Monterey Park Walks a Tightrope With 2 Chinas


Francisco Alonso knew better than to let either delegate from China or Taiwan give a speech when he was sworn in recently as the new mayor of Monterey Park.

After all, he didn’t want to incite an international incident.

Neither delegate spoke, because if one went first, the other would have to speak second, and that would be a diplomatic slap in the face.

And so went a rather common day in the life of a Monterey Park city official--suburban bureaucrat by day, Henry Kissinger by night.


As the first city in the country with an Asian majority population, most of whom are Chinese, Monterey Park has molded itself into an ambassador city for low-level officials and investors from both Chinas. About two dozen delegations visit Monterey Park from overseas each year.

So in addition to honoring Boy Scouts and approving zoning variances, city officials diplomatically dance between two countries that point weapons at each other across the Taiwan Strait.

“I use common sense,” said Alonso. “I put myself in their shoes and see how I’d like to be treated.”

But empathy is not as easy as the councilman suggests. The relationship between China and Taiwan has been contentious since the 1949 Communist revolution forced the Nationalist Party to flee the mainland for the island formerly known as Formosa.

The two sides are still considered at war. China regards Taiwan as a “renegade” province that should return to Chinese rule.

Diplomacy has become even more tricky in light of the recent incident involving a downed U.S. spy plane. And just as rules dictate behavior in the international arena, there are rules in Monterey Park too for the Los Angeles-based Taiwanese and Chinese delegates.


Taiwan’s Los Angeles office must be addressed as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, not as an embassy or consulate. Delegates must never fly the Taiwanese flag on their official cars. This is to respect mainland China’s strict assertion that it is the one true China.

“We are the official representatives from a sovereign nation,” said Bing Xue, head of political and press affairs for the Los Angeles Consulate General for mainland China. “They [the Taiwanese] are a nongovernmental organization. We are part of the diplomatic corps.”

Taiwanese Seem Less Stringent

Taiwanese officials appear to take a less stringent approach to their visits to Monterey Park and elsewhere, seeming just glad to be there.

“The visits are really not that sensitive,” said Jason C. Yuan, director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, the de facto embassy of Taiwan. “The Monterey Park city officials are very open-minded and cooperative. On a local level like this, there’s not a problem. Maybe on the federal level there is. But there’s no sense for either of us to put up a fight on foreign land.”

Indeed, at Alonso’s swearing-in June 24, the two sides were civil but cool. The Chinese, who insisted on sitting next to Alonso’s mother, did not clap when the Taiwanese were introduced to the crowd. The Taiwanese arrived late and didn’t have the option of clapping or not clapping for the Chinese.

Alonso’s predecessor, Benjamin “Frank” Venti--a developer who got a crash course in Chinese culture when he couldn’t sell a new batch of homes in Monterey Park because they had bad feng shui--has grown accustomed to Monterey Park’s brand of diplomacy.


“We have to be on our toes not to offend anyone,” Venti said. “I have to show the same demeanor to both parties. I have to make each country feel special.”

When Chinese and Taiwanese representatives attend city banquets, one cannot be seated closer than the other to the mayor’s table. And when Venti sat between the two sides during a Chinese Lantern Festival celebration in February, he made sure they were all parallel to him on a single row of chairs.

“It would have been very offensive to put one of them in the second row,” he said.

Alonso recalled speaking at an event several years ago in front of representatives from China and Taiwan. One delegate complained of being seated to the left of the lectern, as opposed to the right, the Chinese customary side of honor.

Alonso’s solution? “I simply said that from my vantage point they were on my right.” Crisis averted.

Richard Madsen, a sociology professor at UC San Diego who specializes in China, said failing to observe protocol could undermine the ability to gain trust and respect.

“There are clear signs of etiquette in Chinese culture,” he said. “In American culture we can fudge it a little more. There are many stories of American businessmen who have failed to close deals because they don’t know how to act.”


But in Monterey Park, no one can recall any cultural catastrophes. Venti and Alonso say the government visits increase the profile of the city and bring in small investors. Xue and Yuan speak of the importance of staying close to the Chinese American community that dominates the landscape of Monterey Park--Taiwanese have dubbed it “Little Taipei”--and its neighboring towns. The Chinese and Taiwanese said they also have regular contact with San Marino, San Gabriel, Alhambra and Walnut.

Venti and Alonso take the same ambiguous approach in recognizing both countries that the U.S. government does. Monterey Park allows flag-raising ceremonies at a local park for the national days of both countries: Oct. 1 for China and Oct. 10 for Taiwan. China drew human rights protesters during last year’s event.

Venti said the number of delegations averages about two a month, with the majority coming during summer. Monterey Park has sister city relations with various cities in China and Taiwan. Most investors arrive from Taiwan looking for ways to distribute anything from sneakers to art. The Chinese delegations are mostly composed of bureaucrats, and those visits can slide into theoretical discussions on taxation and government.

The size of the delegations varies from a handful to about 30, and city officials have developed a routine for their overseas guests. Tea is served and the visitors are given pins, pens, books and certificates--all with the city seal. Pictures are frantically taken. Vickie Banando, secretary to the city manager, said the delegates have a penchant for Oreo cookies and snub local Chinese pastries.

Protocol Hinges on Common Sense

Neither Alonso nor Venti knows how long the delegations have been coming to Monterey Park. But former Mayor Lily Chen, the first Asian American woman to serve as mayor of a U.S. city, said it may have started when she took office in 1983.

“I became a tourist attraction,” she said. “I got more attention than I ever wanted. Buses with Chinese tourists started coming by and looking at me. I was a novelty.”


Chen’s father is from China, her father-in-law from Taiwan. Both looked on as she took the oath of office, and she said it may have been the first time both sides started showing up at civic events.

She agrees with Alonso that good protocol often comes down to common sense. When dealing with China, for example, Monterey Park officials know not to utter the words “human rights,” “arm sales” or “Tibet.”

And now they must add two more: “spy plane.”