Monterey Park : Nation’s 1st Suburban Chinatown

Times Staff Writer

In 1977, Frederic Hsieh, a brash young Chinese developer, decided to meet the elders of Monterey Park and explain his sudden interest in their city.

Hsieh invited 20 of the city’s most prominent civic and business leaders--all of them white--to a traditional Chinese lunch. But what he had to tell his guests was hardly gracious.

“He told us the reason why he was buying up so much property in town was that Monterey Park was going to become the next Chinatown,” recalled Harold Fiebelkorn, then a member of the city’s Planning Commission. “He said it would become a mecca for Chinese.”


Hsieh told the incredulous leaders that change was inevitable. The political instability of East Asia would serve as a catalyst, while Monterey Park’s proximity to an already established Los Angeles Chinatown would act as a magnet.

‘Blowing Smoke’

“Everyone in the room thought the guy was blowing smoke,” Fiebelkorn said. “Then when I got home I thought, what gall. What ineffable gall. He was going to come into my living room and change around my furniture?”

Today, barely a decade later, Monterey Park is an American phenomenon. Block by block, development by development, Hsieh’s vision has been so thoroughly realized that Monterey Park has the highest concentration of Asian residents--40%--of any city in the country.

But its transition from a quiet bedroom community five miles east of Los Angeles to America’s first suburban Chinatown has exacted a cost that not even Hsieh could foresee.

The resentment and ruffled pride of that first meeting have come to symbolize a bitter division between longtime Anglo and Latino residents and newcomer Chinese whose dramatic arrival has reshaped, enriched and torn apart this city.

A 1985 city-sponsored survey of 263 residents found a community in racial discord. Anglo and Latino residents expressed strong anti-Asian sentiments during extensive interviews with researchers. Asian residents complained that their children had been subjected to racism in schools and that Asians were inadequately represented in city government.


In the last several months, the acrimony and racial strife have intensified as the white-majority City Council has taken such actions as supporting English as the country’s official language and effectively banning the Taiwan flag from being raised over City Hall on Taiwan’s National Day.

In February, council members fired a five-member Planning Commission that had overseen a period of sustained Chinese commercial development.

“This could have been a great, great city given all its different people and all its cultural richness,” said Eli Isenberg, 73, former publisher of the Monterey Park Progress, the community’s oldest newspaper.

“What’s happened is very regrettable. I see a community of separation and alienation. I see a community that has become aesthetically and socially quite ugly.”

With a substantial push from Hsieh, who made millions marketing local real estate to immigrants leaving Taiwan and Hong Kong, Monterey Park’s population has grown from 49,000 in 1970 to 60,500 today, city officials estimate. Over that same period, the racial makeup of the city has shifted roughly from 56% to 22% Anglo, from 30% to 37% Latino and from 14% to 40% Asian.

Monterey Park sits at the core of an Asian influx that has altered communities across the San Gabriel Valley. Up and down Garvey Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard, the city’s two main thoroughfares, blocks of uninterrupted Chinese-language signs proclaim a new commercial identity. Safeway and Alpha Beta, once anchors for the Anglo and Latino communities, have been replaced with the Hung Hoa supermarket and a two-story Pagoda-roofed Chinese shopping center that stands as the most dominant architectural structure in the city.


International Boom Town

Stoked by a constant flow of investment dollars from the Far East, Monterey Park exudes the aura of an international boom town. A dozen Chinese-run banks with combined deposits of more than $400 million have opened since 1979. Three Chinese-language newspapers with worldwide circulations are headquartered or have branch offices on a single street in town. The city supports 60 Chinese restaurants and several Chinese-run nightclubs in a 7.7-square-mile area.

The presence of Chinese newcomers, who are spread throughout the city, is magnified each day by countless other Asians who live outside Monterey Park but crowd its streets to shop, bank and entertain friends.

“When I worked graveyard in this city from 1960 to 1968, we’d call them ‘cannonball nights,’ ” said Jon Elder, the city’s police chief. “You could shoot a cannon off at Atlantic and Garvey, and it could fly through the air and roll to a stop without hitting a soul.

“Those days are long gone. The other night I was out at 3:30 in the morning, and I counted 34 cars stopped at a red light at Atlantic and Garvey. It looked like rush hour.”

Others Locked Out

The changes have come so quickly that longtime Anglo, Latino and Asian residents describe feelings of disaffection, of being locked out of their community.

They complain that the newcomers have simply transplanted their culture and way of life to the suburbs of Los Angeles. They say the Chinese community has grown to the point that newly arrived immigrants no longer feel compelled to join the larger community. Instead, they are content to retreat into their own insular world.


As a result, longtime residents charge, many of the newcomers fail to learn English, drive erratically and push into lines at supermarkets and drug stores.

The newcomers counter that English-language adult classes overflowing with Chinese immigrants are proof of their willingness to fit in. They acknowledge problems with driving and pushiness but say these are outgrowths of living in the crowded Far East.

They point out that the changes in Monterey Park could not have taken place if longtime residents had not sold their homes and businesses at vastly inflated prices to Chinese.

Convenient Scapegoats

Even without their arrival, they say, growth and congestion would have occurred. They attribute the resentment to misplaced anger, to a longing for a simpler and more homogenous town. They say they have become convenient scapegoats.

Much of the discord, which seems to revolve around differing concepts of space, appears irreconcilable. Many Chinese newcomers, accustomed to living in crowded quarters, have torn down homes and extensive yards and replaced them with multistory condominiums and apartment complexes--done within existing zoning standards or through approved variances.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage ‘East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,’ ” Fiebelkorn said. “Well, there’s no better proof of that than Monterey Park.”


During the 1950s, Wesley and Janice Shyer were part of a wave of young white couples who moved to the city. They raised three children, marched against the Vietnam War and joined the American Civil Liberties Union. When a black family encountered resistance moving to an all-white neighborhood, the Shyers protested loudly and assailed their city as racist.

Resentful Now

Now, echoing the frustrations of other longtime residents, the Shyers struggle to reconcile their past with unfamiliar feelings of resentment. At times, their anger has less to do with the presence of Chinese than with seeing their small town become a full-fledged city.

As soon as Janice Shyer, 58, retires from her job as an elementary school aide, the couple plan to move.

“I’m having an extremely hard time sorting out my feelings,” she said. “I know I cringe when I hear my friends make racial remarks.

“But when they tell me that the sheer numbers of Chinese are overwhelming, I can’t tell them otherwise. When they tell me that they go shopping and are pushed over by Chinese women behind carts, I can’t disagree because the same thing’s happened to me.”

No Civic Involvement

Wesley Shyer, 60, who owns a steel products firm in La Mirada, has responded to the changes by disengaging from city life.


“I am no longer active. I have no causes anymore. I feel like an outsider. I have withdrawn, and in my withdrawal I feel a great loss. I’m a citizen in a town that has gone beyond me. The only thing that’s the same is that I live on the same piece of dirt.

“It’s a painful thing to see. I remember the Garvey Hardware Store, how it was a town meeting place. We’d go there every Saturday and chew the fat. In an afternoon, you’d be able to catch up on all the city news and politics and also get the widget you needed to get.

“When I go there now, it’s like any other hardware store in any other busy city. I’m watched very carefully and when it’s time to pay and I pull out my credit card, they ask for my driver’s license and phone number. Am I entitled to feel a little resentful after shopping at a store for 32 years and living in a community for 32 years and suddenly having to feel like a stranger?”

Out of the Barrio

Like the Shyers, the Zabalas were attracted to Monterey Park because of its small-town qualities. Fernando Zabala, a hair stylist, grew up in East Los Angeles and considered Monterey Park a stepping stone out of the barrio.

He moved to the city in 1969 at age 25, opened a barber shop, became president of the Jaycees and helped organize the city’s annual birthday celebration. Zabala said he became disillusioned after seeing his neighborhood change from a mixture of Latino and Anglo to almost exclusively Chinese.

Two years ago, he moved his wife and four children to El Monte. A few months later, he moved his business, too.


‘Little Bit of Everybody’

“It was very important that my children grow up in a racially diverse community,” Zabala, 42, said.

“When we moved to Monterey Park, we had a little bit of everybody: whites, blacks, Latinos, some Chinese and some Japanese. But we lost that mix. In my neighborhood alone, it went from 25 Latino families to three.

“When I sold my home, it had nothing to do with money. I’m a great believer in shopping in my own community. But I got the feeling that my business wasn’t welcomed anymore. Some of that I attribute to the language gap, but some of it was just a feeling I got from the Chinese shopkeepers.

“A lot of young men like me, the future leaders of the city, have fled. I’ll always love Monterey Park. I watched that community grow. I was part of that community. But there just wasn’t anything left for us.”

For some longtime residents who remain, there is the stubborn clinging to tokens of the past as a way to ease the alienation.

Every weekday morning for the last 40 years, in a ritual known as the “Kaffeeklatsch,” the city fathers have convened at Paris’ restaurant on West Garvey Avenue.


Unofficial City Hall

In the salad days--when the mayor, city manager and chief of police rarely missed a session--residents used to joke that more civic business was decided at Paris’ than at the City Hall across the way.

The coffee sessions have little of that vitality anymore. The participants are older, and the civic organizations they head are overshadowed by Chinese service groups. The businesses they and their friends once operated are owned by newcomers. Even Paris’ has been sold to Chinese, although the new owners have promised to keep the same standard American fare.

Removed from much of what happens in their city, the old-timers gather mostly to talk about grandchildren and recent trips to Colorado and Arizona.

“I still attend once in a while out of a sense of tradition,” said Deputy Police Chief Bob Collins, a member of the police force since 1955. “It’s the one thing that the old-timers still have. It helps them hold things together.”

The newcomers, usually reticent, occasionally express their own sense of frustration and alienation.

Chinese Protest

Last July, several hundred Taiwan natives gathered outside City Hall for a protest. A man with a bullhorn sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Grandmothers and children carried placards that read, “Hell no, we won’t go” and “America, Land of Oppression.”


But if the demonstration bore the indignation of another era, it also offered a peek into the future. Chinese community leaders said it signaled a departure from the old school and a political coming of age.

“I’ve seen Chinese demonstrate in New York against the building of a federal prison in Chinatown, and I’ve seen Chinese protest rent increases in San Francisco,” said Allen Co, an area businessman. “But this was different. This was aroused by feelings of racism.”

Result of Frustration

“What we saw was the result of a very high level of frustration,” said Michael Eng, a local attorney who helped organize the protest.

The demonstration was held against the backdrop of an April, 1986, council election that was among the most divisive in city history. Longtime residents--rankled over Chinese-language business signs, traffic congestion and 10 years of condominium and apartment construction--joined forces under the banner of controlled growth.

Newspaper cartoons depicted the council’s only Chinese member, Lily Chen, and two other incumbents stuffed into the hip pockets of voracious Chinese developers. A measure to designate English as the city’s official language failed to get on the ballot, but only after a court fight and considerable acrimony.

The campaign became a referendum on a decade of change wrought by Chinese newcomers. The verdict was decisive. Chen and the two incumbents were swept out of office by three challengers supporting a policy of no growth.


Moratorium Enacted

The reconstituted council wasted little time making its presence known. The new members, representing a majority on the five-member council, pushed through a moratorium on the construction of condominiums and apartments citywide and of commercial buildings in various parts of town.

The moratorium was followed by a city resolution that supported English as the country’s official language and called on the Police Department to assist immigration authorities in ferreting out illegal aliens.

Shone Wang, like other immigrants from Taiwan, viewed the council’s actions as a retreat from a proud past of accommodating newcomers that had won Monterey Park “All-America City” status in 1985.

Wang and his wife, Sherry, decided to join the demonstration, putting aside what they said is a Chinese tradition of harmony and political compromise.

“We never protested before. But when you feel that someone has pushed you to the edge of the cliff, you have to take a stand,” said Wang, a 33-year-old civil engineer and contractor who moved to the city four years ago.

Shocked by Anger

“As an immigrant, I’m willing to pay my dues and some more,” he said. “But just don’t insult me.”


After the protest, Wang said, the couple attended their first council meeting and were shocked and saddened by the anger expressed by longtime residents. In the rear of the council chambers, several elderly men shouted “Communists” to a group of Taiwanese seated in front of them. “This is America,” one man said. “What are you people? Half of you can’t speak English.”

Sherry Wang said she was close to tears. “I think a lot of Chinese people didn’t know the facts until that night. They thought they could turn their heads to the racism. They wanted to hide from it.

“But we can’t walk away. We have to stay and try to change things.”

Resolution Rescinded

Twelve weeks after the demonstration, in the face of continuing pressure from the Chinese community, the City Council voted 3 to 2 to rescind the English-language and immigration resolution.

But Chinese civic and business leaders see an anti-Chinese bias in several more recent City Council decisions, including an extension of portions of the building moratorium until October, 1987, and the firing of a Planning Commission that had approved many Chinese commercial projects.

“The Chinese are 40%, but many of us are not citizens, so we cannot vote,” said developer Gregory Tse, explaining in part why Chinese concerns are not reflected in the City Council. “The council knows this and feels they can get away with what they’re doing.”

Many longtime Chinese residents say they have stopped attending council meetings to avoid the ire of whites.


‘I’m Ashamed’

“Frankly, I’m ashamed of what goes on there,” said Betty Chu, chairman of the city’s Trust Savings Bank and a 25-year resident. “I have a hard time listening to the ugliness.”

Charles Choy Wong, a professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles, said Monterey Park stirs passion in Chinese both here and in the Far East because of its status as America’s first Chinatown outside an urban setting.

“Monterey Park is very important to the Chinese self-image. It represents a new plateau in the experience of Chinese in America,” Wong said. “It represents power and prestige. The first generation no longer has to bust its butt in the urban ghetto. They are affluent and well educated and can immediately skip that step by moving to Monterey Park.

“But there’s a trade-off. Living in a Chinese community, whether urban or suburban, can prevent newcomers from interacting with American society. My father, for instance, lived in America 50 years, but he was functionally illiterate in English because he had the crutch of a Chinese community.”

Initially Embarrassed

Sherry Wang, who moved from West Los Angeles to Monterey Park last year and owns a computer firm in adjacent Alhambra, said she feels a similar ambivalence. In 1979, as a college student, she saw Monterey Park for the first time and came away embarrassed.

“I didn’t feel comfortable. I told myself that building a Chinatown in the suburbs isn’t the American way,” she said. “But the more I came back here, the more proud I felt.


“Monterey Park is unlike any city I’ve ever been to. It’s an old culture in a brand new place. It’s Chinese banks and Chinese law firms and Chinese dress shops. It’s a social place where Chinese young people can meet. On Sundays, housewives bring their children here to visit grandparents, do some shopping and eat some decent Chinese food.

“But it’s a place that a lot of Chinese hate to admit they live in because ‘that’s where Chinese who can’t speak English live,’ ” she said.

Poor Tax Generators

Although Chinese restaurants, boutiques and mini-malls have brought new life to the city, the revitalization has been somewhat gilded, according to City Manager Lloyd de Llamas.

De Llamas, who likes to preach to civic groups that “Monterey Park cannot live on Chinese restaurants alone,” said the city ranks far below its neighbors in the amount of sales tax generated for every resident. City businesses, 63% of which are Asian-owned, generate $4,465 per resident, contrasted to $7,726 per resident for the entire western San Gabriel Valley.

“Chinese development, the restaurants and small shops, do not mean a whole lot in terms of revenue,” De Llamas said. “In fact, of the top 10 tax-generating restaurants in town, only three are Chinese-owned.”

The situation will probably get worse before it gets better, De Llamas said. Superior Pontiac, which alone generates 10% of the city’s yearly $3.1-million sales-tax revenue, is planning to move outside Monterey Park because an Asian developer purchased the property the car dealership had been leasing for 20 years.


Land Costs Too Much

De Llamas said that for the city to strengthen its economic base, it must attract large retail development. But few vacant lots are available, and the price of land is prohibitive.

“Department stores and supermarkets want land that sells for $8 and $10 a square foot not $40 to $50, like it does in Monterey Park,” De Llamas said. “When a developer buys land at that high a price, he’s going to have to recoup that cost by building smaller and more dense mini-malls with a lot of small shops.

“The problem with that kind of development is it means more cars, more commercial signs and little tax revenues. And that’s what the last election was all about.”

In an effort to reshape commercial growth, the City Council last June hired several consulting firms to study nearly every aspect of Monterey Park’s economic development and urban design.

Park-Like Community

The study, which took eight months and cost $250,000, offers advice on combatting traffic congestion and revising zoning, development and architectural standards. It envisions a park-like community complete with fountains, tree-lined streets, specially paved sidewalks and a regional shopping center. The city has held a series of public hearings on the recommendations.

Chris Houseman, a law school student and one of three new council members, sees the effort as a watershed in the city’s evolution.


“We needed to stop, let the dust settle and look over the horizon,” he said. “The moratorium was the first step in doing that, and now we have the study.

“It’s more than just an effort to provide us with new zoning ordinances and codes. It examines the community from top to bottom and offers a comprehensive economic strategy for our future.”

Businesses Threatened

Because of the paucity of open land, however, implementing a plan would require the taking of businesses along portions of Garvey Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard through eminent domain. This could mean tearing down or recasting several of the Chinese-owned mini-malls and office buildings, a process that could prove wrenching and further divide the community.

Steven Tan, an insurance agent who moved to Monterey Park in 1979 from Malaysia, said the plan is a desperate attempt by white elected leaders to erase the city’s Chinese image.

“They want to turn back the clock. They want to return to the days when this was a Western-style town,” he said. “But times change. You cannot stop the growth.”

“It sounds so threatening, but it’s not,” countered Pat Reichenberger, another of the city’s new council members. “We’re going to go in and pay top dollar to the merchants and help with any relocation costs.”


Face Lift Dismissed

During a recent stay in Monterey Park, Hsieh sat in his real estate office in the heart of the city and dismissed suggestions that Monterey Park is overdeveloped or needs a face lift.

Hsieh, who has spent much of the last year in Mainland China, where he is building a $20-million hotel in his native city of Guilin, then ventured a second vision.

“In the next 15 years, you will probably see high-rises here,” he said. “Monterey Park will become a commercial and banking hub for an even bigger Chinese community that resides in San Marino, Arcadia, South Pasadena and throughout the San Gabriel Valley.

“This is only the beginning. This whole region will become a mecca for Chinese by the year 2000.”