For the past year, motorists crawling along the San Bernardino Freeway have come upon a monstrous sign, "Xiang Yun," mounted prominently on the side of an El Monte building.
A local Chinese-American company, they might assume, or perhaps even one of the many San Gabriel Valley ventures with ties to Taiwan or Hong Kong.
Well, guess again.
The Xiang Yun sign is the most visible evidence of a new phenomenon--a growing Mainland China business presence in the area, coupled with dramatic mainland investment in everything from San Gabriel Valley commercial buildings to shopping centers, hotels, warehouse space, and even homes.
The Beijing-based company, whose name means "good luck cloud," has started exporting machinery and food processing equipment to China, said Xiang Yun business manager Charlene Ji. In the near future, Ji hopes, the company will acquire local warehouse space to house imported Chinese-made goods for sale here.
"The building is quite obvious (from the freeway), and transportation is good. Also, it's close to Monterey Park, so it's easier to contact other people from China or from Taiwan" to do business, said Ji, whose company rents two floors of space and employs 10 people, most of whom live nearby, in Alhambra, Temple City and neighboring communities.
For the San Gabriel Valley economy, boosted in the 1980s by an influx of Chinese investment from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the mainland trend may mean a healthy jump-start out of the recession doldrums, local real estate brokers and Chinese community leaders say.
The trend is the ironic result of investment patterns that have come full circle. Before 1988, investors from Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong flocked to Los Angeles County to take advantage of the real estate boom. As those investors started losing money in California's depressed economy, however, they turned their attention to Mainland China, contributing to the full pockets of entrepreneurs there who are now stocking up on properties here.
"In 1987, 1988 and 1989, people started to make money in China. People have their own businesses, and they've grown bigger and bigger. People think, 'We need to put some money overseas,' " said James Chou, vice president of George Realty Group Inc. in Alhambra. Chou said many of the mainland investors are government groups affiliated with particular cities.
In addition to the growing number of mainland-based import-export businesses such as Xiang Yun, and a flurry of real estate investments, mainland interest in the region is also translating into tourist dollars: Thousands of business people visit the area each month, snapping pictures of Monterey Park officials on the steps of City Hall, checking out local industrial sites and swapping business cards while spending money at stores, restaurants, hotels and local tour companies.
"Since June of last year, every day there are two or three trade delegations from China," said Ed Wong, president of the Monterey Park Rotary Club, who started doing business with Mainland China 14 years ago in the garment industry, and now also brokers Chinese consumer goods for sale in markets from here to Africa and sells building materials and medical equipment to China.
U.S. Department of Commerce figures on Mainland China's direct investment in the United States focus on large industrial purchases, an official with the agency said. According to the figures, the cumulative value of China's investment in the entire United States was $126 million at the end of 1992, compared with $87 million at the end of 1989.
But those figures are deceptively small, according to local Chinese-American real estate brokers who are cutting deals in the San Gabriel Valley.
Chou estimates Mainland China investment in the San Gabriel Valley at over $100 million in 1992 alone.
"I have a lot of customers," Chou said.
Many of the deals are in the $5 million to $10 million range, Chou added. He recently sold a Monterey Park hotel for $3 million to a Mainland China group, along with two local office buildings and a high-rise off the San Bernardino Freeway, he said.
Government investors from Mainland China closed a $15.5-million deal in February to purchase Temple City Square, a seven-acre shopping center on the northwest corner of Rosemead Boulevard and Las Tunas Drive, said Charles J. Huang, an investment properties specialist with CB Commercial in the City of Industry.
According to Monterey Park city officials, mainland China investors built a six-story building in the city's Corporate Center Business Park earlier this year, which followed the purchase of the former Jean Jac Building, on Atlantic Boulevard near Garvey, by another mainland group. The Hoa Binh Supermarket on Atlantic Boulevard also changed hands recently to mainland ownership.
Mainland China investment has also picked up markedly over the past year in Flair Park, a triangular industrial park on the southern edge of El Monte, said Huang, in part because the San Gabriel Valley's Chinese community, expanding eastward, provides a welcoming incentive.
"There's the cultural center near there, so that's part of the attraction," Huang said of Flair Park. "They think (the San Gabriel Valley) is the most stable place for the future. This is a place for them to live."
In fact, the local real estate brokers say, investors from Mainland China are steadily purchasing everything from shopping centers to apartment buildings, bargain-rate hotels and motels languishing in foreclosure and homes for employees of their recently established import-export companies.
Along with acquiring property, investors are setting up shop here: Chou estimates that about 1,000 import-export businesses from more than 20 Chinese provinces have sprouted in the Los Angeles Basin over the past four years, many of them in El Monte and Rosemead.
Other mainland business people, as well as a growing number of local Chinese community members doing business with China, are leasing warehouse space in the City of Industry, Baldwin Park, and Irwindale to distribute goods imported from China, particularly in the 5,000- to 15,000-square-foot range, said Huang. He estimates that 50% of the warehouses in that size range are being leased to house Chinese-made goods--everything from imported computer hardware to consumer products from bicycles to power tools.
"It has had a very good positive reaction for this area's real estate," Huang said. "From Alhambra all the way to Chino, industrial space is really demanded."
While some mainland investors are putting pen to paper and closing deals, thousands more come merely to test the business climate, make contacts and get a feel for Southern California.
According to a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, the number of business visas issued to mainland Chinese for all of the United States has risen markedly. During the 1992 federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 1992, 53,202 visas were issued, the spokeswoman said. In the first six months of this fiscal year alone, 44,781 visas were issued. Figures for Los Angeles were not available, but most visitors from China enter the country on the West Coast.
The groups, private investors and government delegations from myriad Chinese provinces and cities, come for business, but also contribute tourist dollars to the local economy.
In March, the Monterey Park City Council was getting so many requests for tours of City Hall and meetings with city officials, it handed the responsibility of handling the delegations from China over to the Chamber of Commerce.
Since then, the chamber has entertained 385 mainland Chinese businessmen, offering tours of City Hall and the police and fire departments, as well as a picture-taking session with the council, said the chamber's executive director, Jann Talarico. If there's time, the groups get a quick spin through Monterey Park's newest shopping center--Atlantic Square.
"Even though it's American-owned, there are a lot of Chinese-operated stores. It gives (the Chinese visitors) a chance to put some money back into the city, because they buy souvenirs there," Talarico said.
The contacts made through these visits already are paying off, she added.
The chamber is negotiating with an employee-owned department store from Zheng Zhou, China, interested in opening its doors in Monterey Park.
"It's everything from fur coats to motorcycles--a high-end store. I've set them up with a couple of developers," Talarico said. "We're starting to see that there is going to be a lot of good coming from these delegations."
San Gabriel Valley tour companies can also attest to a healthy surge in business from the Mainland China delegations.
"This year, my business increased about 20% over last year," said Helen Koo, president of Asia America Travel, a 13-year-old Chinese tour agency in Monterey Park that gives guided bus tours of everything from Universal Studios to San Francisco, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
"Before, we had mostly people from Taiwan and Hong Kong. But this year, the increase was all from Mainland China. Right now, almost 40% of my business is from Mainland China," said Koo, who also arranges hotel accommodations for many of the groups in Monterey Park, Alhambra and Rosemead.
"In our Monterey Park office, we have 30 people working, and they're so busy. People say the economy is no good. Well, to us, it's just too busy," Koo said. "It's almost too much for us."