Just Like Home: Kwei Ching Sun and her grandson, Christopher Feng, age 5, inside the Charming Garden Restaurant, one of the most popular restaurants in Monterey Park. Christopher’s father, Heng Y.H. Feng, is the owner of the Charming Garden, which also has branches in Taiwan and China. Photo by David Kawashima
By Bert Eljera
A leisurely drive along Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park, Calif., offers a glimpse into the soul of the city affectionately called “Little Taipei” by the Chinese immigrants who have made it their home.
The city’s south gateway from the Pomona Freeway, Atlantic Boulevard reflects the city’s diversity: a new, Mediterranean-style shopping center, Atlantic Square, sits at the south end with a Ralph’s Market, Blockbuster Video, Shakey’s Pizza parlor, a Mexican bakery, and a variety of shops and stores.
But just three blocks farther north, the landscape changes. Signs in Chinese begin to dominate as Asian businesses spring to life from both sides of Atlantic Boulevard.
A Diho market, an Asian supermarket-chain store that sells fresh fish, live crabs, rice, and other Asian food, anchors a strip mall on Atlantic and El Portal. Across from the mall are rows of professional offices, banks, and more shops. NBC Seafood Restaurant, one of the finest restaurants in the city, is also on Atlantic.
Then, as Atlantic meets Garvey Avenue-in what once was the heart of Monterey Park’s old business district-one can get a real-life sense of Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Taipei.
The imposing Atlantic Place Shopping Center, with its red-tile roof and distinctly Chinese architecture, sits northwest of the intersection, a citadel to the growing business influence of the Chinese American community.
Housed in the three-story building are two restaurants popular locally as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan-Harbor Village Restaurant and Charming Garden Restaurant. The city’s largest bookstore, Sino United Publishing, which carries books, newspapers, and magazines from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, is on the building’s ground floor.
Around the Atlantic Place Shopping Center are scores of other Chinese businesses-music stores, hair salons, restaurants, and realty companies. Chinese signs dot both sides of Garvey all the way to Garfield Avenue.
Along Garvey Avenue is the Taipei Center, a new structure also in Chinese design, which houses a restaurant, a travel agency, a music school, and other businesses.
According to the Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce, within the city’s 7.7-square-mile limits, there are more than 60 Chinese restaurants, more than 50 realty companies, several Chinese supermarkets, scores of dental, medical, accounting and legal offices, and dozens of shopping centers.
On The Avenue: Shopping along Atlantic Boulevard, where the signs gradually turn from English to Chinese as drivers approach Little Taipei.
Of the city’s more than 5,000 businesses, the Chinese own at least two-thirds of them, according to the Chamber of Commerce.
“The whole city is Little Taipei,” said Kurt Aanensen, the chamber’s executive director.
The 1990 census indicates that Asians make up 56 percent of Monterey Park’s 60,000 residents, making it the first U.S. city with an Asian majority. Latinos make up 31 percent of the population; whites, 10 percent; and other races, 3 percent.
Since Chinese immigrants are the city’s majority, media and social researchers have called Monterey Park a “suburban Chinatown.” Some, however, argue that it’s not an accurate label.
“I do not appreciate the title,” said Judy Chu, a former mayor and a Chinese American member of the city council since 1988. “The Chinatowns of before were ethnic enclaves. This is a diverse community.”
But the labels persist. Some of Monterey Park’s nicknames could be perceived as flattering, as with the “Chinese Beverly Hills,” or derisive, as with “Mandarin Park.”
Monterey Park, once inhabited by Shoshone Indians, later renamed as Gabrielino Indians by Spanish missionaries, saw a rapid transformation in the 1970s when immigrants from Taiwan started to arrive in large numbers.
In 1960, the city, nestled among the “King’s Hills” in San Gabriel Valley, was a bedroom community with whites making up more than 85 percent of the population. Asians, consisting mostly of Japanese Americans, constituted just 2.9 percent of the population.
By 1970, whites dropped to 50.5 percent, then to just 25 percent by 1980, while Asians grew about 15 times in number during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Monterey Park was generally considered a liberal, tolerant community in the ‘60s and early-’70s, but the sudden influx of Chinese immigrants created a backlash.
The ‘80s were characterized by racial tension and political turmoil fanned, in part, by the efforts of local leaders with nativist leanings to declare English as the official language and require English-only business signs.
Amid the statewide slow-growth and anti-tax movement, Monterey Park was caught in a political whirlwind, as old-time residents fought what they perceived as the growing threat of the new immigrants to their old town.
Ironically, it was also during the ‘80s-in 1985-that Monterey Park was hailed nationally as a model of racial harmony and named an “All-America City” by the National Municipal League and the newspaper USA Today.
“It was chaotic,” said G. Monty Manibog, a Filipino American lawyer who served three terms on the council, including two stints as mayor. “It has calmed down now. We now live in a more enlightened era.”
The radical transformation pushed Monterey Park into the national spotlight as political and social scientists turned the city into a virtual laboratory for studying rapid social and political changes.
Two books provide compelling accounts of Monterey Park and how its residents coped with this social and political upheaval: The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California by Timothy Fong (1995, Temple University Press) and The Politics of Diversity: Immigration, Resistance, and Change in Monterey Park, California by John Horton (1995, Temple University Press.)
Fong, a former journalist who teaches at the University of California at Davis, examined the demographic, economic, social and cultural changes, and the political reactions to those changes.
Horton, a professor emeritus of sociology at UCLA, and a team of researchers interviewed longtime residents and newcomers, analyzed exit polls, and attended civic and community events.
The result was an engaging portrait of a city in transition, the decline of the old-boy Anglo network and rise of new political leaders, particularly among Asians and Latinos.
“The story of Monterey Park tells us that inclusion, citizenship, and empowerment are the weapons against the politics of exclusion,” Horton writes in the conclusion to his book.
But why did Monterey Park become a magnet for immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China?
The man generally considered responsible for Chinese immigrants moving to Monterey Park is realtor Frederick Hsieh.
Born in Guilin, China, Hsieh lived in Shanghai until he was 12, and then moved to Hong Kong with his family. After graduating from high school in Hong Kong, he came to the United States as a foreign student.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s in water resource from Oregon State University. One of his future occupations after graduating was as an engineer in Los Angeles.
After Hsieh earned his real estate license in the early-’70s, he moved to Monterey Park and began buying properties. In 1977, he announced at a Chamber of Commerce meeting that Monterey Park would be a Mecca for Chinese immigrants.
“Nobody believed him,” said Louise Davis, Monterey Park’s current treasurer and a two-time former mayor. “He said the majority of the people here will be Chinese-and it happened.”
Davis, 72, a resident for the past 40 years, said Hsieh aggressively promoted Monterey Park in Taiwan and Hong Kong as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.” “They could be sitting in a bar in Taiwan and someone mentions Monterey Park, and they’d all be familiar with Monterey Park,” Davis said.
An astute businessman, Hsieh believes that political insecurity in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong, will force many Chinese to invest in the U.S.
Where We Are
Until the turn of the century, China was by far the largest source of Asian immigrants arriving during the decades from 1850 on. The only serious competition after the enactment of the Exclusion Act of 1906 was from Filipino and Japanese immigration.
This means that Chinese and its affiliated dialects is the most spoken Asian language in the United States, sixth among languages spoken in the U.S. By 2000, Chinese will be among the top five languages used in the country.
The top 12 areas based on ethnic Chinese population are:
|Metropolitan Area||Chinese Pop.||% of Total.|
|Los Angeles-Long Beach||245,033||2.8|
Most of the Chinese immigrants who moved into Monterey Park in the early-’70s were young professionals-engineers, computer programmers, and lawyers.
Councilwoman Chu, who moved to Monterey Park more than 10 years ago, said the young immigrants moved into the best neighborhoods, but hardly caused a stir in the community.
She said the city was attractive because of its middle-class reputation, its accessibility from all major Southern California freeways, and its fairly affordable housing.
Later, however, spurred by Hsieh’s promotional efforts, the new arrivals were mostly Hong Kong and Taiwan businessmen looking for business opportunities.
In his book, The First Suburban Chinatown, Fong wrote that the Chinese businessmen could afford to pay for homes and commercial property in cash, engage in land speculation, and use businesses to bring in cash to the U.S.
“Large profits were not the primary concern; the overriding objective was to gain long-term stability over short-term profits,” Fong wrote. “Some investors were even willing to take a loss for several years in order to secure a place in the United States.”
Davis remembered a rumor at the time about a man riding his bicycle around town with a sack of money dangling from the bike’s handlebar, offering people cash for their homes.
“It’s hard to resist when they offer you the barrel head,” Davis said. “They bought properties site unseen, and paid ridiculous prices. Some white folks took advantage of the opportunity.”
Not Rus Paine and his wife, Win, who still live at Hermosa Vista, their home for the past 40 years.
While many of their neighbors moved away, the Paines stayed. They saw their neighborhood change from predominantly white into a “United Nations-with Chinese, Latinos, Japanese, and white” residents.
“We enjoy it here,” said Rus Paine, 83, who taught for 27 years at East Los Angeles College until he retired in 1973. He and Win, 80, are longtime volunteers of the Historical Society of Monterey Park.
Paine said he could understand why many Monterey Park old-timers felt uneasy about the sudden changes in their community and the town’s exploding growth. “I don’t think even the city officials were prepared for it,” he said.
As the immigrants began buying up properties, results were dramatic: a donut shop was replaced by a Chinese bank; the Paris Restaurant, where an old-timers club, the Kaffee Klatch, met for breakfast, became a Vietnamese seafood restaurant.
“The feeling was they [Chinese immigrants] were taking over,” said Davis, who was mayor in 1980 and 1983. “They put up these Chinese signs that Anglo people did not understand.”
In his book, The Politics of Diversity, Horton quoted a Japanese American on his return to Monterey Park: “Damn it, Dad, where the hell did all these Chinese come from? Shit, this isn’t our town anymore.”
A sign displayed at a local gas station read: Will the last American to leave Monterey Park please bring the flag?
Fueling the backlash was a slow-growth movement that was gaining momentum across California during the ‘80s. In Monterey Park, it was championed by mostly white residents concerned about rapid development and growth, which was becoming more of an Asian phenomenon.
According to Horton, the local slow-growth movement took root in the Monterey Park Taxpayers Association, which fought for tax limits in the 1970s, and the Sequoia Park Homeowners Association, which succeeded in shooting down a condominium project.
In 1981, the Residents Association of Monterey Park was formed. It was a mostly white, middle-aged group of Democrats and Republicans who believed in slowing down the city’s growth.
The movement won widespread support and succeeded in putting the brakes on rapid growth. Hsieh and other developers called the group racist and anti-capitalist.
Monterey Park at a Glance
Shoshone Indians, later renamed as Gabrielino Indians, were the original inhabitants of Monterey Park. In the 1800s, the area was first part of Mission San Gabriel de Arcangel, and later part of Rancho San Antonio.
Richard Garvey, a U.S. Army mail rider whose route took him through Monterey Pass, a trail which is now Garvey Avenue, settled there some years later. He developed the land and constructed a 54-foot dam to bring water from the nearby Hondo River.
Garvey eventually sold some of his land to pay for his debts and developments. In 1906, the first subdivision, Ramona Acres, was developed.
In 1916, the residents approved incorporation to thwart a plan by the nearby cities of Pasadena, South Pasadena, and Alhambra to convert the area into a sewage farm.
The new city-Monterey Park-was named after an old government map showing the oak-covered hills of the area as Monterey Hills or “King’s Hills.”
By the 1920s, the city was thriving and Asians, particularly Japanese Americans, moved in and began farming potatoes and flowers in the Monterey Highlands area.
Development stagnated during the Depression, but after World War II and through the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Monterey Park saw tremendous growth. With its proximity to downtown Los Angeles, the city attracted Latinos and Asian immigrants.
In 1980, Latinos made up 39 percent of the city’s 54,000 residents; Asians represented 35 percent; and whites, 24 percent. Blacks and other races constituted 1 percent.
Today, Asians make up 56 percent of the population of about 60,000, making it the only city in the mainland U.S. with an Asian majority. Latinos now represent 31 percent; whites, 12 percent; and blacks, less than 1 percent.
Monterey Park is located about seven miles from downtown Los Angeles and is less than an hour away from the business centers in Orange County, West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Burbank Airport is about a 15-minute drive, while Ontario and Los Angeles International airports are a half-hour away. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are accessible through the Long Beach Freeway.
The city is served by the Alhambra, Garvey, Montebello, and Los Angeles Unified school districts. Considered a regional business center, many companies in Monterey Park have close ties to Pacific Rim countries
Closely tied to the slow-growth movement was the effort to pass an English-only sign ordinance. Later in the 1980s, leaders of the slow-growth movement would spearhead the fight to declare English as the city’s official language.
Between 1982 and 1985, the sign issue erupted several times as some residents, angry at the proliferation of Chinese commercial signs, demanded an English-only ordinance.
The issue came to a head in 1985 when two slow-growth advocates-Barry Hatch and Frank Arcuri-led a petition drive to put on the ballot a measure declaring English as the official language.
Although they collected more than 3,000 signatures, surpassing the required number, the petition was invalidated by the city attorney because the circulated petition did not contain the exact text of the proposed ballot measure.
Arcuri, who moved to Monterey Park in 1972, published a local paper and fancied himself as a protector of American culture.
“I’ve always lived in cities that had mixed communities,” Arcuri, a New York-native born to an Italian American family, told Fong in a radio interview. “I’ve avoided ethnic communities. I never would have felt comfortable. ... Now all of a sudden, to have a group come to our city, which in this case is Chinese people, with enough money so they can buy our city, buy our economy, and force their language and culture down our throats, this is what is disturbing to people in Monterey Park.”
The “Official English” movement, however, was a cover for racism and xenophobia, Chinese American community leaders said. Banning Chinese signs was a violation of their constitutional rights. Moreover, the Chinese signs served a practical purpose: to attract Chinese customers who were their primary clients. To prohibit Chinese signs was to limit business, which was un-American, they said.
Later that year, however, California voters approved a referendum declaring English as the state’s official language. The measure won 53 percent to 47 percent in Monterey Park. Similar measures have passed in 17 other states.
In 1986, Hatch, who was born in Monterey Park but speaks Cantonese after serving as a missionary in Hong Kong in his youth, won a seat on the council.
Along with two other white council members, Hatch succeeded in passing a council resolution opposing immigration and declaring English as the official language.
“It was bad for our citizens, and wrong for the community,” said Manibog, who was the mayor at the time. “I was against it. Do you expect people to be whispering in their own language?”
The resolution was purely symbolic, and did not carry any weight, Manibog said. But it divided the community, and spawned several community organizations, including the Taiwanese American Citizens League.
Manibog said that one of the councilmen who voted for the resolution, Cam Briglio, changed his vote and the resolution was rescinded.
A recall was launched against those who voted for the Official English resolution, but the effort failed, despite the support of many Asian leaders.
In the 1988 council election, however, Briglio was defeated, and in the race for two seats among eight candidates, the top vote getter was an Asian American, Judy Chu.
Two years later, Hatch, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric was becoming an embarrassment even to his own supporters, lost his council seat. Another Chinese American, Sam Kiang, was elected to the council.
Happy Buddha: A common sight in Little Taipei.
From 1990 to 1994, there were two Chinese Americans on the council-Chu and Kiang-but Kiang ended up losing his seat in 1994.
Although they share a common heritage, Chu and Kiang hold different political views and styles, reflecting the diversity within the Chinese American community.
Chu, 42, a psychology professor at East Los Angeles College, was born and raised in the U.S. Her father was also born here, while her mother is from Canton. Some consider Chu “not Chinese enough.”
Kiang, 45, an engineer and lawyer, is an immigrant from Hong Kong who has positioned himself as an advocate of Chinese immigrant rights.
In his book, Fong described Kiang as belonging to the entrepreneurial elite, a breed of overseas Chinese eager to expand their economic clout with some political power.
Fong said Chu, on the other hand, belongs to the social service elite, which believes in coalition building and forging alliances based on common interests and need.
It is yet unclear which faction will eventually be dominant or whether new splits will arise, such as along native or foreign-born lines.
By sheer numbers, Chinese Americans are the dominant economic, social, and cultural force in Monterey Park. But it’s largely an immigrant population, still weak at the ballot box.
Chinese Americans in Monterey Park constitute just 23 percent of registered voters, although they make up more than 36 percent of the population. They also register almost equally as Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, thus hardly representing a powerful bloc within their respective parties.
In addition, at least in Monterey Park, Chinese Americans have run against each other, dividing the Chinese vote in the election.
Nevertheless, their influence, and that of all Asians, in Monterey Park is expected to grow. Although many Chinese Americans are already leaving Monterey Park for the more affluent Hacienda Heights and other cities to the east, it is projected that Asians will constitute 80 percent of the city population in 2000.
The Paines, Davises, and other longtime residents said they are not worried at all.
Rus and Win Paine raised their three children in Monterey Park and do not intend to leave. Rus Paine, who speaks a little Chinese from his linguistic work with the U.S. Army, said he has not felt any resentment against the Chinese. Last fall, he and his neighbor, Robert Lai, chopped down an overgrown fig tree that was “getting out of hand.
“We had drinks and snacks later,” Rus Paine said. “It was fun. I think of him as a neighbor, not Chinese.”
Davis, whose son’s wife is Chinese, said Chinese immigrants have contributed a lot to Monterey Park. “Monterey Park was deteriorating: a lot of empty lots, houses were old and falling apart,” she said. “The Chinese people have given life to this community.”
Davis said she has too many ties to the city to leave. “I’d be perfectly happy to finish my years in Monterey Park.”
For Nancy Tsai and her husband, George, that sentiment was precisely why they came to Monterey Park 16 years ago: they wanted to spend the rest of their lives there.
Nancy Tsai worked for American companies in Taiwan while George was with the U.S. Air Force during World War II. They had heard so much about Monterey Park from friends and relatives in Taiwan, she said. “It’s a lovely city-quiet, simple, not as crowded as Los Angeles,” said Tsai, whose perfect English helped her to adopt quickly to her new home.
She volunteers at the Langley Senior Center, while George plays the fiddle for a Chinese opera group composed of seniors.
“We don’t mind if the city is full of Asians,” said Tsai, 73. “We just hope it’s full of nice people, regardless of where they came from.”
May 3: Daly City, Calif.: Filipinos At Home in America
May 10: Los Angeles: Return to Little Tokyo
Last week: Westminster, Calif.: Little Saigon
This week: Monterey Park, Calif.: Little Taipei
Next week: San Francisco: The Chinatown Legacy