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A Taste of Home Turns Bitter Over Mall Project

Some welcome plans for huge development with national chains but others fear Monterey Park would lose ethnic flavor.

October 13, 2005|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

When Monterey Park emerged as the new capital for Southern California's Chinese American community two decades ago, some longtime residents balked at the migration wave, even pressing unsuccessfully for an English-only rule for public signs.

Today, the Chinese flavor of the city is unmistakable: Signs glow with Chinese script, pedestrians tuck Chinese newspapers under their arms and the smell of baking red bean and taro buns wafts out onto the street.

But some Chinese Americans are concerned about a development plan for the city that they fear will bring a more mainstream Anglo sensibility.

The City Council is considering a massive new development that would be filled not with mom-and-pop Chinese retailers but national chains. It would eventually mean the displacement of dozens of small Chinese businesses. City leaders back the plan, saying that it would bring the kind of services residents must obtain in other cities.

The development has sparked a passionate debate about whether the shopping center would dilute the ethnic marketplace feel of Monterey Park, where Chinese Americans flock from around the region to hear their regional dialect and taste their favorite dishes.

"Monterey Park is like a second Chinatown," said Helen Koo, the 58-year-old owner of America Asia Travel, whose business would have to relocate under the plan. "It's the first step for all the people that speak Chinese. Living here is almost like living in their hometowns."

But city leaders said the community needs to serve all residents.

"We have 40% of this city which is not Asian," Mayor Frank Venti said. "I want to keep them in town, shopping at nationally recognized stores and restaurants."

The white, Latino and other non-Asian residents might go to a Chinese restaurant in town once in a while, but they might go to Applebee's in Alhambra or Olive Garden in Azusa more often, Venti said.

"Plus," Venti added. "the Asian generation coming up through school now is looking for the yuppie-type stores. They're the ones frequenting Pasadena and Alhambra and Montebello."

But some Chinese merchants and customers worry about the changes.

"Everyone is in the habit of thinking of this as a Little Chinatown," Mrs. Wang, a 60-year-old seamstress, said in Mandarin. "They have all the things they need here."

Wang did not want to give her first name because she feared losing her lease to a shop in the plaza at Garvey and Garfield avenues if she expressed her disapproval of the project. Surrounded by traditional Chinese chi pau dresses and spools of thread, the Monterey Park resident said almost all of her customers are Chinese and that she cannot speak English.

"If there's a sudden change, those that make the special trip here won't come," she said.

Chen-Biao Sun, 44, shares her concerns. Sun came to Monterey Park from Thousand Oaks for lunch recently to eat Cantonese seafood and buy Chinese medicine.

Sun has been coming to the city for years. When he wanted to get a cellphone, he bought one in Monterey Park so he could have a 626 area code. That way he could dial fewer digits when he wanted to call stores and businesses.

Sun said he supported the idea of sprucing up the area because he thought it looked a little shabby, but he scoffed at the idea of non-Chinese businesses.

"If they put in Western food, I wouldn't come," he said. "I'd go to Chinatown or San Gabriel instead."

Monterey Park wants to develop a five-acre parcel on the northeast corner of Garvey and Garfield, where a patchwork of Chinese restaurants, herb stores, travel agencies, salons and bookstores, plus a Japanese market and an anime store, are clustered around a large parking lot. A few weeks ago, the council selected a builder, a partnership among Garfield and Lincoln Properties, which already owns one of the strip malls on the site; World Premier Investments, based in Santa Ana; and KB Homes.

Over the next three to four years, the developers plan to replace the aging stucco structures with something like the Paseo Colorado: a modern complex with about 68,000 square feet of shops at street level, with a second level of 250 condominiums, and 700 parking spaces. Monterey Park is requiring that 51% of the shops and restaurants be national chains, such as Barnes & Noble or Cheesecake Factory.

Venti said the city isn't trying to keep out Chinese businesses, though he said he thinks the city has enough small restaurants that charge $3 for lunch. If national chains with higher prices, such as P.F. Chang's China Bistro or Panda Express, wanted to lease space in the complex, they would be welcome, Venti said.

The city considers the redevelopment a financial decision. Competition among the small Chinese restaurants or businesses can be so fierce that they hardly turn a profit, which means less money for city taxes.

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