When Henry Hwang, a Chinese immigrant, tried to buy a house in Monterey Park in 1960, he was turned away by a real estate agent, who told him: "We don't sell to Chinese."
More than 20 years later Hwang, by then president of Far East National Bank in Los Angeles, took another look at Monterey Park, seeking a location this time for a bank branch. But now it was Hwang who rejected Monterey Park, for an ironic reason.
"We felt Monterey Park was being overcrowded by Chinese," Hwang said. "Too many Chinese . . . too many Chinese banks."
Regulatory restrictions and internal problems had prevented Far East from opening a branch in Monterey Park when the heavy Asian influx into the San Gabriel Valley began in the late 1970s, Hwang said, and by the time the bank was ready to move in 1982, Monterey Park was saturated with Asian banks and so crowded with immigrants that it was apparent that the population explosion would push into nearby cities. So Far East opened its branch in neighboring Alhambra, becoming the only bank in that city to cater to Chinese, an edge it held only briefly. Eight of the 18 banks in Alhambra today are Asian.
Rapidly Expanding Market
Hwang, who founded Far East National Bank in Los Angeles in 1974 as the first federally chartered bank owned by Chinese-Americans, said he wishes his bank had the capital to open more branches in the area because he sees a rapidly expanding market. "The whole San Gabriel Valley will be a big Chinese community," he predicted. "We see this as a trend that is going to grow and grow."
The impact of immigrants from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia is apparent in business districts throughout Monterey Park, much of Alhambra and eastward through San Gabriel and Rosemead to West Covina and Rowland Heights. It can be seen not only in banks with Asian names, but in herb stores, fast-food stands selling noodles and rice, an amazing variety of Oriental restaurants, racks of Chinese newspapers and store signs that give equal space to English words and Chinese characters.
The Asian influx has filled vacant stores with new businesses and driven real estate prices upward. It has pumped millions of dollars from the Far East into the local economy.
But some economic gains have been offset by losses. In Monterey Park, supermarkets and other large businesses, unable to afford higher rents, have moved away and some have been replaced by small shops that provide immigrants with the jobs they need to stay in this country, but generate relatively low sales. The result has been increased demand for city services without offsetting gains in tax revenue.
Dormant Districts Revived
Nevertheless, the arrival of new entrepreneurs and new money has revived dormant business districts, brought new construction and given such cities as Alhambra and Monterey Park a chance to remake themselves.
David Carmany, assistant city manager in Alhambra until his recent appointment as city manager in Agoura Hills, said the Asian influx revitalized Alhambra.
Carmany said the business climate was so bad in Alhambra a few years ago that the major topic of conversation was which store would move out next. "There were a lot of vacancies," he said. "Now, all of a sudden, people are investing in the community.
"It's a real opportunity for an older city to capture new investment."
Some Made Fortunes
The economic changes have benefited some individuals more than others, of course, and made fortunes for men like real estate investor Fred Hsieh, who is credited with sparking interest in Monterey Park by promoting it in Hong Kong as the "Chinese Beverly Hills."
Hsieh, who spent his youth in Shanghai and moved with his family to Hong Kong in 1956, came to the United States in 1963 and earned an engineering degree from Oregon State University. He went to work as a civil engineer with the city of Los Angeles in 1970 and with the help of his credit union scraped together a down payment on his first piece of property, in Echo Park.
He opened a real estate office in Monterey Park in 1975, snapped up commercial land at $5 a square foot that is now worth 10 times that much, and built an empire that includes a music store, a movie theater, a restaurant, a Chinese-language weekly publication called Buy and Sell Classified, and several hundred apartment units. His Mandarin Realty Co. employs 60 agents and has annual sales of $60 million.
Hsieh, 41, now divides his time between offices in Monterey Park and Hong Kong, and is building a $25-million, 400-room resort hotel in his native town of Guilin in China.
First Chinese Supermarket
Another immigrant who saw opportunity early was Jen Shen Wu, 49, who was a stockbroker in Taiwan before he came to the United States 11 years ago. He opened the first Chinese supermarket in Monterey Park in 1978. By offering Asian foods in a market staffed by employees fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, Wu not only made money, but helped create an environment that made Monterey Park hospitable to immigrants.