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The Chinese Of Orange County : Parents Want To Preserve Herita, Their Children Want Fast Track To Assimilation

HERITAGE: First in an occasional series of stories on Orange County's diverse ethnic groups.

December 29, 1989|HERMAN WONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the stroke of 9 on a Sunday morning, students by the hundreds are arriving at the deserted University High School campus in Irvine.

Lines of Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Toyotas drop them off from stylish homes in Newport Beach, Anaheim Hills and Tustin. Dressed in trendy sweats and high-top tennies, they jostle, gossip and kid among themselves as they make their way to class.

These are Chinese-Americans gathering for their weekly three-hour classes at the Irvine Chinese School that operates out of rented buildings on the University campus.

The rest of the week they lead quiet lives in some of the county's best neighborhoods, but they are prodded relentlessly by their parents to be examples of the "model minority" while they pursue the fastest track possible in American assimilation.

Yet each Sunday they enter another world in which they speak only Mandarin, recite Confucian fables and attend lectures on Chinese history and the sciences.

The sight of 700 Chinese-Americans ages 5 to 18 crowded into this quintessentially American campus in a quintessentially American suburban town is stunning.

Make no mistake: This school is nothing less than a Sunday congregation of the cultural faithful. A rousing affirmation of ethnic roots.

An extended Chinese family of 700.

Despite the fact that it is now 13 years old and the second largest of 80 such Chinese cultural schools in Southern California, the Irvine Chinese School is still virtually unknown outside Asian communities.

Yet it and the 15 others like it in the county tell much about an undeniable fact of demographics here: namely, the Asianization of Orange County.

True, nearly all attention has been on the influx of two other Asian peoples here, the the Vietnamese, who now number about 100,000, and the Koreans, who now number about 70,000. But those groups have high visibility. The Little Saigon and Koreatown strips in central Orange County are two of the biggest commercial enclaves of their kind in the United States, and they have stirred resentment among some Caucasian residents who fear that the groups are trying to undermine the primacy of English and to erect compounds of their own on American soil.

The Chinese population here has a much lower profile, although it wasn't always so.

Anti-Asian feeling had been building since the 1870s because of the competition for laborers' jobs. In May of 1906, when anti-Asian sentiment was at its height throughout California, Santa Ana's tiny Chinatown was burned down by city fathers who considered it a blight and feared it would produce an outbreak of leprosy.

There were only a few hundred Chinese living here at the time. It would be decades before they would settle here in any great numbers. In 1960, the Chinese population in the county was just 444; in 1970, it was 2,832, but by 1980 their number had increased to 14,213, and for 1990, it is projected to be at least 20,000.

Researchers say most of the increase since the 1970s represent people who have emigrated--some from Hong Kong, but most from Taiwan--and that these people are generally more affluent, more educated and more sophisticated in their adoption of American ways than their predecessors.

In a study of Asian immigration, UC Irvine assistant professor John Liu, a member of the university's Comparative Culture Program, found that newcomers from Taiwan accounted for 72% of the 3,996 Chinese who settled in Orange County between 1983 and 1986, far outnumbering those from Hong Kong and China.

It appears that these newcomers deliberately bypassed the traditional Chinese enclaves in Los Angeles County, including Monterey Park, for the anonymity of Orange County suburbia.

"These are immigrants who seek what everyone else seeks--Caucasian Americans included--from this society," Liu said. "They want the kind of job mobility, schools and leisure that go with the American Dream life style of an Orange County."

In fact, Orange County, which has never had a big Chinatown in the usual sense, is fast becoming one of the most sought-after suburban destinations in the United States for this newer wave of high-status Chinese newcomers, Liu and other Chinese-American researchers said.

The Chinese immigrants who live in Monterey Park and in the other enclaves of the San Gabriel Valley "don't have to--or want to--venture outside the Chinatowns," said Celia Young, a Laguna Niguel-based consultant in Asian-American relations. "They have reconstructed a Chinese society right there. But this group clearly doesn't want to live like that," she said of those who have chosen Orange County. Instead, she said, "they are willing to become immersed in the Caucasian society, but hoping to do so without losing their (Chinese) identity."

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