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Mainlanders Make Mark Among Chinese Emigres

August 13, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

There is no denying that Chinese immigrants have transformed the San Gabriel Valley. The interesting question now is: Which Chinese?

Long considered a landing pad for arrivals from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the valley is now being shaped more by a mainland Chinese diaspora. Some residents even suggest that Monterey Park shed its unofficial title of "Little Taipei" in favor of "Little Beijing" or "Little Shanghai."

The mainlanders are beneficiaries of China's booming economy and openness in the last two decades, and they come with degrees from China's top universities, bundles of cash and lofty ambitions.

"They have the money, they're sophisticated, and they're good businesspeople," Monterey Park Mayor David Lau said of the mainland immigrants, who came to the United States last year in numbers 10 times those of arrivals from Hong Kong and six times those of newcomers from Taiwan.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Chef -- An article in Wednesday's Section A and a photo caption accompanying it about mainland Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley misidentified chef and restaurateur Tony Ho as Tony He.

The mixing of these three groups has touched off its share of conflicts, but it is also shattering regional stereotypes within the Chinese community and creating a new identity -- with American culture as the unifying thread.

"We are learning to cope and communicate," said Chunsheng Bai, a professor of communications at Cal State L.A. who left Beijing in 1986 to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. "I identify with freedom, equality and the individual pursuit of happiness. These are the three things that make America the greatest country in the world.... I think most Chinese come for these reasons."

Such reasons drive immigrants from throughout the world to U.S. shores, but the mainland Chinese have other reasons as well.

"It's a safe haven for people who made a fortune in China," said UC Irvine history professor Yong Chen. "They're still concerned about the political instability over there, and the overall environment here is nicer."

The mainlanders' growing cachet is all the more significant considering the high status Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese have traditionally commanded.

"The Taiwanese have the perception that mainlanders are rude, don't work hard, the men are lazy and the women are easy," said Jimmy Chu, a Taiwanese American who grew up in Arcadia and now studies at UCLA. " ... The mainlanders perceive us as snobby, culturally separated from the 'original' Chinese race and spoon-fed."

The last census counted 407,003 Asians among the 1.8 million residents of the San Gabriel Valley. The 30,651 people of Taiwanese descent were vastly outnumbered by 212,861 non-Taiwanese Chinese.

Many mainlanders came in the 1980s with student visas, often for graduate school. Then, in the early 1990s, came the first wave of businesspeople, many of whom had worked at state-owned companies. The latest are wealthy entrepreneurs, a lucky minority who discarded Mao jackets for Prada.

"Fifteen years ago, many Chinese here were struggling. Now they're successful," Bai said. As a result, "you see more of a collaborative spirit between the mainlanders, Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese."

Even the highly competitive local Chinese-language press has adapted to the times, having decided in the early '90s to refer to "mainland Chinese," instead of "communist Chinese."

"People from Taiwan initially felt uncomfortable," said Daniel Deng, a former political reporter for the Taiwanese-run World Journal. "But soon readers welcomed the change. They viewed the newspaper as being more neutral."

The conciliatory relationship was years in the making. Like many mainlanders, Bai started out in this country by taking arduous jobs -- busboy and construction worker -- for Taiwanese or Chinese from Hong Kong.

"Their attitude was 'You can work for me, but I can treat you any way I like,' " said Bai, who had landed at JFK International Airport in New York with $45 in his pocket. That was enough for one night in a cheap hotel and the Greyhound fare to the State University of New York at Albany, where he earned his master's degree.

"They clearly wanted me to feel like I was a worker," he said of his Taiwanese supervisors. "They were nice, but not that friendly.... Maybe because I had this thick Mandarin accent" from Beijing.

The presence of immigrants like Bai has been steadily growing. Federal statistics show 61,282 mainland Chinese legally immigrated to the U.S. last year, the largest number since 1993. In most cases, China does not hinder those seeking to emigrate, and over the last decade 30,000 to 40,000 have made new lives in the U.S. each year.

By comparison, 6,090 people emigrated from Hong Kong to America last year and 9,836 from Taiwan. Those figures have remained fairly steady since some highs in the early 1990s, when there were more than 10,000 immigrants from each region.

Once here, the mainlanders have a more complicated relationship with the Taiwanese than with the Hong Kong Chinese. Fifty-four years after the Chinese Nationalist government fled the mainland, Beijing considers the island a renegade territory. And Taiwan still bitterly debates whether it should return to Chinese rule.

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