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Transitions on a Personal Scale Mirror Region's Transformation : Life in America

ASIAN IMPACT: Third of four parts. NEXT: Businesses adapt to a changing customer base and criminals bleed commerce in new ways.

April 16, 1987|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

At the foot of the bunk bed that Linh and Lily Ha share, a portable tape deck pours out the high-pitched strains of a Vietnamese folk song.

For Linh, 21, who has decorated her side of the room with pictures of Asian film stars, the music is a bittersweet reminder of home.

"When I listened to this, I was in Vietnam," said Linh, who fled to the United States in 1980 with her family. "It's sad music. Sometimes it makes me cry."

But for her 19-year-old sister Lily, who has covered the other side of the room with posters of Madonna and Boy George, the folk songs are foolish relics.

"Oh my God, this is driving me up the wall!" she shrieked. "I was younger when we came here. I learned the American ways. Like how American teen-age girls are--that's how I am."

Growing Communities

The collision of cultures in the Ha sisters' small Pasadena bedroom reverberates, in ways both private and public, throughout the growing Asian communities of the San Gabriel Valley.

While the emergence of this region as a center for Asian immigration has had profound implications for nearly every aspect of civic life, it also has meant a very personal transition for the 100,000 mostly Chinese immigrants who have come here in the last six years.

Sometimes it has meant an uneasy adjustment to new customs, such as that experienced by one 18-year-old girl who said more lenient attitudes here prompted her to have premarital sex, forbidden in her native Taiwan.

Other times it has meant a striving to preserve traditional beliefs, as in the case of Quai Chong, a San Gabriel herbalist, who proudly displays a 20-year-old prize ginseng root from China in his shop window.

Search for Solace

And, at times, for many refugees who came here less out of choice than out of necessity, it has meant a disquieting search for solace in a strange and foreign land.

Taken together, their daily lives mirror the transformation of the San Gabriel Valley, from Buddhist nuns supervising construction of a giant monastery in Hacienda Heights to young Chinese children learning their parents' language in Arcadia to Taiwanese immigrants reveling at karaoke singing clubs in Monterey Park.

In an exchange that is at times harmonious and at times discordant, the newcomers have reshaped life in this region as much as life here has reshaped them.

"I want to get the best out of these two cultures, these two different worlds," said Felix Lee, a 19-year-old Taiwan native who came to this country five years ago. "I'm keeping some of the Chinese traditions within myself, because that's my blood. I am a Chinese and I want other people to know me as a Chinese.

"But I'm also taking in more of the American way of life. I really want to be a part of this country. Within myself, I really don't think there's that many cultural things stopping me. I could easily turn into an American."

At an hour when most people are struggling to awake, 72-year-old Chai Tsung and 200 other Asians turn Barnes Memorial Park in Monterey Park into a kinetic display of Chinese physical culture.

Clad in a blue sweat suit, the spry Tsung arrives just before 7 a.m. to gracefully work his way through two hours of the slow, fluid movements of traditional exercises.

With joints and limbs rotating to the beat of a Chinese folk song, Tsung joins a small crowd of mostly middle-aged men and women for a synchronized session of wai-tan-kung , a simple form of calisthenics.

Around him, several agile, elderly men practice the flowing dance of tai-chi-chuan , and a 67-year-old woman from Shanghai confidently twirls a three-foot steel sword.

At 8 a.m., as municipal employees begin to arrive at adjacent City Hall, Tsung ambles across the park to a soccer field, where a larger group performs a slightly more vigorous exercise known as lok-tung-chuan . Invented several years ago by a Chinatown resident, the exercise blends traditional Chinese forms and modern aerobic conditioning.

For thousands of years, Tsung says, neighborhood parks in China have been the site of such precise, rhythmic regimens. Like the ancient martial and medical arts, the classical exercises are intended to capture and circulate the chi , or life force, that is believed to flow through the body.

Today, with Asians comprising 40% of Monterey Park's population, all of the city's 13 parks, as well as others throughout the San Gabriel Valley, have become settings for this daily workout.

"It's good for the heart, for the brain, for the kidneys, for the stomach, for every organ of the body," says Tsung, who came from Hong Kong nearly a year ago. "I feel much better afterwards."

At the base of a hill in Hacienda Heights, the Rev. Shih I-Han and three fellow Buddhist nuns knelt on a carpeted floor, their shaved heads bowed in prayer.

Bowls of fruit awaited blessing on a makeshift shrine before them, next to silk lotus blooms and a dozen Buddha figurines from around the world.

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