlight on the Immigration Divide: Mills-50's role in Orlando culture
This week, WMFE is reporting on some of the issues surrounding Florida’s new immigration law, SB1718. It took effect at the beginning of July.
So for Spotlight this week, WMFE's Nicole Darden Creston went to one of the Orlando neighborhoods where immigration and culture meet – the Mills-50 district. Orange County is home to Central Florida’s largest Asian-American population.
After the Vietnam War, the Catholic Charities refugee program began settling families in the Colonialtown area. What started as one Vietnamese family finding success in a supermarket catering to their neighbors has flourished into a thriving hot spot featuring many Asian-American-owned businesses.
As part of our series, “Central Florida Seen and Heard: The Immigration Divide,” WMFE spoke to three business owners about their immigration stories, and the way they contribute to Central Florida’s culture.
Cecilia Nguyen’s Story
Cecilia Nguyen owns Tien Hung Jewelry. The store is located inside Tien Hung Supermarket, a Mills-50 staple for decades. The two businesses are separate entities within the same Vietnamese family.
In fact, Nguyen has six siblings, and they all own businesses.
“We have a bridal store, Lily's Bridal - it has two locations going into three locations now. Anh Hong restaurant, which is at the corner here of Mills and Colonial - that's my other sister,” Nguyen says. “We have hair salons and beauty boutiques. My sister-in-law has a tailor shop here on Mills. We have a wholesale toy shop. Even in the medical field - my brother-in-law has a dental practice. So yeah, we touch a little bit of everything.”
Nguyen says that as the youngest child by sixteen years, she was in college and the only sibling available to help at the family jewelry store when her father had a stroke in 2006. Everyone else was already operating businesses of their own. She says she fell in love with the jewelry business and stayed.
Nguyen is the only one of the children born in the United States. “My parents were separated in the Vietnam War,” she explains. Her father came to the US, began working at a print shop, and found a sponsor to shepherd him through the process of reuniting his family in America. It took nine years.
“You kind of have to establish your work history to see how sustainable you are in order to bring your family over,” says Nguyen. “My family is so big, it definitely took a long time. My brothers actually were afraid that they were not going to be able to be sponsored over, so they left a year or two ahead, through a boat in the middle of the night, one of those type of things, and landed in Thailand.”
Nguyen says her elder brothers were reunited with their father only a few months before her mother and sisters were officially sponsored into the US. “We actually have photos of the day they all met for the first time at the airport,” notes Nguyen.
“And after that was when I was born, so I was kind of like…the accident, makeup child, I don't know what you want to call it - love child?” she jokes.
However, she says, there were many difficulties for her family, before and after they were reunited in the US. “You know, sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, wow, you guys own your own businesses,’ and things like that,” she says. “But it was something that was…a drive. It's a drive because you came from nothing. Really nothing.”
It’s not easy for Nguyen to relive this history. The loss of her father, the memories of his hard work and sacrifice, weigh heavily on her.
“The impact [our family’s experience] has is literally the fire that gives us the drive to be better every day,” she says. “And it wasn't easy.”
“So, when people say, ‘Wow, your family is doing so well...' It was challenging. It was proving ourselves to show everybody that we belong here, and that we will make a difference. And we have made a difference.”
Hong Shin’s Story
Hong Shin is co-owner of Haan Coffee, a bustling new shop in the Mills-50 area. He shares ownership with two childhood friends.
“All of us are Korean,” Shin says. In fact, he was born in Korea and came to the US with his parents at the age of three. He didn’t know he was undocumented until he tried to attend college at age 18 and found out that his immigration status prevented him from doing so.
He went through the DACA program – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – and became a citizen. He recalls the process as long and difficult, but worth the work.
“It allowed immigrants who are undocumented to become documented and receive a working permit. It just allowed you to be able to work legally, pay your taxes,” Shin says. “After I graduated from high school, that process allowed me to work and live like an actual American citizen.”
“And this is the only place that I've ever known,” he adds, “since I came here when I was so little.”
And when he was little, he couldn’t have pictured himself as the entrepreneur he is now. “I actually told myself, I'd never own my own business because of the hardship that I saw, because I had to work with my parents. I did everything with them and grew up kind of within that,” says Shin. “But then as I got older, I realized that's how you grow. That's how you become successful in America - you run your own business.”
His business, Haan Coffee, did not originally include plans for drinks or dishes inspired by Korean culture, but Shin says an interview with a coffee magazine prompted the owners to change their minds.
“They asked us, 'What in your menu or the concept what makes it Korean?' And that really got us to think, ‘Okay, maybe we really should tap into the Korean culture.’ Like, BTS is very big right now, "Squid Game" was going on, Korean barbecue is everywhere,” he chuckles.
“So, we have something called an SJ Iced Latte. And SJ stands for su jong hwa, typically a drink that’s served during celebrations. Weddings, birthdays,” he says.
And Haan Coffee’s most popular drink is called Seoul Iced Coffee – it’s the shop’s take on the drink shared by Korean intellectuals, philosophers, and artists in post-war coffee shops in the 1960s.
Quay Hu’s Story
Quay Hu owns Qreate Coffee – pronounced “create,” – another Mills-50 coffee shop but with an arts-café twist.
Hu is a professional photographer, and his photo equipment stays set up and at the ready as a functional part of the décor in the four-year-old café. Large tables meant to facilitate collaboration share space with the smaller ones, where customers are sipping lattes and working solo on their laptops. Hu says, he was one of those people in the past, and that’s what inspired his shop.
“I traveled across the world and across the nation [as a photographer], and I visited a lot of coffee shops, where I used to basically do a lot of my work,” he says. “So I grew a passion for coffee itself. And I wanted to bring the community with like minds - the creative community and coffee community - together.”
Hu’s parents brought him to the US from China. His younger sister was born stateside.
“It was really hard at the beginning,” Hu recalls. “My father went through a lot of struggles just trying to find his footing in regards to working.”
Hu’s father served in a Chinese restaurant, until he saved up enough money to open his own. Hu says at first his father would bike to work from the motel in which they lived. Then they stayed for a time with an extended family member, which meant seven people fighting for space in a two-bedroom house.
“You have to do what you have to do to survive at that time,” notes Hu. He says he learned a lot about business ownership in those early days before college.
“My parents barely spoke English, so we had to do a lot of translating. We were kind of forced into running the business, making sure orders were in,” Hu says. “You learn really quick because you're just kind of thrown into it and you don't really have a choice.”
“Because when you come into this country with nothing, you kind of have a sense of urgency, you kind of work harder. You work hard for everything you get. So, I mean, giving up is not really an option.”
Hu says many of his drinks and snacks are Asian-inspired. “We have a taro latte, we have a pandan latte as well,” he explains. “And then on the food side, we have a tamago sando, which is a Japanese egg sandwich. And then we have our Korean cream cheese garlic bread.”
Mills-50 and its role in Central Florida culture
Shin, Hu, and Nguyen all have a certain reverence for the Mills-50 neighborhood, and they celebrate both its growth and the way it’s become woven into the cultural identity of Central Florida.
“Growing up here, we always came to the Mills-50 area to eat, but now it's grown so much, where a lot of second-generation and third-generation immigrants are coming in and opening up their own businesses,” says Shin. “This Mills-50 area, it's become kind of a landmark for Orlando. So now when friends visit, we tell them this is where you want to hang out, this is where you should stay.”
“Ah, man, Mills-50 is a very special place,” says Hu. “Part of the reason why I really enjoy and like this area is because of the [creative] concepts that are in here. And it seems like this neighborhood, Colonialtown, and this whole entire area, is very open-minded.”
Nguyen agrees. “This Mills and Colonial area, I feel like it's a part of home. It's actually us, bringing our culture. And then what I love about Orlando is that it's so open to the culture that we are showing,” she says.
“So it kinda is like this great balance that we have. I feel that it is truly everyone showcasing our culture and then everyone embracing it on the other end. So that's what makes it so special.”