Friction Building Up in Monterey Park as Chinese Immigrants Change Its Character
In the rainbow of cultures that makes up Southern California, nowhere has the complexion of a city changed faster than in Monterey Park.
The city’s landscape has been repainted by a wave of generally affluent Chinese immigrants, many from Taiwan and others from Hong Kong--residents who feared eventual takeover by China.
What has ensued is potentially volatile friction between the newcomers and longtime residents.
The immigrants have swelled the city’s Asian population, which was less than 10% in 1970, to more than 40%, and they have increased the total population to a traffic-choking 60,000-plus.
“The ethnic mix remained pretty stable for years--one-third Anglo, one-third Hispanic and one-third Asians,” Mayor Rudy Peralta said. “In the last three years, however, the mix has changed drastically.”
The Chinese influence is most visible on the crowded boulevards of the 7 1/2-square-mile city, which sits--these days restlessly--six miles east of downtown Los Angeles in the rolling hills of the San Gabriel Valley.
Oriental is the prevailing architecture, red a popular color.
The remodeling of the city’s restaurants, theaters and shopping centers has angered many longtime residents.
But it is the signs on those buildings--increasingly in Chinese characters--that have contributed most to the tension between old-timers and newcomers.
“Physically, we look like a crowded Chinese city,” said Frank Arcuri, a local gadfly who has launched a ballot petition in an effort to declare English the city’s official language. “If we wanted to live in China, we’d live in China.”
City Council members, who previously dismissed a similar petition by Arcuri on grounds that it was ambiguously worded, have accused him of grandstanding and engendering racism.
But it is widely admitted that a volatile situation exists, and the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service is trying to mediate.
What makes Monterey Park unique in the region’s tidal wave of immigration is the short period in which change has occurred, and the affluence of the immigrants.
“The change itself would have been less challenging if it had come about in a gradual manner,” said Peralta.
Where single-family houses once sat, condominiums have sprouted.
“Basically, some people would just as soon we retain our small-town flavor,” he said.
Stewart Kwoh, director of the Asian Pacific Legal Center of Southern California, said the new immigrants arrived at a time when other resources were drying up.
“In Monterey Park, there’s a cross section from different strata,” he said. “Some people are rich and are coming in with money and buying up some of the businesses and homes. So there’s a perception that either they’re taking over the community or that they’re unfairly competing.
“Other perceptions need to be clarified. Certainly, it’s not the immigrants who are responsible for the diminishing standard of living.”
In Monterey Park, there is clear evidence that the Chinese are successful capitalists. As recently as five years ago, there were fewer than a handful of banks in the city.
The number is now approaching 50, most of them small and Chinese-operated. Forbes magazine reported last year that total deposits in the 38 banks in operation worked out to $25,000 for every man, woman and child.
“They’ve bought up everything,” said Ernestine Giacoletto, who has lived in the city since 1930.
“The lady who lives across the street has to move because they want to move in their own people,” she said. “Next door, there used to be an old, run-down house. They knocked it down, built a condominium and sold the four units for $100,000 each. Who can afford to live here any longer?”
The Chinese also are getting the blame for the city’s congested, perilous streets.
“I have noticed that the percentage of Asians involved in accidents has increased,” Detective Mike Moore, the Police Department’s chief traffic investigator, said last year.
“There are roughly 60,000 people in Monterey Park, about 45% of whom are Asian . . . and they’re accounting for a much larger percentage of our accidents, probably in the neighborhood of 60% to 70%.”
Michael Eng, an attorney and outspoken opponent of Arcuri, said blaming Asians for overcrowding and auto accidents “is the kind of scapegoating that can lead to violence.”
Peralta is confident that with patience and understanding, the barriers can be surmounted.
“I think suspicion of foreigners is part of America,” he said. “Xenophobia has almost been a tradition is our history. Historically, we’ve been saved by the second generation. It breaks down the barriers. But there’s no overnight solution. Eventually, however, the Americanization process takes hold.”