Transitions on a Personal Scale Mirror Region's Transformation : Life in America

Times Staff Writer

At the foot of the bunk bed that Linh and Lily Ha share, a portable tape deck pours out the high-pitched strains of a Vietnamese folk song.

For Linh, 21, who has decorated her side of the room with pictures of Asian film stars, the music is a bittersweet reminder of home.

"When I listened to this, I was in Vietnam," said Linh, who fled to the United States in 1980 with her family. "It's sad music. Sometimes it makes me cry."

But for her 19-year-old sister Lily, who has covered the other side of the room with posters of Madonna and Boy George, the folk songs are foolish relics.

"Oh my God, this is driving me up the wall!" she shrieked. "I was younger when we came here. I learned the American ways. Like how American teen-age girls are--that's how I am."

Growing Communities

The collision of cultures in the Ha sisters' small Pasadena bedroom reverberates, in ways both private and public, throughout the growing Asian communities of the San Gabriel Valley.

While the emergence of this region as a center for Asian immigration has had profound implications for nearly every aspect of civic life, it also has meant a very personal transition for the 100,000 mostly Chinese immigrants who have come here in the last six years.

Sometimes it has meant an uneasy adjustment to new customs, such as that experienced by one 18-year-old girl who said more lenient attitudes here prompted her to have premarital sex, forbidden in her native Taiwan.

Other times it has meant a striving to preserve traditional beliefs, as in the case of Quai Chong, a San Gabriel herbalist, who proudly displays a 20-year-old prize ginseng root from China in his shop window.

Search for Solace

And, at times, for many refugees who came here less out of choice than out of necessity, it has meant a disquieting search for solace in a strange and foreign land.

Taken together, their daily lives mirror the transformation of the San Gabriel Valley, from Buddhist nuns supervising construction of a giant monastery in Hacienda Heights to young Chinese children learning their parents' language in Arcadia to Taiwanese immigrants reveling at karaoke singing clubs in Monterey Park.

In an exchange that is at times harmonious and at times discordant, the newcomers have reshaped life in this region as much as life here has reshaped them.

"I want to get the best out of these two cultures, these two different worlds," said Felix Lee, a 19-year-old Taiwan native who came to this country five years ago. "I'm keeping some of the Chinese traditions within myself, because that's my blood. I am a Chinese and I want other people to know me as a Chinese.

"But I'm also taking in more of the American way of life. I really want to be a part of this country. Within myself, I really don't think there's that many cultural things stopping me. I could easily turn into an American."

At an hour when most people are struggling to awake, 72-year-old Chai Tsung and 200 other Asians turn Barnes Memorial Park in Monterey Park into a kinetic display of Chinese physical culture.

Clad in a blue sweat suit, the spry Tsung arrives just before 7 a.m. to gracefully work his way through two hours of the slow, fluid movements of traditional exercises.

With joints and limbs rotating to the beat of a Chinese folk song, Tsung joins a small crowd of mostly middle-aged men and women for a synchronized session of wai-tan-kung , a simple form of calisthenics.

Around him, several agile, elderly men practice the flowing dance of tai-chi-chuan , and a 67-year-old woman from Shanghai confidently twirls a three-foot steel sword.

At 8 a.m., as municipal employees begin to arrive at adjacent City Hall, Tsung ambles across the park to a soccer field, where a larger group performs a slightly more vigorous exercise known as lok-tung-chuan . Invented several years ago by a Chinatown resident, the exercise blends traditional Chinese forms and modern aerobic conditioning.

For thousands of years, Tsung says, neighborhood parks in China have been the site of such precise, rhythmic regimens. Like the ancient martial and medical arts, the classical exercises are intended to capture and circulate the chi , or life force, that is believed to flow through the body.

Today, with Asians comprising 40% of Monterey Park's population, all of the city's 13 parks, as well as others throughout the San Gabriel Valley, have become settings for this daily workout.

"It's good for the heart, for the brain, for the kidneys, for the stomach, for every organ of the body," says Tsung, who came from Hong Kong nearly a year ago. "I feel much better afterwards."

At the base of a hill in Hacienda Heights, the Rev. Shih I-Han and three fellow Buddhist nuns knelt on a carpeted floor, their shaved heads bowed in prayer.

Bowls of fruit awaited blessing on a makeshift shrine before them, next to silk lotus blooms and a dozen Buddha figurines from around the world.

As burning incense thickened the air, the women tapped out a syncopated rhythm on tiny cymbals. Then, in soft, even breaths, they began the melodic chant of " O-Mi-To-Fo ," Buddha's name in Mandarin.

"Boundless life span," I-Han translated. "It means everybody has eternal life."

The nuns, who perform the ritual twice a day in a temporary monastery, arrived from Taiwan nine years ago to supervise construction of a 60,000-square-foot temple being built into the scenic hillside above them.

The $10-million structure known as Hsi Lai--"From East to West"--will be the largest Buddhist monastery in the United States when it is completed this winter.

In traditional Chinese-palace style, yellow tile imported from Taiwan will adorn the roof of the central chapel, surrounded on the 14-acre site by two dormitories, a library, Sunday school and lecture hall. A cafeteria, open to the public, will serve vegetarian cuisine.

Nearby homeowners and county planners objected to the eight-building complex when it was first proposed in 1979, in part because of initial plans to construct a 60- to 80-foot statue of Buddha on the grounds. The monument has since been eliminated, and the project, which has been under construction for nearly a year, has received final approval.

"Christians go into every country. I think Buddhists can come here," said Hui Sung, a 35-year-old monk who will live at the Hsi Lai Temple when it is completed. "We are a peaceful religion, a very good religion. The United States is like a new frontier for us."

Peter Liao gripped the microphone. Music surged. Spotlights bounced across the mirrored stage.

Then, with only an occasional glance at the lyrics before him, the 27-year-old real estate developer belted out an emotional rendition of " I Wo "--"Love Me"--in Mandarin.

As rousing applause filled Star Avenue, a Monterey Park restaurant and bar, Liao returned to the table where several friends and a 22-ounce Taiwanese beer awaited him.

"No matter how terrible you sing, there's always a reward," said Liao, a Taiwan native who now lives in Pasadena. "You feel like a star after it's finished."

Such fleeting encounters with fame are what karaoke is all about. A Japanese word for "empty orchestra," karaoke is really a high-tech tape system designed for people to sing along with the background music of their favorite songs.

The singing machines were popularized about nine years ago in Japan. Later, they found an audience in Taiwan, where scaled-down home versions are almost as common as television sets, said Yalin Li, whose Monterey Park music store sells models ranging in price from $250 to $1,700.

Today, Star Avenue is one of about half a dozen karaoke clubs in the San Gabriel Valley. Patrons, who say they enjoy the opportunity for uninhibited expression, can choose from among more than 3,000 hits in Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Japanese and English.

"This is what people do in Taiwan," Liao said. "It's just kind of an extension. When there's something we miss from there, we just bring it to this country."

Kiet straddled a chair in the murky light of a cafe in the Saigon Center, drawing hard on a cigarette.

His hair shot out in at least three different directions, spiked up, long in back, a full tuft hanging over his forehead. New wave, one friend called it.

That also meant the baggy pants, of course, shirt buttoned to the top, no socks and a 14-carat gold stud in the left ear.

"Schoolboys, they see him and think he looks like a 'gang,' " another friend said, "so they're afraid to come in here."

To many Asian newcomers, this San Gabriel plaza featuring a cafe and pool hall is the kind of place good kids just don't go--full of the cynicism of young refugees, they say, who fill their idle time with gangs, violence and drugs.

But Kiet, 19, said there are no problems. He comes to the Saigon Center nearly every day just to hang out with Vietnamese friends, see who's playing three-ball combo on the billiard tables, drink iced coffee, smoke.

Besides, he said, there's not much left to do. His mother and sisters are still in Vietnam. His father married another woman. Then he beat Kiet and his brothers.

The police pulled him out of school one day after a teacher noticed the bruises. Two years in and out of juvenile halls. Fights and attempted escapes. Afterward, he stayed with an uncle for a while. No luck finding a job. Now, he goes from friend to friend.

"The Saigon Center?" Kiet said. "It's the only thing I have."

Gurgling tanks of live rock cod, perch, catfish and lobster lined the dining room entrance.

Colorful banners hand-lettered in Chinese spelled out the seasonal specials.

Swiftly stepping from the kitchen, Ricky Wu, co-owner of Wonder Seafood Restaurant in Alhambra, presented his diners with an intoxicating array of dishes:

Abalone and duck hot pot, crystal shrimp with sweetened walnuts, ground pigeon topped with plum sauce and--what many regard as his true culinary masterstroke--three-snake soup. Made from cobra, rattler and a third snake for which Wu said there is no English name, this legendary dish is considered a wintertime delicacy for its unique warming effect and mythical powers as an aphrodisiac.

"It really should be five-snake soup, but it's very hard to get all the snakes here," said the 31-year-old Wu, who imports the meat from China and Mexico.

"It pushes the button," he added, gesturing to suggest the circulation of blood through the bodies of indulgent diners, "and they go around faster and faster."

Because of Wonder and dozens of restaurants like it, the western San Gabriel Valley has emerged as the heart of possibly the finest Chinese cuisine in this country.

From the pot stickers and succulent dumplings of the northern provinces to the peppery Sichuan dishes of the west to the rich, sweetened Shanghai specialities of the east to the steamed and quickly stir-fried seafood of the south, virtually every form of Chinese regional cooking is represented in the restaurants of Monterey Park, Alhambra and San Gabriel.

Along with sheer volume--Monterey Park alone has 60 Chinese restaurants--and the availability of uncommon treats, such as three-snake soup, food critics and restaurateurs have hailed this area as a paradise for eaters.

"I don't think you find this anywhere else in the country," said Kam Law, president of General Restaurant Equipment in Los Angeles, which has installed kitchens in about half of Southern California's Chinese restaurants.

"It's not really for American people," Law explained, noting the contrast to Chinatown establishments that often cater to tourists. "The restaurants in Monterey Park are mainly for the Chinese. If they're no good, the Chinese won't go there."

Inside dimly lit Vietnam Video in the city of San Gabriel, 31-year-old Ngoc Phan searched for a movie that his parents would enjoy.

They had already seen all 55 episodes of "Legend of the Condor Heroes"--an investment of two months to view the entire series of two-hour tapes.

They had also seen "The Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils," which, like most of the other unfolding dramas, is actually a reproduction of television serials from Hong Kong.

"My mother and father don't speak English," said Phan, whose family fled Vietnam in 1980. "They watch TV, but they can't understand it. This is their only entertainment."

Like rice on the dinner table, videotapes have become the staple of recreational life for many Asian newcomers.

Particularly for middle-aged and older immigrants, who frequently feel isolated in a new and unfamiliar world, renting movies often is the only form of relaxation both readily accessible and affordable.

Today, nearly 50 Asian video-rental shops dot the San Gabriel Valley. Virtually all newcomer families, from wealthy Taiwanese immigrants to impoverished Vietnamese refugees, have video recorders in their homes, shop owners say.

"They come over here for the children, but then they have nothing to do," said Tony Kim, who opened a San Gabriel video-rental store in 1985. "They don't understand much about American TV. They're bored. They have no place to go. So they rent movies to kill time."

David Yu is not thrilled about spending his Saturdays studying Chinese grammar.

But as far as his parents are concerned, it is the only way for the 9-year-old to preserve the heritage of his family.

"He has a lot of relatives still in Taiwan," said John Yu, whose son has lived here since he was 2. "Probably he will visit them someday. We would like him to learn Chinese so he will have a better relationship with his family."

So for three hours every Saturday morning, David attends Arcadia Chinese School, one of about half a dozen Chinese schools in the San Gabriel Valley offering instruction to both natives and newcomers in the language and culture of their parents.

At the Arcadia school, which has grown from 18 students in 1981 to 200 today, youngsters spend the first two hours learning to read and write the intricate symbols and characters of the Chinese language. During the third hour, they have a choice of studying such traditional arts as calligraphy, flower arranging, paper cutting and kung fu.

"It's important, especially if you are Chinese," said Min Mey Chang, the school's founder. "You never can change. You have black hair. You have yellow skin.

"People ask you, 'Are you Chinese?' and you say, 'Yes.' Then they ask, 'Do you speak Chinese?' and you say, 'No.' That's embarrassing."

The pungent smell of ginseng filled the Chong family's San Gabriel herb shop. Trays of the aromatic root packed a glass counter. A particularly potent specimen treasured for 20 years by owner Quai Chong rotated on a mirrored carrousel in the store window.

His daughter, Ping, promptly offered customers Styrofoam cups of ginseng tea.

"It gives you more energy and makes you live longer," said Ping, 21. "But it's like a vitamin; you have to take it every day. If you have something good and don't know how to use it right, it's no good."

The Chongs' store is one of nearly two dozen medicinal herb shops across the San Gabriel Valley selling the ingredients of traditional Chinese remedies.

Besides large assortments of ginseng--a legendary root believed to do everything from cure disease to enhance sexual prowess--most of the stores carry a wide variety of animal organs that are crushed or soaked into teas, ointments and wines.

Often, dried snakes vie for attention with deer hooves, elephant skin, bear bladders and fish stomachs. Usually prepared with only a mortar and pestle, the right blend of herbs and organs is believed to cure virtually all of man's ailments, from fatigue to infections to arthritis to cancer.

While some Chinese residents turn to Western medicine, particularly for severe illnesses, the more holistic and preventive approach of Eastern medicine is still widely advocated by most Asian newcomers.

"Not everybody who walks into our store is sick," Ping Chong said. "There may be nothing wrong with them. But they want something to make their body healthier than it is now. They want to make it better."

Perkin. Ivan. Georgia. Kent. Wayne. Not exactly the names you would expect to see projected on an overhead scoreboard during a Sunday afternoon meeting of the Asian-American Bowling League in Alhambra.

But for most Asian immigrants, adopting an "American" name is one of the first steps toward adjusting to life in this country.

Sometimes even before they leave their native land, newcomers select a first name they think will be easier for Americans to pronounce and remember. The newly acquired names are frequently the ones used on official documentation upon entering the country.

"Some translations of Chinese names could sound funny in English," said Felix Lee, a recent graduate of San Gabriel High School. "Or a teacher could have a hard time pronouncing it and people might laugh. This way, it's just easier for you guys to remember."

Often, these "social passports" are phonetic equivalents of an original name, such as Eileen for the similar-sounding Chinese name. Other times, a relative already in this country selects a name that is considered appropriate for the newcomer.

Sometimes the naming process is much less precise.

Lee, for example, found his name while flipping through a Christian magazine in Taiwan. "I saw that it meant 'happy' in Spanish," he said.

Nineteen-year-old Lily Ha said that she was named by American friends at school who thought her Vietnamese name was too difficult to pronounce. One day, drinking a Coke at McDonald's, they noticed that the soft drink lids had 'Lily" imprinted on top. The name stuck.

And 21-year-old Gigi Leung was given her name in Hong Kong after her mother saw the film "Gigi" at a theater there.

"My mother doesn't know English that much," Leung said. "But she loved the movie."

Cocktails were set for 7. "Monday Night Football" was on the color TV. High above Monterey Park at his spacious hillside home, 42-year-old Bill Chu poured a Scotch for one of his 25 guests.

There was Kenneth Tse, president of the prominent Wing On Realty Co.; Sunny Wong, a popular Hong Kong television personality; Eddy Ip, owner of an Orange County catering firm; his wife, Judy, a Monterey Park dance instructor and director of the Music Teacher Assn. of California; Tony Lam, a Diamond Bar physician noted for his mix of Eastern and Western techniques.

Like most of the friends whom he had invited over for a relaxed evening of food and song, Chu belongs to an elite group of immigrants who are the success stories of the San Gabriel Valley's Chinese community.

"You have to constantly excite yourself, punch yourself to work harder," said Chu, who, since coming to the United States in 1971, has profited from Monterey Park real estate development and international trade with his native China.

"I drive a Rolls Royce, but I want to achieve something better than that," he said. "I'm a millionaire now, but I try to work harder and reach a better level."

At 8, Chu ushered the party over to a huge potluck buffet of dozens of homemade dishes, several of which were prepared by his mother-in-law, Ying Ying, who lives at the house along with Chu's wife and 6-year-old son.

Only a few of the guests used chopsticks to devour the Canton, Shanghai and piquant Sichuan specialities. Chu, like most of the others, opted for a fork.

Later, in the elegantly decorated living room, the group joined in a spontaneous singing contest, passing around a microphone to see who could most accurately mimic a verse selected from "Do-Re-Mi." The party ended about 1, shortly after Eddy Ip correctly repeated the line from the "Sound of Music" song and was awarded a prize of expensive shark fins, a delicacy often used in soup.

For the prosperous crowd, said Chu, the week-night gathering was simply a pleasant way to unwind and enjoy the fruits of success in what--for many of the guests--is truly a land of opportunity.

"When I came to this country, I didn't have anything. I started from scratch," Chu said. "But as long as a person has ambition, as long as they work hard and try to merge with the mainstream . . . they will be in our position in 10 or 15 years."

Like most young Asian men and women, David Ko and Susie Lee always had been told that sex before marriage was forbidden.

Growing up in Taiwan, Lee said that it was rare for her to even kiss a boyfriend.

"I hated kissing and I hated touching," said the 18-year-old Lee, who, along with Ko, asked that their real names not be used. "Nothing ever happened. It wouldn't happen."

But coming to this country two years ago opened up a new world of sexual freedom, she said. For starters, she met Ko, also 18, who had come from Taiwan several years before her. They fell in love.

"He kept saying that making love is not a big deal, that sex is so common here," said Lee, who lives in San Gabriel with her mother and stepfather. "If I was in Taiwan, I would never have made love to him. In Taiwan, I would never let that kind of guy be my boyfriend."

But Ko was persistent and Lee finally acquiesced.

"I don't think she decided to do it," said Ko, who also lives in San Gabriel, with his mother and younger brother. "It happened to her subconsciously. The environment, the surroundings, the culture--they're all different. That changed her. I never would have gone for her if we were back in Taiwan."

In September, after dating for seven months, Lee became pregnant.

"I was very happy," she said. "I didn't feel I did anything wrong. For thousands of years, parents in China tell kids it's wrong. But ask the kids why it's wrong and they have no idea."

But Lee soon realized she was neither ready for marriage nor prepared to support a child. In October she had an abortion. Afterwards, she stayed in a motel for two days so that no one would find out.

"If my parents knew, they would kill me," she said. "I cannot get married now. I cannot have a baby now. I still have a long way to go. There are so many things I want to do for myself."

By November, the young couple had broken up.

For Lee, who says she wants to practice traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, a lack of commitment and attention from Ko caused the relationship to end.

"He used to say, 'We love each other, so we don't have to be together all the time,' " she said. "But I don't feel bad about what happened. He did good things for me. I think I'm more open now."

For Ko, who attends design school in downtown Los Angeles, the experience was just one of many uneasy adjustments to life here.

The year before, distraught over his parents' divorce and feeling alienated by a strange country, Ko had decided to commit suicide by swallowing a capsule of mercury. He was stopped when a friend told the high school's dean about the plan.

"No matter what, you have to go on," Ko said. "You can't stay home all the time like all the Chinese parents say. You have to go on and learn things--good and bad. You must pay some price for that. But it's worth it.

"For the first time," he added, "I've started to notice my own existence. I am a real person here. I have my own personality. That's the only reason I grew up--being here.

"If I was just here today from Taiwan, I wouldn't be able to say that much. I wouldn't have anything to tell you."

Education Distribution In percent by head of San Gabriel Valley households* ASIAN COLLEGE GRADUATE 59.7% SOME COLLEGE 27.3% HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE 13.0% LATINO COLLEGE GRADUATE 12.2% SOME COLLEGE 19.0% HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE 38.8% SOME HIGH SCHOOL, OR LESS 30.0% ANGLO COLLEGE GRADUATE 35.1% SOME COLLEGE 30.4% HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE 28.9% SOME HIGH SCHOOL, OR LESS 5.6% Based on a 1984-85 consumer survey of 1,381 San Gabriel Valley households

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