The house was almost perfect. The sprawling bungalow was set in a quiet cul de sac, near one of the county’s best schools.
But the street number, 1414, sounded like “certain death certain death” when pronounced in Mandarin or Cantonese.
“It wasn’t a lucky number,” said Jenny Liu, who bought the Arcadia home in April with her husband, Oliver Lin-Chih.
So the couple paid hundreds of dollars at Arcadia City Hall to change the address to the less negative 1412. “We paid $500, but that’s what we wanted,” Liu said.
The couple are among dozens of Chinese homeowners in the San Gabriel Valley and the nearby Glendale-La Canada Flintridge area to request address changes this year because of a combination of linguistic coincidences and age-old superstitions.
Area cities with many Chinese residents have reacted to the growing demand by charging hundreds of dollars to change addresses. This year alone, half a dozen municipalities began charging for address changes, or increased existing fees dramatically.
Glendale grants address changes for free, but La Canada Flintridge in 1991 began charging $300 to change street numbers. The fee covers the cost of processing the application and of contacting government agencies and neighboring cities, said Roger Cantrall, a senior planner.
Nearly all of the requests come from Chinese-Americans, city officials said. La Canada is 12.2% Asian.
While city officials say the fees are necessary because address changes tie up staff time with mounds of paperwork, one Chinese-American community leader contends that cash-strapped cities are exploiting superstitious Chinese residents.
“The fees are outrageous,” said Chris K. Cheung, president of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans. “Obviously, they are targeted at Chinese-Americans.”
The fees are most likely to be charged in cities with growing Chinese-American populations, he noted.
“What reason could a city have for charging residents more than $100?” he asked. “Either a city is trying to raise money or discourage requests.”
Nearly all requests for address changes come from the Chinese community.
In South Pasadena, Councilman Paul Zee denied that the city is singling out Chinese residents with its fee, and said the charge is simply reimbursement for the cost of processing paperwork. Zee said his city’s $550 fee is reasonable because many records and maps must be changed and a variety of agencies informed.
“I believe most of the applicants are willing to pay,” he said.
Gregory Tse, owner of Wing On Realty in Monterey Park, said, “The fees are excessive, but cities know Chinese-Americans buying a $300,000 home don’t mind paying $500 for a number that will make them happy.”
Tse adds that some of his deals are contingent on getting good numbers from cities.
Avoiding the number four, which sounds like “death,” is crucial to some residents.
“We once had a woman come in here and offer to donate $10,000 to the city if we changed her address,” said Aryland Gong, who oversees address changes for Arcadia. The request was denied because at the time, Arcadia did not change addresses.
The linguistic coincidences stem from the tonal nature of Chinese. The meaning of a word can depend on the tone or inflection used.
In Mandarin and Cantonese, the number two also sounds like the word “easy,” three like “life,” “birth” or “to do business,” four like “death,” five like “no” or “not,” six like “happiness,” “wealth” or “continuous,” eight like “prosperity,” and nine like “long life.”
“One” can sound like “certain.” Zero means “nothing,” and seven is considered evil in ancient beliefs because ghosts return seven days after people die.
Monterey Park, the only city in the mainland United States with a majority Asian population, in 1986 initiated the first fee in the San Gabriel Valley--$500 to cover what city officials say is their costs for address changes. The city gets two or three requests a month, nearly all from Chinese residents.
“If someone wants the city to do extra work, I think it’s only fair they be charged with the amount of work involved,” Councilman Samuel Kiang said.
More than half a dozen cities followed Monterey Park’s lead in the 1990s, most in the past year. Along with Arcadia’s $500 fee and South Pasadena’s $550, La Canada Flintridge charges $300, Glendora $600, San Gabriel $750, Walnut $450, Baldwin Park $750, and Diamond Bar up to $1,000. All but Glendora have substantial numbers of Chinese residents.
Since 1992, Diamond Bar has required residents seeking address changes to put down a $1,000 deposit. Then the city deducts $75 an hour from the deposit to cover the time it takes to process the application.
“It usually costs about $375,” said David Lui, who processes the requests.
In Arcadia, at least four city officials review an application before a number is changed. The city then notifies nine of its departments and a dozen outside agencies, including the school district, post office, Southern California Gas Co., Southern California Edison Co., Pacific Bell, General Telephone, the county assessor, county tax collector, county registrar of voters, the local cable television provider and the city’s waste hauler.
Some cities leave it up to the homeowner to notify government agencies of the change. In San Gabriel, where fees increased July 1 from $400 to $750, much of the notification is left to the property owner, city officials say. The city informs its departments, but the building owner has to contact county agencies and the post office.
Not all the cities with large Chinese-American populations have three-figure fees. Alhambra, which is 37.8% Asian, has charged $43.20 since 1992. San Marino and Temple City do not allow address changes, while El Monte and Rosemead allow changes only on new properties.
“We figure it takes somewhat over an hour to process, and that gives you a figure of $43.20,” said Mary Kelly, Alhambra spokeswoman.
The county charges $34.20 for address changes in unincorporated areas such as Rowland Heights and Hacienda Heights.
Pasadena, Monrovia, Duarte, Industry, La Puente and Covina--cities with few Chinese residents, and few requests for address changes--charge less than $150. Covina sends more than 30 letters to agencies on behalf of a property owner if a requested change is made.
The city of Los Angeles does not allow address changes. Mark Fuller, of the city’s code enforcement section, said if the city changed addresses for people who like some lucky numbers, it would wreak chaos for the police and emergency services.
After years of allowing address changes for free, Beverly Hills last year began charging $50 to cover its costs.
Long Beach charges $10. The only recent number change came after a Christian family complained that their 666 address was the devil’s number.
And still others do not charge a cent. Glendale, Santa Monica, Gardena, Montebello, Whittier, Claremont, Azusa, Sierra Madre, La Verne and West Covina grant address changes free of charge.
Glendale gets about one request a month to change street numbers.
“Glendale doesn’t charge for address changes, but it certainly does cost the city and takes a lot of time,” said Samantha Good, administrator for permit services.
Once her department gets a request for a change, the new number is checked to see if it will fit in with the street’s sequence of numbers and a building inspector goes out to the site.
Good said if the change meets those requirements, it is approved and letters are sent to 10 agencies, including the post office, utilities, emergency services and county departments.