Once, the tiny San Gabriel Valley community of San Marino, known for its grand houses on streets lined with blooming roses and towering palms, was virtually an all-white community.
Then, beginning a decade ago, wealthy newcomers whose motherland was China moved into the community that long has been a Beverly Hills without the glitz.
To the dismay of some old-timers, a few of the arriving immigrants chopped down beautiful California oaks outside the doorways of their newly purchased homes. They were following traditional Chinese fengshui , a set of beliefs about structures' relationship to the environment. Armed with ax or chain saw, they removed the oaks because of a notion that trees near a front door can keep good luck from flowing into a house.
There were other misunderstandings as well. Anti-Asian graffiti appeared on walls at San Marino High School, considered among the best schools in the state. Several fights broke out on campus, including one in which a youngster drew a knife.
Under their breath, Anglos complained: Chinese were violating city codes by moving unrelated families into homes in a community that, to limit the population, requires one family to a household and always has forbidden construction of even a single apartment or condominium.
And, as one public official relayed with a grimace, people used to bandy about a nasty play on the city's name: Chan Marino.
With all this, however, San Marino has come through the period of rapid demographic upheaval with relative ease, especially when compared with surrounding communities that have undergone a similar transformation, city officials said. The 1980 census recorded 486 residents of Chinese ancestry in the town of 13,307. Although city officials have no comparable figures for 1989, the school system lists more than 46% of its 2,865 students as Asian. The San Marino Chinese Club boasts 380 families as members, including 20 who have paid lifetime memberships of $200.
Six or seven years ago, there were indeed tensions, said Robin Chiu, president of the Chinese Club. "But that is no more," he said.
Kenneth Veronda, head of the city's Human Relations Committee, which formed in the early 1980s in response to ethnic tensions, said: "I'm grateful that we didn't have any irrational people on either side that tried to stir things up. Instead, everybody tried to find solutions."
To foster bicultural friendship, the committee in 1985 instituted a culinary solution, with a decidedly San Marino bent, called "Dinner for Eight."
Periodically, two Anglo couples and two Asian couples dine together, then meet others at the Huntington Library for dessert and a concert mingling Anglo and Asian musical traditions. One year, Veronda said, everyone could appreciate the performance of a pianist representing the Chinese point of view. But the barbershop quartet required a bit of extra translation for those new to America.
Similar cross-cultural experiences occur when the Chinese Club annually invites Anglo guests to the traditional Chinese autumn festival.
"What you have is a conscientious effort, on both sides, to assimilate,' said Police Chief Jack D. Yeske. "Without a bunch of grandstanding or beating of the drums, (newcomers of Chinese ancestry) have become citizens of San Marino."
Nevertheless, the Police Department still has only one member of Chinese ancestry, and no one of Chinese descent has been elected to office.
On the tree-cutting front, the city last year enacted an ordinance requiring a permit. And in 1987, without the controversy that plagued nearby Monterey Park and Pomona on the same issue, the city enacted perhaps the most stringent sign law in the San Gabriel Valley. Eighty percent of the wording on signs must be in Roman characters or Arabic numerals, although the language does not have to be English.
Progress in relations notwithstanding, city officials cite what they consider one of the most troubling incidents of the decade: the repeated theft of Chinese characters from the business sign of Golden Acres Realty Co. in late 1988 and early 1989. Five times, two characters were stolen from the facade of the business, one of only three in the city with a Chinese and English sign.
Owner Caesar Wu, initially very angry, had described the theft as "a gesture of racism." Eventually, eight high school students were arrested as one pried the sign from the building. They told police it was a prank with no racial overtones and denied involvement in the earlier thefts.
In the end, the students apologized and Wu declined to press charges. "If my actions contributed to better relations between the Chinese community and the Caucasian people, then I did the right thing," he said. "I no longer call this a racism case."
As far as community leaders are concerned, the incident is history and their focus is on improving relations.
"Obviously not everyone has formed bonding friendships," Veronda said, "but each group is more comfortable with each other."
Added Chiu: "You cut down a few trees and then you learn. By and large, we're doing really well to assimilate."