MONTEREY PARK — When City Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen was mayor last year, she looked in the window of a gas station that had gone out of business and saw a sign that said: "Will the last American leaving Monterey Park please take down the American flag."
Chen, who was born in China, said she was so upset by the sign, which seemed directed against immigrants who have raised the city's Asian population from 3% in the 1960s to about 40% today, that she wrote a letter to the station owner denouncing the sign as "racist."
The letter is now the subject of a $2-million libel suit filed by Edward Aljian, the station owner, against Chen and the city of Monterey Park. The suit is in a preliminary stage in Pasadena Superior Court but already has generated so much friction that City Atty. Richard Morillo recently obtained a court order delaying a deposition by Chen until Nov. 6 to allow "ill feelings" to dissipate.
Aljian's attorney, Raul R. Granados, said Aljian did not put up the sign and was not responsible for it. Granados contends in the suit that Chen libeled Aljian by suggesting in her letter that he was responsible for racist, un-American statements.
Attorneys for Chen and the city have filed a response claiming that she acted without malice in the performance of her official duties and, therefore, both she and the city are protected from a libel suit by state law.
Chen, an administrator with the county Department of Children's Services, was elected to the Monterey Park City Council in 1982 and served as mayor for nine months in 1983-84 under a policy that rotates the position among council members. Chen said she could not ignore the sign and wrote the letter to register her protest. "I saw the sign and I was upset," she said.
Granados said he does not know who put the sign in the gas station window. Chen said she does not know how long the sign was in the window. She said the same wording has appeared on bumper stickers.
Visible From the Street
In her letter to Aljian dated April 25, 1984, Chen complained that the "very distasteful, un-American sign" was visible to motorists passing the closed gas station at Atlantic Boulevard and Floral Drive. She wrote:
"The City Council and I were very disturbed that such a racist sign be displayed in America, and especially in our city, which prides itself in being a harmonious community composed of a good balance of people of varied ethnic backgrounds, the great majority of whom are American citizens.
"The sign only serves to promulgate racial discord and is contrary to the very essence of our multi-racial country. Certainly, America's strength comes from the unity of people of different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds; and the attempt to foster racial or cultural discord, we feel, is most anti-American!
"We truly hope that you will reflect upon the thoughtlessness of your act and behave as a good and true American."
The suit says the letter was seen and read by Monterey Park residents and "people with whom the plaintiff conducts business," and was written out of "hatred and ill will."
Plaintiff Moved Away
Granados said Aljian, who moved to Bakersfield before the suit was filed, was involved in Monterey Park community activities for many years. Aljian could not be reached for comment and Granados said he does not know how the sign came to be posted in the gas station or who was responsible.
When he takes Chen's deposition, Granados said he hopes to learn how widely her letter was circulated. The letter itself indicates only that copies were given to other council members.
Granados said he has made repeated efforts to take a deposition from Chen but she "keeps ducking us." Chen's attorneys said Granados was uncooperative in rescheduling appointments that had to be canceled. Chen had been scheduled to give a deposition Aug. 14, but her attorneys obtained a stay in court after Granados refused to reschedule the appointment. Chen had canceled an earlier appointment because she had to fly to Chicago to see an ailing relative.
Judge Daniel Fletcher of Pasadena Superior Court issued a protective order delaying Chen's deposition for two months at her request. Papers filed on behalf of Chen said the delay was sought "in hopes that the ill feeling generated (over arranging the deposition) will be diminished through the passage of time." Granados did not appear in court to contest the order.