Selling Out, Moving On : Some Old-Timers Flee the Congestion, Density and Unfamiliarity of ‘Little China’

Times Staff Writer

Frank Rizzio stood in the doorway of his Monterey Park home last summer and pointed an accusatory finger at the multistory condominiums looming to his left and to his right.

“I’m surrounded by them. But I won’t be for long,” he vowed. “I’m moving far away from here--85 miles away, to be exact.”

Before Chinese developers tore down the homes next door to build the condominiums, Rizzio said, he had lived on a quiet block of mostly single-family residences.


Now, he said, the neighborhood was filled with Chinese newcomers who lived in six imposing condominium complexes lining the block. The newcomers, he asserted, spoke little English and refused to surrender a traditional way of life.

But Rizzio, who had sold his home a few weeks earlier to a Chinese developer, said he wanted to put all that behind him. He refused to say where he and his wife and three children were moving. He then politely asked a reporter and photographer to leave the premises.

“I don’t want to talk about the past anymore. I don’t want to bring up a lot of negative feelings,” he said. “What I might do is hang a little American flag on my truck and drive through town on my way out and wave goodby to all my old friends.

“What the Chinese have done to this community is a shame. Alhambra’s next. Then San Marino and then Arcadia,” Rizzio said. “Have you asked them why they want to come to the San Gabriel Valley and make a little China out of this place?”

The influx of unprecedented numbers of Asian newcomers, mostly from Taiwan, Vietnam and China, has torn at the social fabric of a once predominantly white San Gabriel Valley.

In the eight communities making up the western San Gabriel Valley, where the newcomers have concentrated, many longtime residents such as the Rizzios have reacted to the influx by selling their homes and leaving the area.


For every Asian newcomer who has resettled in the region since 1980, roughly one white resident has either moved away or died, The Times found during a nine-month project.

The proportion of whites in the area has plummeted from 78% in 1970 to 56% in 1980 to an estimated 36% of the region’s 327,000 residents today. Over that same period, the Asian population has grown from 2% to 13% to an estimated 27%, a study of school enrollment and vital statistics shows.

But white flight is only the most visible reaction to the Asian influx. For many longtime Anglo, Latino and Asian residents who have not left the area, the arrival of large numbers of Asians has engendered feelings of anger and racial prejudice.

In an attempt to gauge these sentiments and determine the extent of racial backlash and prejudice, scores of longtime residents were interviewed throughout the region. Opinions seemed most solidified in communities such as Monterey Park and Alhambra, where an influx of Asians has been continuing for several years.

Of those interviewed, only a small number expressed a belief that Asian newcomers had made the region a better place to live. A few, like Clifford and Ester Ostler, downplayed the traffic congestion and Chinese-language commercial signs and said a new and exciting world had been revealed to them through their Chinese neighbors.

Many more said they resented a concept of space that has brought high-density apartments and condominiums to suburban neighborhoods. Others said their attempts to be neighborly had been spurned by the newcomers.


And some, like Chinese-Americans Kenneth and Louise Fong, fear that a continuing influx of newcomers will prevent their children from experiencing other people and cultures.

“When you get down to the nitty-gritty, many of the longtime residents are scared. Our security blanket has been taken away,” said Madeline Detmers, who has lived in Monterey Park since 1953.

“The changes are happening so fast that we’re losing contact with things that are very familiar to us. We’re losing our own little postage stamp on earth.”

Wide-Open Country

Gabriel Vasquez, 16, and his friend David Reyes, 18, both of Rosemead, retraced some of those dizzying changes while walking down Muscatel Avenue one afternoon. The two teen-agers, sounding like a pair of wistful grandfathers, recalled what their block had looked like six years ago, before the influx of large numbers of Chinese and Vietnamese.

Shade trees lined both sides of the street and formed an unbroken canopy, they said. Spacious yards provided summer work for neighborhood youth. All over, there was the feeling of wide-open country.

Vasquez pointed to a lot where a single-family house and expansive yard once stood. Two years ago, he said, Chinese developers razed the house, subdivided the property and created a cul-de-sac of 10 virtually identical homes.


Farther up the block, where Muscatel dead-ends at the San Bernardino Freeway, Chinese developers have built a dozen two-story condominiums on a small lot.

Newcomers from the Far East occupy both developments. Since 1980, the two teen-agers estimate, the racial makeup of their neighborhood has gone from half Anglo and half Latino to 75% Asian and 25% Latino.

“It’s a lot more crowded now,” Vasquez said. “Two or three Asian families live in one house. And all the houses match each other, just like dominoes.”

Rapid Changes

“We barely find out that the old neighbors have left when, puff, they bulldoze the house and yard and begin building again,” Reyes said. “In one month, up pops a new house, a fence, a little bit of grass and a few flowers.”

Howard Fry, a 42-year resident of Monterey Park, said Chinese newcomers in his neighborhood had built additions onto existing homes in an effort to accommodate large extended families.

Shortly after a Chinese family moved in next door, Fry said, the new owner doubled the size of the house and brought in numerous relatives.


“He told me that he was going to build a real nice addition that would improve the neighborhood, “ said Fry, who served as a city councilman and mayor during the 1960s. “But my concept of pretty and his concept of pretty are two different things.

“He had a beautiful backyard with three fruit trees and plenty of yard for his kids to play on. Now that’s all gone and everything’s much more crowded. There are four or five families with a total of about 15 people living there.

“I guess we can’t expect them to change their style of living just because they have moved here. But it sure does make it hard for us old-timers.”

Fry emphasized that his objections have nothing to do with racism. Among other things, he and his wife, Erma, have long been active in a foreign-student exchange program. A Japanese teen-ager lived with the couple for a year.

“We’ve been to Japan to see her and she’s been here to see us twice,” he said. “Her daughter calls us grandpa and grandma.”

But the Frys clearly take offense at the physical changes that have come to their community in the form of Chinese-language commercial signs, traffic congestion and condominium and apartment development.


“I feel like I’m a stranger in my own town,” Erma Fry said. “You can’t talk to the newcomers because many of them don’t speak English and their experiences and viewpoints are so different.

“I don’t feel like I belong anymore. I feel like I’m sort of intruding. It’s like they’re tolerating us. . . . I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.”

Avanelle Fiebelkorn, 72, said she feels the same way about Monterey Park, her home for the past 20 years. She said the shopping centers built in pagoda style are particularly grating.

“This is America and it has no place for architecture like that,” she said. “The Chinese just aren’t conforming and I resent that.

“I go to the market and over 65% of the people there are Chinese. I feel like I’m in another country. I don’t feel at home anymore.”

But her husband, Harold, said his initial resentment has softened over the last few years. He believes that the newcomers have become convenient “whipping boys” for a myriad of city problems outside their control.


“Anybody who tells you that Monterey Park before the Chinese came was this peaceful little paradise where everybody talked to each other over the back fence is full of crock,” the 73-year-old former Planning Commission member said. “I think a lot of the anger is simply jealousy over their wealth and success.”

But Mary Lou Arutunian said she has tried reaching out to the seven Asian families who have moved into her South Pasadena neighborhood over the past few years, only to find that language and cultural differences prevent meaningful interaction.

“I collect money for the cancer fund on my block. But most of them won’t answer the door, and when they do, they shake their heads, saying they don’t understand English,” she said.

“I’m not against people having their own personal culture. I’m Armenian and my parents were immigrants. We spoke Armenian in the house. But my parents also worked hard to learn English and the American heritage. I just don’t see the Asian newcomers making that same effort.”

Dorothy Sykes, a Monterey Park resident, said she has had the same experience when trying to recruit Chinese newcomers for the Neighborhood Watch crime prevention program.

No Participation

“I’m the block captain, so it’s my responsibility to go door to door and alert the neighbors,” she said. “The Chinese never answer, so I leave flyers and notes on their doors asking them to please come to our meetings. But they never show up. They don’t seem to want to participate.”


Alta Fuller of Hacienda Heights said she objects to the sheer numbers of Korean and Filipino families who have established their own ethnic enclaves in parts of the eastern San Gabriel Valley.

“I really try not to even look at them, but you can’t avoid them,” she said. “The other day I was in my car stopped at a school crossing and I couldn’t believe all the foreign faces. There was not one child who wasn’t Asian.

“I thought, ‘Gee, what’s happening to all the people like me in the world?’ You can’t help but think that sometimes.”

But Paul and Betty Young, who moved from Monterey Park to San Dimas four years ago partly because of the Chinese influx, echoed the sentiments of many longtime residents who see the strong feelings disappearing with time.

Slow Assimilation

“You can’t move a whole people and expect them to fit in right away,” Betty Young said. “The children are picking up English and the American ways so fast that it’s only a matter of time before they start to mingle.”

For many longtime Chinese residents born in the United States, the reaction to the newcomers is more complex.


The relationship between American-born Chinese and foreign-born is often a strained one. The Chinese are such a diverse people that the differences between them typically are rooted in language--Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Chiu Chow--and country--China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the United States.

Several American-born Chinese interviewed said they resented being lumped together with newcomers from Taiwan and Hong Kong who, they said, tend to be brazen and flaunt their wealth. They expressed fear that their hard-earned position in this country is threatened by foreign-born Chinese who fail to recognize the sacrifices they have made.

“We’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this country,” said Gay Wong, a Chinese instructional specialist with the Alhambra School District’s bilingual program.

“It was on our backs that the Sacramento Delta and the railroads were built. And we fought so long to get Asian ethnic-studies programs at colleges and universities.

“Now, this new population is coming in and they’re not interested in that history, those sacrifices. They would rather ignore it,” she said.

Ken Fong of Monterey Park said Chinese newcomers have enriched his community with their strong work ethic and commitment to family.


But Fong, an architect who was born in the United States, and his wife, Louise, who moved here as a child, said they prefer raising their three young daughters in a community with a less distinct Asian flavor.

“We’d like to move one day because we feel this area is going too much in the other direction,” Louise Fong said. “We want diversity. We want our kids to grow up balanced. But that’s not going to happen when 60% to 70% of the kids they’re going to school with are Chinese and other Asians.”

A few longtime residents whose children have grown up and moved away say the Asian influx has provided them with their first real excitement in many years.

Clifford and Ester Ostler, both in their 80s, say they have come away bewildered but invigorated by their encounters with the Chinese community in Monterey Park.

Clifford Ostler describes the Chinese family next door as “the best neighbors we ever had.”

“We were the only white couple invited to their son’s wedding. They made me feel very royal. The father escorted me to and from our car and he treated me just like a baby,” he aid.


“They’re more considerate, more thoughtful and more helpful than our people.”

Ester Ostler could hardly stop talking about the wedding banquet.

“Every time a toast was made to the bride and groom, everyone would take their chopsticks and strike the table,” she recalled. “They would make this pounding sound until the bride left the room and changed her outfit.

“They must have made 10 toasts and she must have changed her outfit 10 times before it was over. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun.”