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San Gabriel Valley : Asian Influx Alters Life in Suburbia

ASIAN IMPACT: First of two articles:

April 05, 1987|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

Across the entire stretch of the San Gabriel Valley, from Monterey Park in the west to Diamond Bar in the east, unprecedented numbers of Asian newcomers are dramatically changing life in the suburbs.

In one of the most sweeping demographic and social transitions ever experienced by a suburban region, the San Gabriel Valley has emerged as an improbable center of Chinese and other Asian immigration in this country.

In the last six years alone, an estimated 100,000 Chinese and other Asians have moved into a band of predominantly white bedroom communities. Fully one-half of these newcomers have resettled in eight small cities that make up the western San Gabriel Valley, an ethnic concentration unparalleled among suburban regions of the country.

Changes in Civic Institutions

Their arrival has had profound implications for nearly every institution of civic life, affecting the way schools, police, city halls, courts and post offices conduct their day-to-day business. It has meant small shifts, such as incorporating Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese in the announcements that go home with schoolchildren. And it has brought more fundamental changes, transforming quiet bedroom communities into bustling cities awash in the sights, sounds and smells of distant cultures.

Business strips once moribund have been revitalized with an infusion of Asian enterprise and money. Lots that were vacant only a few years ago now support an odd meld of suburban mini-malls and pulsing Far East marketplaces. One such plaza in the city of San Gabriel features an arresting array of choices: a Filipino grocery and sandwich shop, a Vietnamese cafe, a Japanese bakery, an Indonesian deli and restaurants offering Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese cuisine.

Vast Impact

"The impact is far greater than just numbers. What we are talking about is the cultural transformation of an entire region and its impact in terms of schools, ethnic relations and the resurgence of commercial life," said Charles Choy Wong, a sociologist at California State University, Los Angeles, whose doctoral thesis focused on the Chinese experience in Los Angeles and Monterey Park.

"Many companies that have come here are the overseas branch offices of companies in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The ties between the west San Gabriel Valley and the Far East are many. There is frequent travel, daily communications. We're divided by an ocean, but in reality it's just a street."

The influx mostly of ethnic Chinese from Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and China has torn at the western San Gabriel Valley's social and political framework, engendering racial backlash and a distinct form of white flight.

Since the 1950s, affluent whites have fled America's cities for the suburbs, leaving behind a concentration of poorer minorities.

But in the San Gabriel Valley today, some longtime residents are attempting to keep one step ahead of a growing Asian presence by fleeing suburbs in the western valley for what they regard as more stable white suburban communities in the east valley and in Orange County.

For every one Asian newcomer who has resettled in the western San Gabriel Valley since 1980, roughly one white resident has either moved away or died, The Times found. The proportion of whites in the area has plummeted from 78% in 1970 to 56% in 1980 to an estimated 36% of the region's 327,000 residents today.

Over that same period, the Asian population has grown from 2% to 13% to an estimated 27%, the study of school enrollment and vital statistics shows. The region's Latino population--which experienced an increase of 10 percentage points between 1970 and 1980--has now stabilized to about 28% as Latinos are also moving from the western San Gabriel Valley to communities to the east.

The singular nature of this influx and departure is perhaps best reflected in some startling figures: Today, sociologists and Chinese-American scholars point to Monterey Park as the first suburban Chinatown in America, a unique blend of Chinese-language newspapers, clubs, banks and businesses once peculiar to the urban setting. Monterey Park's 40% Asian population is the highest of any city in the country.

And nowhere is the change more far-reaching than in the schools, where some teachers talk of being missionaries in their own country. The 20,000-student Alhambra school district ranks first nationwide in its proportion of Asian students, growing from 11% in 1975 to 48% today. More than 75% of these students are foreign-born, school statistics show. Half cannot speak proficient English.

Farther east--in Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and West Covina--full-fledged Korean and Filipino communities that are among the largest in the state have taken root.

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