MONTEREY PARK — About 50 residents got their first glimpse Tuesday night of "America Becoming," a documentary that examines recent conflicts and controversies in the city widely dubbed the nation's first "suburban Chinatown."
The film, the product of two years' research by filmmakers and scholars, looks at questions of American identity in the wake of increasing immigration. Directed by Charles Burnett, whose feature film "To Sleep With Anger" began limited release nationwide Wednesday, the documentary focuses on six cities and is tentatively scheduled to air on public television in April, 1991.
Tuesday night's showing focused on Monterey Park's 15-minute segment of the film, although portions devoted to Chicago and to Garden City, Kan., were also aired. The program, part of the city's Harmony Week, was designed to give residents a chance to offer a critique of the portrayal of their city while the film is being edited, executive producer Dai Sil Kim Gibson said.
The Monterey Park segment concentrates on racial tensions generated by the massive influx of Chinese and other Asians into the city during the late 1970s and throughout the '80s, tensions that seeped subtly into the issue of slow growth and overtly into the issue of foreign languages on street and business signs.
Reaction to the documentary from an audience composed of whites, Asians and Latinos was mixed. Although favorable toward its intent, some viewers expressed disappointment that the film placed emphasis on the conflict and not on quiet, behind-the-scenes harmony.
"I think when they filmed this, it was the high time of controversy," said Lucia Su, 56, who has lived in Monterey Park for 21 years. "We had some harmony in the schools and the community. It wasn't just the controversy with Barry Hatch," she said, referring to the former mayor known for his support of a short-lived council resolution designating English as the city's official language.
Her comments were echoed by Ruth Willner, a 32-year resident. "Part of the problem with the film was that since it took you into a specific period of time; it didn't tell you what came before. It just gave you a microcosm," she said.
The city, in fact, had enjoyed cultural diversity and harmony before any of the controversies erupted, said Marjorie Kemmerer, 77, who appeared in the film. "When we moved here in 1966, I thought I was in heaven," she said.
But most agreed that, given the brief time allotted, the documentary did a fair job of depicting the rapidly growing city. The film relied primarily on interviews with community figures, including Hatch and Jose Calderon, a leader in the movement to rescind the official English resolution.
But in one striking image, an old picture of a primarily white high school athletic team dissolved into a photo of a modern-day team composed mostly of Asians.
The film "represented Monterey Park with all its conflicts, dreams, good points and bad points," Mayor Judy Chu said. "You were forced to see everybody in their own habitat, and there were no easy solutions. It was a real slice of life."
And life, especially in this city of more than 60,000, means change, said Willner, 61. "No one promised me that Monterey Park would remain the same. When I moved here, I created change. When other people moved in, they created change.
"There's nothing we can do in terms of stopping the change, so you do what you can to create a sense of community. That's the most important thing."