The region's diverse Asian population, encompassing high-tech entrepreneurs as well as struggling refugees, is growing faster than the national average, and Washington's two largest suburbs -- Fairfax and Montgomery -- are now among the 25 counties in the nation with the highest shares of Asian American residents.

The number of Asians in the area has grown 50 percent since 1990 and now exceeds 333,000, or more than 6 percent of the region's total population, according to new Census Bureau estimates that will be released today. Nationally, the Asian population grew 41 percent, faster than any other racial or ethnic group.

The size of Washington's Asian population now rivals that of the local Latino community, which numbers nearly 355,000 and also grew faster than the national average, according to the Census. That is a sharp contrast to the national pattern, in which Hispanics outnumber Asians three to one.

Unlike other U.S. metropolitan areas, where the Asian populations are more likely to be dominated by one or two ethnic groups, five major groups are represented in large numbers in Washington: Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Vietnamese and Filipinos. Only the Japanese are relatively scarce.

These communities already have had a profound effect on the region's commerce and culture. More than many other ethnic groups, Asian Americans have a strong presence at both ends of the economic spectrum -- both as well-educated professionals or entrepreneurs and as new immigrants living in poverty and working several jobs to get by.

At the top, the two-year-old Indian CEO High Tech Council has become so popular that hundreds of executives who are not of Indian descent attend its functions to make business connections. Its co-founder, American-born Reggie Aggarwal, changed his first name from "Rajiv" eight years ago because he feared discrimination.

"Now," he said, "I would put down `Rajiv,' because it would help me get a job."

But the picture is mixed. "There's a huge gap between the people who made it and the young people who are not making it," said Sandy Dang, an area advocate for Vietnamese refugees. "They are hurt by the stereotype. People say, `You're supposed to be good in math.' If you are not like that, you are supposed to be a gang member. There's no in-between."

John Yang, past president of the local Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said the diversity of the Asian population challenges institutions providing services. "While other communities may have a language that unifies them, there is no Asian language," he said.

Nationally, according to Census estimates, California has the largest Asian population -- and its increase alone was larger than the Asian population in any other state in 1990.

Marketers consider the Washington area to be at the top of the second-tier Asian American markets, just below New York, Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"D.C., on top of everything else, benefits from the fact that it's a capital city, and capital cities are often the most accepting of diversity," said Saul Gitlin, vice president for strategic marketing services of New York-based Kang & Lee Advertising.

More than 95 percent of the region's Asians live in the suburbs, and, in a few Zip code areas, one in six residents is of Asian descent. Nearly two-thirds live in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, where, respectively, 12 and 11 percent of the total population is Asian.

Fairfax and Montgomery have moved up since 1990 to rank 20th and 22nd among the nation's more than 3,000 counties in concentration of Asian residents. They also rank in the top 20 in number of Asian residents.

"It should worry the District that newcomers are choosing the suburbs," said Frank H. Wu, a law professor at Howard University who writes regularly about Asian American issues. "And it should worry Asian Americans, too. . . . Think of what it does to tensions between African Americans and newly arrived Asians, especially if Asians do business in the city but live in the suburbs."

Most Asian residents are foreign-born, which is one reason why their numbers have not translated into political clout. But Ilryong Moon, a Fairfax School Board member who is now the region's only elected county official of Asian descent, said that will come in time.

"Korean people here are very keen political people," he said. "It's not lack of interest. They don't have the know-how. They themselves can't do it. Their children will have the broad opportunity to do that."

But the influx of Asian Americans already has changed the landscape here. Aging suburban strip malls have been revitalized with businesses catering to Asian customers and restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. Weekend language and culture schools have sprung up to educate the children of immigrants.

The growth of the Asian American population also has begun to influence cultural life, with a proliferation of traditional arts associations, many of them affiliated with churches or temples.

"The problem is they're mostly doing it within the community," said Jon Melegrito, a member of the local theater group Tanghalang Pilipino and executive director of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations. "Only in the last couple of years have we started to break into mainstream arenas like the Kennedy Center."

Research associate David Barie contributed to this report.

Asian, Hispanic Growth

The Washington area's Asian and Hispanic populations have grown faster than the national average this decade, but the rate of African American population growth is about the same.

Asian population Growth since 1990

D.C. region 333,657 50%

National 10.5 million 41%

Hispanic population Growth since 1990

D.C. region 354,975 50%

National 30.3 million 25%

African American population Growth since 1990

D.C. region 1.2 million 12%

National 34.4 million 13%

Eight of the region's suburbs rank in the top 100 of the nation's counties for the percentage of Asians in the population.

Asian Percent of Rank of

Jurisdiction population total percent

population Asian

The District 15,939 3.0% N/A

Virginia

Fairfax 108,576 12.0 20

Arlington 16,648 9.0 34

Alexandria 6,704 6.0 60

Loudoun 5,079 4.0 152

Fairfax City 2,080 10.0 32

Falls Church 679 7.0 42

Maryland

Montgomery 92,162 11.0 22

Prince George's 36,862 5.0 86

Howard 14,413 6.0 56

Anne Arunde l12,113 3.0 244

Charles 2,186 2.0 339

St. Mary's 1,553 2.0 357

Calvert 589 1.0 739

SOURCE: Census Bureau estimates for 1998. The Census Bureau did not include the District in its county rankings.