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Monterey Park : Nation's 1st Suburban Chinatown

ASIAN IMPACT: Second of two articles

April 06, 1987|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

In 1977, Frederic Hsieh, a brash young Chinese developer, decided to meet the elders of Monterey Park and explain his sudden interest in their city.

Hsieh invited 20 of the city's most prominent civic and business leaders--all of them white--to a traditional Chinese lunch. But what he had to tell his guests was hardly gracious.

"He told us the reason why he was buying up so much property in town was that Monterey Park was going to become the next Chinatown," recalled Harold Fiebelkorn, then a member of the city's Planning Commission. "He said it would become a mecca for Chinese."

Hsieh told the incredulous leaders that change was inevitable. The political instability of East Asia would serve as a catalyst, while Monterey Park's proximity to an already established Los Angeles Chinatown would act as a magnet.

'Blowing Smoke'

"Everyone in the room thought the guy was blowing smoke," Fiebelkorn said. "Then when I got home I thought, what gall. What ineffable gall. He was going to come into my living room and change around my furniture?"

Today, barely a decade later, Monterey Park is an American phenomenon. Block by block, development by development, Hsieh's vision has been so thoroughly realized that Monterey Park has the highest concentration of Asian residents--40%--of any city in the country.

But its transition from a quiet bedroom community five miles east of Los Angeles to America's first suburban Chinatown has exacted a cost that not even Hsieh could foresee.

The resentment and ruffled pride of that first meeting have come to symbolize a bitter division between longtime Anglo and Latino residents and newcomer Chinese whose dramatic arrival has reshaped, enriched and torn apart this city.

A 1985 city-sponsored survey of 263 residents found a community in racial discord. Anglo and Latino residents expressed strong anti-Asian sentiments during extensive interviews with researchers. Asian residents complained that their children had been subjected to racism in schools and that Asians were inadequately represented in city government.

In the last several months, the acrimony and racial strife have intensified as the white-majority City Council has taken such actions as supporting English as the country's official language and effectively banning the Taiwan flag from being raised over City Hall on Taiwan's National Day.

In February, council members fired a five-member Planning Commission that had overseen a period of sustained Chinese commercial development.

"This could have been a great, great city given all its different people and all its cultural richness," said Eli Isenberg, 73, former publisher of the Monterey Park Progress, the community's oldest newspaper.

"What's happened is very regrettable. I see a community of separation and alienation. I see a community that has become aesthetically and socially quite ugly."

With a substantial push from Hsieh, who made millions marketing local real estate to immigrants leaving Taiwan and Hong Kong, Monterey Park's population has grown from 49,000 in 1970 to 60,500 today, city officials estimate. Over that same period, the racial makeup of the city has shifted roughly from 56% to 22% Anglo, from 30% to 37% Latino and from 14% to 40% Asian.

Monterey Park sits at the core of an Asian influx that has altered communities across the San Gabriel Valley. Up and down Garvey Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard, the city's two main thoroughfares, blocks of uninterrupted Chinese-language signs proclaim a new commercial identity. Safeway and Alpha Beta, once anchors for the Anglo and Latino communities, have been replaced with the Hung Hoa supermarket and a two-story Pagoda-roofed Chinese shopping center that stands as the most dominant architectural structure in the city.

International Boom Town

Stoked by a constant flow of investment dollars from the Far East, Monterey Park exudes the aura of an international boom town. A dozen Chinese-run banks with combined deposits of more than $400 million have opened since 1979. Three Chinese-language newspapers with worldwide circulations are headquartered or have branch offices on a single street in town. The city supports 60 Chinese restaurants and several Chinese-run nightclubs in a 7.7-square-mile area.

The presence of Chinese newcomers, who are spread throughout the city, is magnified each day by countless other Asians who live outside Monterey Park but crowd its streets to shop, bank and entertain friends.

"When I worked graveyard in this city from 1960 to 1968, we'd call them 'cannonball nights,' " said Jon Elder, the city's police chief. "You could shoot a cannon off at Atlantic and Garvey, and it could fly through the air and roll to a stop without hitting a soul.

"Those days are long gone. The other night I was out at 3:30 in the morning, and I counted 34 cars stopped at a red light at Atlantic and Garvey. It looked like rush hour."

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