Too Long in the SPOTLIGHT : Monterey Park, Star ‘Melting Pot,’ Getting Fed Up With the Publicity

Times Staff Writer

For the last five years, Monterey Park has endured an uncomfortable journalistic spotlight.

Reporters throughout the world are attracted by the melting-pot, immigration story of a Los Angeles suburb struggling with rapid sociological changes.

But the frequent outside analysis has become tiring for the interview-savvy residents of a town that immigration changed from an Anglo-majority city into an Asian-majority one.

Councilman Christopher F. Houseman half-seriously suggested that the city should charge filming rights. “I think people of the town get a little fatigued from having the bright lights on them. It’s like they’re on a movie set all the time.”


When Channel 2 television crews from KCBS came to film several months ago, Houseman complained about “the Monterey Park movie ranch.”

And now community leaders are fretting about the latest media foray into the San Gabriel Valley: the ABC News magazine show, “20/20.”

With a mixture of pride and discomfort, residents await the airing of the network television show, tentatively scheduled for sometime in April. And residents say they worry that all this journalistic notice creates a distorted picture and makes community life difficult when neighbor is pitted against neighbor in 15-second sound bites or 15-paragraph stories.

“I think we’d do a better job if we weren’t on the front page all the time,” said Councilwoman Betty Couch, who was interviewed but not filmed by ABC.


Tensions Acknowledged

“You know my story: Development is the main issue in Monterey Park, not racism,” she said. “But I guess that’s not what they want to hear on film.”

Councilwoman Patricia Reichenberger said she spoke with “20/20" but declined to be filmed because she feared the story would be one of “yellows against the whites.”

Judy Chu, the only council member whose ancestry is Asian, acknowledged the tensions over changes in the city’s ethnic makeup in her filmed interview. “It’s been painful. But people are starting to shift. I hope that comes across” in the program.

“There are a lot of good things in Monterey Park, and I’m concerned about the media portraying Monterey Park in a distorted way,” she said. “That was the main message I gave in my interview.

Lily Lee Chen, former mayor and council member, said: “We take pride for our accomplishments. But rather than having ’20/20' to come in and generate controversies, (it’s) now the time to leave us alone and give us a chance to iron out our problems.”

For an essentially residential community with a population of 63,500--besides the Asian majority, one-third of the residents are Latino--Monterey Park has had its share of attention.

The focus in large part began in 1983, when news stories circulated about Chen’s becoming the nation’s first mayor who was a Chinese-American woman.


Outspoken Chen was mayor when the city acted as host to the Olympics field hockey competition in 1984, and she worked on the community’s successful application to be named “an All-American City” in 1985 during efforts to promote racial harmony. But there were tensions then too, such as the libel suit filed against Chen after she complained about a sign in a service station that said: “Will the last American leaving Monterey Park please take down the American flag.”

Now, in Barry L. Hatch, the city has an outspoken mayor who wants a temporary ban on immigration and advocates that English be declared the nation’s official language.

More than once, Cable News Network has come to the city that journalists have referred to as “a suburban Chinatown” and “the Chinese Beverly Hills.”

“The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on public television, the Washington Post and NBC have reported on Monterey Park. Foreign film crews have been there. Recently a student film crew came from Cal State Northridge. Atlantic Monthly last year featured the city in an article titled “Growing Pains.”

This is in addition to the frequent coverage given in the Los Angeles Times and in local and statewide newspapers. Four daily Chinese-language newspapers are published in Monterey Park and are distributed internationally. English-language magazines and newspapers aimed at Asian-American readers often report Monterey Park stories, such as a dispute about foreign-language books in the library and the debate about the amount of Chinese characters on business signs.

‘City of Exploitation’

“We’ve become the city of exploitation, with outsiders swooping in,” Houseman said. “I don’t know what ABC was doing in town. A sociological story? A political story? A critical story?”

For its part, ABC has declined to talk about the story, except to say that one is being done.


The television segment’s genesis was partly due to comments made by Hatch, who these days is being quoted from Honolulu to Philadelphia and points in between.

A producer from “20/20" contacted Hatch in February to say that she had read a front-page article in the Philadelphia Inquirer quoting Hatch. The Feb. 2 story, “Immigration Spurs Debate Over English,” quoted Hatch as saying:

“The bottom line is we’re losing our country. They’re buying up our property. They’re taking Western culture out and replacing it with Eastern culture and Latin culture. They’re taking us over. If their language is set up, all the rest will crumble.”

The article referred to Hatch as “the controversial mayor of Monterey Park, who sees his battle for English as a rear-guard action against the decline of Western civilization.”

Hatch willingly has sounded this theme for journalists as a way to gain a forum for his view that the immigration problems of Monterey Park are the same as the nation’s. He often is a guest on radio talk shows.

Despite his belief that the news media has a liberal bias, Hatch said, interviews afford a chance to spread his conservative views. “I could not turn down the opportunity to get a portion of my message across.”

Made It ‘a Duel’

But, he complained that during the ABC interview “they wouldn’t let me expound on the issues. They wanted to keep it to a duel here in Monterey Park between the forces that be.”

In addition, Hatch was upset that ABC interviewed Stephen Tan, now a planning commissioner, who two years ago was a leader of the unsuccessful movement to recall Hatch and Reichenberger.

Tan said he too was unsettled by his “20/20" interview because he was asked questions about Hatch and the recall campaign. “I said: ‘Let the past be the past.’ ”

Even though he was told the show would be a chance for him to address millions of television watchers, Tan said, he was reluctant to be interviewed for fear his comments might be misconstrued in Monterey Park as well as throughout the nation.

“I don’t want people to think of the city as in hot water. I only want to talk about the good things and my ideas of how to get everybody together.”

But Tan, who moved to Los Angeles from Malaysia 10 years ago, said he was glad he could talk about Monterey Park in the context of the history of American immigration.

“I said, when the Jews came, the Italians came, the Spanish and the Irish came, we had all kinds of misunderstandings. Then there was the Japanese and now the Chinese. It’s not a problem because they’re Chinese. It’s really just because they are the newcomers.”