The tour bus, fresh off the freeway after two days in Las Vegas and one week after setting forth from San Francisco, lumbered out of the Monterey Park traffic and sidled to a curbside halt along Atlantic Boulevard.
One by one, 46 tourists from Taiwan and Indonesia stepped from the bus and made their way into the Shanghai House restaurant.
Newspaper racks with locally published, Chinese-language newspapers caught their attention. But the sightseers, whose last Chinese meal had been in San Francisco’s Chinatown, had no desire to read. They were ready for some home cooking, Chinese-style.
Last Wednesday’s scene on Atlantic Boulevard is repeated daily. Monterey Park, transformed in the last decade by a rapid influx of Asian immigrants, has become a required tour stop for Asians who visit the West Coast.
But, city officials say, the tour buses contribute to increased traffic in the primarily residential city, which already has crowded streets. Ticketing some buses failed to solve the problem and city officials hope to meet with tour operators in an effort to find a solution.
Lure of Restaurants
The tourists, who come by the thousands each week, like to shop in the herb and variety stores and eat at the restaurants, nationally and internationally known for a wide variety of Asian menus. Even when tourists visit Southern California for no more than two or three days, Monterey Park--where the dialects of Asia can easily be heard on the street--is on the short list of places to stop, along with Disneyland, Chinatown and Universal Studios.
“They want to come see what we call the new Chinatown, the second Chinatown,” said Helen Koo, general manager of American Asia Travel Center with offices in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Honolulu and Monterey Park.
In addition, Monterey Park has become a pickup and drop-off point for travel agencies that operate Chinese-language tours of the West. City officials say many of these travel agencies use Monterey Park as a departure point because the community is a well-known location among those of Chinese ancestry who live in Southern California.
“Whoever thought that Monterey Park was going to be a big tourist place, both as springboard to other places and as a destination itself,” said City Planner M. Margo Wheeler. “I just don’t think we’re equipped for the enormous amount of traffic we’re seeing.”
This congestion, the officials say, is more than the community of 62,000 residents can bear.
The tour buses, Wheeler said, are causing havoc, in the absence of safe, convenient parking and loading and unloading spots. The buses crowd into parking lots of supermarkets that feature Asian foods and into public parking lots, service stations, schools and churches. And the vehicles park along curbs at intersections.
Last July 4th, Wheeler recalled, “an ocean of buses” were jammed all along the streets near one of the city’s main intersections, Garvey and Garfield avenues. Passengers were getting on and off, carrying luggage and children, and jaywalking. “It was like a nightmare,” Wheeler said of the noise and smoke pollution from the buses.
Said Assistant City Solicitor Stephanie Scher, “The city sidewalks and streets are being treated as if they were a bus depot.”
The buses disrupt businesses and disturb residents, Wheeler said. In an attempt to stop the problem, earlier this year Wheeler’s office began issuing zoning violation citations. The zoning laws were used because city officials said the buses were illegally using public and private property for loading and unloading passengers. As many as a dozen violations were handed out, she said, but the citations have angered tour operators who complain of harassment and discrimination against legally parked buses.
“The officials of the city of Monterey Park either just escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane or they’re engaged in (racial) discrimination. You take your pick,” said Los Angeles attorney Robert M. Snader, who represents one company that has been cited twice, Ritz Travel of Alhambra.
Action Called ‘Ludicrous’
“The application of zoning laws to control buses in a public street is ludicrous,” said Snader, a former deputy state attorney general who said he has represented the state’s real estate commissioner on numerous zoning cases.
The case against Ritz’s manager, Paul Chin Fa Chen, died in Alhambra Municipal Court, Snader said, after his client, who is of Chinese ancestry, received a favorable ruling. “Caucasians are trying to drive (Chinese) people out,” said Snader, who is white.
Scher and City Councilwoman Judy Chu, the only Asian-American member of the council, denied that racial motives are at work. Pure and simple, they said, the problem concerns how to best resolve the traffic congestion issue.
Scher said she faced a similar problem as assistant city attorney for Beverly Hills in the early 1980s. Big tour buses, seeking out the residences of movie stars, negotiated narrow, hilly streets in residential areas and had difficulty parking and loading and unloading passengers at restaurants and shops in the densely packed commercial district of Beverly Hills.
The problems were solved, she said, by designating bus parking spaces and limiting the routes and the times of the buses’ journeys.
Scher is researching the legal issues and she said that she hopes soon to present her findings to the City Council. Then, she and other city officials said, they hope to meet with travel agency operators to resolve the problem. The community now has only one parking space designated for buses. It is in front of Lions Manor, a housing project for the elderly, whose residents have complained about the tour buses.
Tour operators say they are finding their own solutions by taking some of their business elsewhere.
Recently, a busload of Japanese tourists was scheduled to eat dinner at a Monterey Park restaurant, and, even though the group was looking forward to the visit, American Asia Travel Center President Stephen Seng said he changed the meal to a restaurant in Hollywood.
Still, said Helen Koo, when the travel agents bring buses to Monterey Park, “we have to act like a thief in the night.”
In the peak seasons of summer and in January and February around Chinese New Year, Koo said, her agency brings 4,000 tourists monthly on day trips for lunch and shopping.
Likewise, Shangri-la Travel of San Francisco and Polo Tours of Pasadena send as many as three busloads here daily, and Shine Tours, with offices in Monterey Park and Taipei, brings as many at 2,750 people a month.
“These are well-heeled tourists,” Snader said. “They are not gangs of ruffians.”
At the Shanghai House on Wednesday, the group from Taiwan and Indonesia gathered around bowls of rice and egg flower soup and dishes of sauteed broccoli with chicken and cabbage with shrimp. Polo Tours group leader Randy Yang said: “A lot of people in Taiwan don’t know (the name) Monterey Park. But they do know Hsiao (Little) Taipei.”
Yang said, “Truthfully, there is not a lot to see in Monterey Park, only a whole bunch of Chinese signs. But just about every group stops here for the food, the shops and the name.”
Another tour leader, Alex Ting added: ‘So the tourists can say: “I’ve been to Little Taipei.’ ”
At the next table, Rong Jy Chiou, the 63-year-old president of a Taiwanese import-export company, said through a translator: “This is the first time (on the tour) I’ve had a meal that reminded me of my hometown.”
Jang Ruei Jen, an insurance company manager in Taipei, said she first heard about Monterey Park when she read about the mayor of Hsinchaung, a town near Taipei, making a cultural-exchange visit to the San Gabriel Valley city.
As Jang left the restaurant and headed for the bus, she looked at the scenery of stucco buildings, a car wash, a herbalist and acupuncture office above the Shanghai House, and a Bank of Canton branch next door. And she looked out at the cars and trucks on Atlantic Boulevard. “It’s very clean and peaceful here,” she said through a translator. “Not crowded like Taipei.”
Her fellow tour members, putting quarters into the news racks, cleaned out two of the four boxes with Chinese-language newspapers.
The bus driver, looking a bit nervous outside his vehicle, surveyed the thickening traffic and said: “I got to get out of here or I’m going to be in big trouble.”
With that, the tour leaders shepherded the stragglers, some of whom had made quick shopping trips and were scurrying across the street from the Ai Hoa Supermarket, onto the bus.
Soon they were all off to their next stop, Universal Studios with its acres of asphalt, just right for big buses bearing Asian tourists who want to see Southern California.