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Irvine Grows as Chinese Gateway

Schools, High-Tech Jobs Are Magnets Creating a Demographic Shift


In a quiet yet dramatic way, Irvine is emerging as one of Southern California's newest magnets for people of Chinese descent, who are flocking to high-tech jobs, top-rated public schools and the relative safety of suburban life.

Just as Monterey Park was transformed by Chinese immigrants two decades ago, Irvine--with those of Asian descent making up an estimated 20% of the population--is undergoing a demographic shift, drawing immigrants from Taiwan, China and Hong Kong as well as longtime U.S. residents of Chinese descent.

"It just happened in the last four or five years," said Walter Weng, a real estate agent who caters to a Mandarin-speaking clientele and has seen sales to immigrants boom. "They know Irvine has good weather and security. But mainly they come for the schools. For Asians, schools are always the top priority."

The changes are evident from the student population at Irvine's University High School, whose ethnicity is now 40% Asian, to the Culver Plaza shopping mall, where restaurants, banks, a travel agency and a supermarket cater to foreign-born Chinese.

Irvine is home to the county's largest school of Chinese culture, where about 1,000 children are taught Mandarin as well as Chinese customs every Sunday morning.

And the Orange County Chinese American Chamber of Commerce is increasingly seeing its membership shift south, to Irvine, said Angela Wang, president of the 200-member chamber. "It's like the new Taipei," she said. "And it's happening very fast."

So fast that immigrant Linda Chen recently ran into an old grade-school classmate from Taiwan--in her Irvine neighborhood. "That's how small the world is now," said Chen, who moved from Taipei seven years ago so her three children could attend Irvine's public schools.

Irvine's increasing diversity belies the young planned community's image as homogenous and bland. "It really is a melting pot, and I think that surprises people," said Jacquie Ellis, CEO of the Irvine Chamber of Commerce. "It seems to be a really nice cross-section."

In fact, one of the city's attractions to established, affluent Chinese immigrants is its tolerance, said Yung Chen, a professor of Asian American history at UC Irvine, and no relation to Linda Chen.

"The non-Chinese population around Irvine by and large is a very sophisticated one," he said. "So they actually welcome the newcomers. They don't see them as a threat, rather as a welcome addition to the diversity they already have here."

The Center for Demographic Research at Cal State Fullerton estimated that in 1995, 19.3% of Irvine's 121,867 residents were of Asian ancestry, up from 17.9% in 1990 and 7.7% in 1980. In 1995, the majority--69%--were white, with Latinos accounting for 8% and blacks 2.5%.

The most recent breakdown of Irvine's Asian-roots population, in the 1990 U.S. Census, found that nearly one-third were of Chinese descent, followed by Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Filipino. However, Asian American studies experts at UCI cautioned that those ratios have probably shifted substantially.

The demographic changes in Irvine are part of a countywide trend toward greater diversity, said Rusty Kennedy, director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

Kennedy said the growing Chinese community in Irvine does not seem to have produced overt racial tension so far. Inter-ethnic conflict often occurs when change is rapid and a minority group reaches a "critical mass" of about 20% or more, he said--about the level that Irvine's Asian American community is just attaining. "That's when issues of competition, resentment and envy start to grow. If measures aren't taken up front, then you'll definitely suffer the consequences.

"At this point, Irvine is probably ripe for some good proactive work," he said. "It's a diverse city that has less socioeconomic diversity, so maybe the levels of [ethnic] diversity are easier to handle." The commission has sponsored workshops at schools throughout the county, including several in Irvine, to improve communication and understanding among cultures.

Manicured lawns, quiet cul-de-sacs and low crime rates have held a strong appeal for immigrants who grew up in congested urban landscapes such as those in Taiwan, a small island republic of 21 million.

The same factors attracted thousands of Taiwanese immigrants to Monterey Park and other suburban settlements in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1970s and '80s, Yung Chen said. But the similarities end there.

While Monterey Park's economic and cultural life became dominated by Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans after a painful transition, Irvine is likely to retain a diverse ethnic mix, Chen said. One indication: People of many ethnic groups continue buying homes in Irvine in large numbers.

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