1990s: The Golden Decade : In Pursuit of a Better Way of Life

World attention riveted on China in 1989 as the country underwent the throes of a massive political upheaval. Across the strait in Taiwan, islanders also tried to map out their futures, with some staying to fight for political change while others sought their fortunes overseas.

In Hong Kong, the specter of 1997, when the British colony reverts to Communist Chinese rule, set the pace for investments and emigration as the colony braced itself for a major political transition. And then there are the ethnic Chinese of Southeast Asia, some languishing in refugee camps, all seeking a better, more peaceful future.

These groups of Chinese can be divided when it comes to dialects and politics, but they are bound by a common culture and the desire to pursue a better way of life for their families.

Just as war, famines and calamities forced earlier generations of Chinese to go to foreign lands, domestic unrest and economic uncertainty in this century have prompted growing numbers to seek alternatives in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States.

In the 1980s, Chinese immigrants to California swelled the number of Asians in communities such as Fresno, Oakland and Daly City in the north and Monterey Park, Walnut and the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the south. The decade was a time of friction as Chinese and Western cultures clashed, sometimes from misunderstandings, other times from prejudice and hatred.


With the number of Chinese-Americans in the country projected to reach 1.7 million by the year 2000, longtime residents and immigrants alike have a shared interest in what happens in the next decade, an era destined to be as epochal as other immigration milestones.

In the 1850s, the newcomers escaped famine in China to work as laborers in the fields and on the transcontinental railroad in the United States. The work took some to Wyoming, Mississippi and beyond. But California was always the dream destination. The Chinese characters for San Francisco, for example, are “Old Gold Mountain.” Today, 40% of the Chinese in the United States live in California.

There is a dark side, too, to this history. Along with blacks and American Indians, Chinese were prohibited in 1850 from testifying against Anglos. In the 1880s, San Francisco passed discriminatory ordinances targeting Chinese laundries and singling out Chinese men for wearing braids. In 1882, Los Angeles adopted an ordinance prohibiting Chinese from living within the city limits.

Anglo workers who resented competition from Chinese laborers often exploited xenophobic sentiments, which led to increased violence against Chinese. In October, 1871, the festering resentment erupted into the Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles, during which an Anglo mob lynched 22 Chinese. The killers were never caught.

Beginning in the 1880s, exclusionary laws that banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States were adopted. They were lifted in 1943, leading to the great immigration pushes immediately after World War II and in 1949 when the Communists took over mainland China. The Immigration Act of 1965 ended national quotas; by 1980 there were 322,309 Chinese in California.

By the 1980s, Chinese immigrants were arriving in America to pursue educational opportunities and to escape from political instability. Some toiled in garment sweatshops and restaurants while others worked as professionals.

Now, as the Year of the Horse rings in the 1990s, the latest wave of Chinese immigrants will be taking the next step to join mainstream America.

With estimates indicating that in 10 years Chinese will make up 17.1% of all Asian-Americans nationwide, it is just a matter of time before Chinese residents discover the power in numbers and the need to capitalize on that strength.

“Political power is the next stage,” said Irene Natividad, a Fairfax, Va., political consultant; in the 1990s, Chinese-Americans will have to learn that being an integral part of this country means more than economic or financial success.

From the classroom to the boardroom, Chinese-Americans are struggling against “glass ceilings.” In arts and entertainment, the barriers come in the form of negative stereotypes that perpetuate disparaging images of Chinese-Americans.

To be sure, there are beginnings of political awareness. The Chinese American Assn. of Southern California, for example, is a growing force in grooming Chinese-Americans for political office and in raising money for them.

But even though Chinese-Americans have a reputation for making generous campaign donations, the state Legislature still suffers from what Maeley Tom of Sacramento described as the “10-year drought” in terms of Asian-American legislators.

Since 1979, when Floyd Mori (D-Pleasanton) and Paul Banai (R-Gardena) lost their seats, no Asian-American has been elected to the 120-member state Legislature, said Tom, a special assistant in state Sen. David A. Roberti’s office on Asian Pacific affairs.

In a state where 9.5% of the 28 million residents are Asian, only 11 elected state officials are Asian, and of those, Secretary of State March Fong Eu is the only Chinese-American.

But with organizations such as the Chinese-American Assn. and the San Francisco-based Coalition of Asian Pacific American Political Action Committees, Chinese and other Asian-Americans are slowly gaining a voice in politics.

“The Asian-American population in California is quite possibly going to be the swing vote in the 1990s,” said Chris Stewart, the Asian-American outreach coordinator in Los Angeles for the California Republican party.

Political progress so far is most visible at the local level where Chinese and other Asian-Americans have gradually won seats on school boards, city councils and county boards. San Francisco Supervisor Thomas Hsieh, Los Angeles Councilman Michael Woo and Monterey Park Councilwoman Judy Chu are among some of the more widely known figures.

But unlike Japanese-Americans, the majority of whom are Democrats, Chinese-Americans tend to dilute their voting power by splitting their votes between the major parties or by declining to state party affiliation, said Don Nakanishi, a UCLA associate professor of education.

Chinese-Americans do get politically involved when there is an issue to rally around, as demonstrated by the outpouring of emotional fervor after last June’s bloody crackdown in Beijing.

China’s democracy movement forced Chinese-Americans to take a stand and united those from all political backgrounds, said Henry Der, director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco. He believes the awakening will help propel them to get more involved in state and local affairs.

Another rallying point was the Vincent Chin case in Detroit. In 1982, the young Chinese-American was clubbed to death by out-of-work automobile workers who thought he was Japanese and accused him of causing them to lose their jobs. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, convicted of manslaughter, were fined $3,270 each, sentenced to three years’ probation and released.

The sentence evoked a national outcry in the Asian-American community and led to the formation of American Citizens for Justice. Through the group’s efforts, Ebens was tried for violating Chin’s civil rights and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The sentence, however, was overturned by a federal appeals court. In a 1987 retrial, the jury acquitted Ebens.

A Turning Point

Despite the outcome, the case remains a turning point for the Chinese-American community, said Helen Zia of American Citizens for Justice. “The only way you’re going to prevent this from happening again is to be organized and to be ready to stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to take this type of violence and intimidation,’ ” Zia said.

Last July, college student Jim Loo was harassed at a Raleigh, N.C., pool hall by two Anglos who were complaining about the Vietnamese. The Anglo youths later followed Loo and killed him. Robert Piche has been charged with second-degree murder, and the Asian-American community is closely monitoring the case.

Then there are crimes in which Asian-Americans prey on each other. To be sure, there is a more organized side to Asian crime. Gangs with international connections, such as the Taiwan-based United Bamboo Gang, are believed by California authorities to be active in the drug trade.

But most authorities agree that residential robbery has become the most troubling trend in Asian crime because of the fear it instills in the victims’ families.

The robbers often are young immigrants who see crime as a shortcut to success. In their new world of social and economic freedom, luxury sports cars, fancy jewelry, New Wave clothing and drugs are all images of the American Dream. To get them, they take advantage of newcomers who may be here illegally and who have been taught in their native countries to fear retribution if they cooperate with police.

Some of these cynical, alienated youths live in impoverished households where welfare checks are supplemented by minimum-wage jobs on the side. Sometimes they are so-called “anchor children,” saddled with the extra burden of having to attain a financial footing to sponsor family members still overseas.

Often, the troubled youths end up at the Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead, where director Gladys Lee and her counselors offer a sympathetic ear and a helping hand.

Lee’s staff counsels immigrants as they learn to straddle two cultures. It is a difficult balancing act that sometimes spawns generational, cultural and even language gaps between immigrant parents and their American-born children.

Rancho Palos Verdes resident Charles Szu tells of a friend’s daughter who is ashamed to be Chinese. The girl refuses to eat Chinese food and after one visit to Monterey Park swore she would never go back to the city where many businesses have Chinese-language signs and where more than half the residents are Asian.

Teen-agers often are the most susceptible to molding by media images that portray negative stereotypes of Asian-Americans.

“Usually we’re portrayed as aliens in this country,” said Dennis Dun, who has appeared in several major films and is a regular on “Midnight Caller,” an NBC drama. “You have to constantly educate Hollywood producers and show them we’re regular human beings.”

Many Asian-American performers feel they are blocked by racial discrimination. Good roles are rare; most Asian-American actors play minor roles as “sidekicks,” said Ed Hastings, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

But slowly, more positive images of Asian-Americans are beginning to emerge, at least in part through the efforts of watchdog organizations such as the Assn. of Asian Pacific American Artists. Asian-American actors and actresses are gradually getting to play more than just servants or gangsters and are being cast in non-ethnic specific roles.

In “Midnight Caller,” Dun, 37, plays a hip radio producer named Billy Po. He said the character is “a step in the right direction.”

Increasingly, stories about Asian-Americans are being told through the eyes of Asian-American artists. In 1989, film makers Christine Choy and Renee Tajima were nominated for an Academy Award for “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”

This access to Hollywood and the theater is important because of the power of popular images to shape the attitudes of millions.

The growing roster of celebrated Chinese-American writers includes Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston and playwright David Henry Hwang. For his portrayal of a Beijing opera star in Hwang’s acclaimed “M. Butterfly,” actor B. D. Wong snagged a Tony Award in 1988.

The growing number of Chinese-Americans in arts and entertainment, however, belies the fact that they continue to be under-represented in these fields. Part of the reason may be that families do not encourage their children to go into creative arts.

Anthony Dong was nominated for a 1984 Academy-Award for his film, “Forbidden City, USA,” which was released to high praise in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Thousands turned out to see the breezy movie that Dong produced and directed about a popular nightclub featuring Chinese-American dancers and singers of the 1930s.

But Dong’s triumph was short-lived. “At dinner on Sunday after the premiere,” he said, “my mother turns to me and says, ‘So you’re a big shot now, huh? When are you going to get a job?’ ”

In fields such as engineering and medicine, where Chinese-Americans do well in terms of numbers, their very success can trigger backlash and the “glass ceiling” phenomenon.

The last five years have seen accusations of anti-Asian bias in admissions policies at UC Berkeley, UCLA and other top schools.

At UC Berkeley, which gets about 22,000 applicants for 3,800 freshman places, officials last spring pledged to help change admission policies that had caused a decline in Asian undergraduate enrollment. About a third of the applicants, or 7,500, are Asian, and more than half of these Asian applicants are Chinese, said Berkeley professor Ling-chi Wang.

Universities such as Berkeley and Stanford have also begun to reevaluate the traditionally Euro-centric liberal arts education, Wang said.

Many secondary and elementary schools also are seeing a marked increase in the number of Asian students. In the Walnut Valley School District in suburban Los Angeles, for instance, the number of Asian students has nearly tripled since 1984, to 20% of the district’s students.

The increase in Chinese-American students is gradually being reflected in school clubs, cheerleading squads and sports teams. Last month, Chinese-American Chris Liu of Temple City High School was named to the All San Gabriel Valley football team.

Chinese parents are becoming more involved in their children’s education. The Chinese-American PTA, based in the San Gabriel Valley, has 200 members and focuses on race relations and education issues, Vice President Loretta Huang said. The group also hosts receptions for principals and teachers, and teaches parents to be better parents.

Some parents, such as Alice Hwang of South Pasadena and Leland Yee in San Francisco, have been elected to their local school boards. Still, of 7,000 school board seats in the state, less than 1% are held by Asians, said Monterey Park Councilwoman Chu.

A ‘Glass Ceiling’

Asians are also under-represented on school staffs. Statewide, Asians make up just 3.4% of all teachers, 2.2% of principals and less than 1% of superintendents.

In corporate America, the “glass ceiling” is most keenly felt in the aerospace industry, where companies are large and chances for advancement few. “In any company, if we don’t get into management, we won’t have any impact,” said Kao Wei-hsiung, head of a materials science laboratory at El Segundo’s Aerospace Corp. “We are just one of the laborers.”

There are no exact figures on how many Chinese engineers are working in the state’s high-tech industries, but a rough estimate puts their number at 10,000 in Silicon Valley alone, said Chuang Yii-der, head of the science division of the Coordination Council for North American Affairs.

At Intel Corporation, Silicon Valley’s chip-making giant, an estimated 20% of the engineers are Chinese. At smaller companies, like Cadence Design Systems Inc., the percentage of Chinese engineers on the technical staff can shoot up to 80% or more.

By numbers alone, Chinese-Americans have exerted a subtle effect on the landscape of high technology, from the celebrations for Chinese New Year at some companies to the creation of a flourishing business in immigration law that has recently blossomed in Silicon Valley.

Only recently have Chinese professionals from Taiwan and Hong Kong been joined by those from the mainland, whose numbers have been growing at a phenomenal rate. Five years ago, there were 10,000 mainland students in the United States. Now there are an estimated 40,000, the largest group of foreign students in the country.

Six years ago, Intel Corp. started a program to deal with the company’s changing ethnic makeup and growing cultural clashes.

Program coordinator Frank Louie said it was started after the company noticed an unusually high number of Chinese-born engineers leaving the company. The situation was not unique to Intel, but it was perhaps exacerbated by the company’s unique corporate philosophy of “constructive confrontation.” The aggressive corporate philosophy seemed to be at odds with some of the Chinese employees’ more passive and indirect traits, Louie said.

Louie said the program, which taught employees how to adapt to the company’s corporate culture, has been a success, and the company has started a number of other workshops with titles such as moving up, accent improvement, speaking under pressure and idioms and vocabulary in the workplace.

A multicultural program has also been started to help managers better understand employees with different cultural backgrounds.

“I think it opens people’s eyes,” Louie said. “And I see a lot more people staying longer than before.”

As California enters the 1990s, highly skilled science professionals could give the state and the country a competitive edge in world trade.

And as Chinese-Americans continue to become more active in mainstream America, from politics to business to the arts, their contributions, combining the best of two cultures, can enrich the nation.

This story was written by Times staff writer Elizabeth Lu with files from staff writers Ashley Dunn in the Silicon Valley, Jesse Katz and Barbara Koh in Los Angeles and free-lance writer Edward Iwata in San Francisco.


Chinese in the United States:

in thousands 1980: 812,000

Chinese in California:

in thousands 1860 * 1920 * 1980: 322,309 * not available

Chinese in Los Angeles County:

in thousands 1860 * 1980: 93,747 * below 100

Chinese in city of Los Angeles:

in thousands 1860 * 1980: 44,291 * below 100

Source: U.S. Census


Does not include Nov. 1989 election

OFFICE TOTAL CALIF. ASIAN CHINESE City Council members 1,936 40 9 County supervisors 296 3 2 School board members 5,365 84 28 Statewide officers 11 0 1 Assembly 80 0 0 Senate 40 0 0 Congressional delegation 45 2 0

Source: Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs in Sacramento