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U.S. Asians drawn to life in Irvine

Good schools, low crime rates, well-paying jobs lure many, especially Chinese Americans.

October 29, 2006|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

In the world of highly manicured Orange County communities, few are polished to the luster of Irvine. The master-planned, upscale city of cookie-cutter homes and broad boulevards looks every inch the stereotype of suburban living -- orderly, safe and homogenous.

Yet just beneath the surface lies another Irvine, one of Buddhist temples and teahouses, a city with bustling Chinese markets and a university where nearly half the students are Asian. Once the epitome of conservative, white suburbia, Irvine is now a place where a person can spend a lifetime never having to speak English.

"I used to think I would retire someday and move to Chinatown," said Yvonne Wang, who moved to Irvine from New Jersey in 1994. "Now Irvine is like Chinatown."

Attracted by good schools, low crime and well-paying jobs, Irvine has become a destination for Asian American professionals, especially Chinese Americans. It's home to one of the country's biggest Chinese language schools, the largest Buddhist temple and monastery in Orange County, a Chinese orchestra and clubs for artists, students and senior citizens. More Chinese Americans live in Irvine than any other city in the county.

"A lot came in the last decade. The education system has clearly been a magnet; people don't end up living here by accident," said Irvine Mayor Beth Krom. "We are a Pacific Rim community, so it's natural to see more Asian people."

According to U.S. census estimates, 36.7% of Irvine's 185,000 residents are Asian American. Of that, 21,757 are Chinese, up from 14,973 in 2000. Koreans, Vietnamese and Japanese constitute most of the remaining Asian Americans. Irvine schools, where classrooms are often heavily Chinese American, have become among the most competitive in the region.

"I have heard parents say they don't want to send their kids here because they aren't high achievers," said Jung Kang, who teaches Chinese at University High School. "The students are very competitive, but that is an incentive for others to do better."

Yet despite the heavy influx of Chinese, there is no Chinatown or strictly Chinese neighborhoods. Such enclaves are more often found in lower-income immigrant areas, places that don't exist in Irvine. New arrivals here tend to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and academics with the language skills and money that many traditional immigrants don't have.

And they are catered to in typical Orange County fashion, with neatly kept shopping centers and strip malls. The largest is Culver Plaza, home to Chinese banks, restaurants, tea shops and the sprawling 99 Ranch Market, which carries pickled lettuce, quail eggs, live catfish and moon cakes.

For culture, Chinese plays and operas are performed at the Irvine Barclay Theater.

Nancy Cheng, 75, a teacher and nurse, came to Irvine from Villa Park because she was constantly attending Chinese functions here.

"I never spoke so much Chinese in my life until I moved to Irvine," she said.

The rapid transformation of the town from a predominantly white enclave to an increasingly Asian one can startle even the Chinese Americans.

"I came from San Bernardino, where I was the only Chinese girl in my school," said Belinda Vong, a member of UC Irvine's Chinese Assn. "I felt special. Not anymore."

Kevin Lee is president of the association. He said UCI, which is 40% Asian, is often referred to as University of Chinese Immigrants.

"When you leave Irvine, it hits you that this is really a bubble," he said. "A lot of Asians here take their culture for granted."

Not those who came first. They remember when there were only a handful of Chinese Americans, when there were no clubs, when buying ingredients for dinner meant driving to Los Angeles and the idea of staging a Chinese opera was simply unthinkable.

"Ten years ago there was not one Chinese store. When I first came there were a few, mostly Taiwanese, residents. China had not opened up yet," said Jimmy Ma, a leader in the Chinese American community. "The big reason people came was because of the schools. Chinese stress education. That's how we compete."

Ma and others rented high school classrooms for a Chinese language school. When the rent was raised, they decided to build their own facility. After years of planning, the $12-million, 44,000-square-foot South Coast Chinese Cultural Center opened in April.

The center's Chinese school now has more than 1,000 students. It also offers Japanese and Korean language classes, along with Chinese dance, art, basketball and badminton courts. Students can also get academic tutoring and SAT preparation.

"We want our children to combine the good part of both cultures -- Chinese and American," said Joy Chao, who runs after-school programs at the center.

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