Mainlanders Make Mark Among Chinese Emigres

Times Staff Writer

There is no denying that Chinese immigrants have transformed the San Gabriel Valley. The interesting question now is: Which Chinese?

Long considered a landing pad for arrivals from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the valley is now being shaped more by a mainland Chinese diaspora. Some residents even suggest that Monterey Park shed its unofficial title of “Little Taipei” in favor of “Little Beijing” or “Little Shanghai.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 14, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Chef -- An article in Wednesday’s Section A and a photo caption accompanying it about mainland Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley misidentified chef and restaurateur Tony Ho as Tony He.

The mainlanders are beneficiaries of China’s booming economy and openness in the last two decades, and they come with degrees from China’s top universities, bundles of cash and lofty ambitions.


“They have the money, they’re sophisticated, and they’re good businesspeople,” Monterey Park Mayor David Lau said of the mainland immigrants, who came to the United States last year in numbers 10 times those of arrivals from Hong Kong and six times those of newcomers from Taiwan.

The mixing of these three groups has touched off its share of conflicts, but it is also shattering regional stereotypes within the Chinese community and creating a new identity -- with American culture as the unifying thread.

“We are learning to cope and communicate,” said Chunsheng Bai, a professor of communications at Cal State L.A. who left Beijing in 1986 to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. “I identify with freedom, equality and the individual pursuit of happiness. These are the three things that make America the greatest country in the world.... I think most Chinese come for these reasons.”

Such reasons drive immigrants from throughout the world to U.S. shores, but the mainland Chinese have other reasons as well.

“It’s a safe haven for people who made a fortune in China,” said UC Irvine history professor Yong Chen. “They’re still concerned about the political instability over there, and the overall environment here is nicer.”

The mainlanders’ growing cachet is all the more significant considering the high status Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese have traditionally commanded.


“The Taiwanese have the perception that mainlanders are rude, don’t work hard, the men are lazy and the women are easy,” said Jimmy Chu, a Taiwanese American who grew up in Arcadia and now studies at UCLA. “ ... The mainlanders perceive us as snobby, culturally separated from the ‘original’ Chinese race and spoon-fed.”

The last census counted 407,003 Asians among the 1.8 million residents of the San Gabriel Valley. The 30,651 people of Taiwanese descent were vastly outnumbered by 212,861 non-Taiwanese Chinese.

Many mainlanders came in the 1980s with student visas, often for graduate school. Then, in the early 1990s, came the first wave of businesspeople, many of whom had worked at state-owned companies. The latest are wealthy entrepreneurs, a lucky minority who discarded Mao jackets for Prada.

“Fifteen years ago, many Chinese here were struggling. Now they’re successful,” Bai said. As a result, “you see more of a collaborative spirit between the mainlanders, Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese.”

Even the highly competitive local Chinese-language press has adapted to the times, having decided in the early ‘90s to refer to “mainland Chinese,” instead of “communist Chinese.”

“People from Taiwan initially felt uncomfortable,” said Daniel Deng, a former political reporter for the Taiwanese-run World Journal. “But soon readers welcomed the change. They viewed the newspaper as being more neutral.”


The conciliatory relationship was years in the making. Like many mainlanders, Bai started out in this country by taking arduous jobs -- busboy and construction worker -- for Taiwanese or Chinese from Hong Kong.

“Their attitude was ‘You can work for me, but I can treat you any way I like,’ ” said Bai, who had landed at JFK International Airport in New York with $45 in his pocket. That was enough for one night in a cheap hotel and the Greyhound fare to the State University of New York at Albany, where he earned his master’s degree.

“They clearly wanted me to feel like I was a worker,” he said of his Taiwanese supervisors. “They were nice, but not that friendly.... Maybe because I had this thick Mandarin accent” from Beijing.

The presence of immigrants like Bai has been steadily growing. Federal statistics show 61,282 mainland Chinese legally immigrated to the U.S. last year, the largest number since 1993. In most cases, China does not hinder those seeking to emigrate, and over the last decade 30,000 to 40,000 have made new lives in the U.S. each year.

By comparison, 6,090 people emigrated from Hong Kong to America last year and 9,836 from Taiwan. Those figures have remained fairly steady since some highs in the early 1990s, when there were more than 10,000 immigrants from each region.

Once here, the mainlanders have a more complicated relationship with the Taiwanese than with the Hong Kong Chinese. Fifty-four years after the Chinese Nationalist government fled the mainland, Beijing considers the island a renegade territory. And Taiwan still bitterly debates whether it should return to Chinese rule.


Cultural differences abound too.

“You can always tell who just came from China by the way they look,” said Crystal Wu, a Taiwanese American who recently graduated from Walnut High School, where she was president of the Students From Abroad Union. “They wear tight pants, big backpacks, thick glasses, and their hair is swept to the side. You can totally tell they’re new immigrants.”

But Wu, who was known for making mainlanders feel at home at Walnut, said they quickly learn to fit in with Taiwanese students by listening to the same Mandarin pop music and watching the same Mandarin soap operas from Taiwan.

Lucy Liu, a smartly dressed real estate agent in Rowland Heights who was making movies in China before an American actress made her name popular, remembers being snubbed by women at a beauty salon seven years ago because she didn’t speak Taiwanese, a dialect different from the Mandarin heard throughout China and Taiwan.

“They said, ‘Oh, you’re a mainland girl,’ ” Liu said. “I was so surprised. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m from China and I’m very proud of it. And if you went, you’d be very surprised by how great China is now.’ ”

Today, Liu, who has many Taiwanese friends, believes the tide has turned. “I think some mainlanders look down on the Taiwanese,” she said.

Now, some of the most opulent homes in the region belong to mainlanders running successful businesses.


“Before, we’d all go to a restaurant run by Taiwanese and the waiters and waitresses would be mainlanders,” said Tom Lee, president of the nonprofit Taiwan Center of Greater Los Angeles. “Now, even the owners are mainlanders.”

All this success has bred some resentment.

Lee suggested that growing trade with China -- the country has supplanted Japan as Southern California’s top trading partner -- could squeeze out Taiwanese entrepreneurs. “It’s going to impact the Taiwanese doing import and export business,” Lee said.

He added: “We like to welcome them with open arms, because the mainlanders will be exposed to a free society and may influence mainland China. However, when I see our community changed, I’m a little skeptical.”

So is Kenneth Chen, the West Coast representative for the nonprofit Taiwanese Assn. of America.

“I don’t think we can fully live side by side, because of our different opinions,” he said. “I’m suspicious of their loyalty to this country.”

But Chen’s is not the prevailing attitude. Unlike the intense political atmosphere fomented by some Cuban exiles in Miami and South Vietnamese in Orange County, most San Gabriel Valley residents say the Chinese have an incentive to live in harmony: It’s good business.


And that’s exactly what mainland Chinese executive chef Tony He, 37, is doing. The owner of Sea Harbor restaurants in Rosemead and Rowland Heights hires a mix of mainland, Hong Kong Chinese and Taiwanese transplants to serve up Guangdong-style delicacies usually reserved for the well-to-do.

“I want to elevate the status of Chinese food in this country,” said the diminutive but energetic He, who made his fortune in China selling appliances before becoming an apprentice to Hong Kong’s “Abalone King.”

To succeed, he says, he has to appeal to everyone. In his stylish Rowland Heights establishment, waiters are trained in customer service, a concept still new to many in the Chinese restaurant industry here.

China, meanwhile, still acts as a lifeline for many of the former mainlanders.

Richard Lee, the owner of a $20-million medical tools company called Amsino, visited his factory in Shanghai every month last year except December. He’s a graduate of China’s Harvard -- Peking University -- who came to the U.S. in 1985 to earn his doctorate in economics. Lee is one of the professionals whom history professor Chen calls “trans-Pacific creatures.”

Now comfortably, rich with a mansion in Walnut, and reunited with his mother and sister, Lee said he has learned to interact with Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese. After 17 years in the States, most of them in the San Gabriel Valley, he finds that the cultural distinctions separating the groups are blurring.

“I’m Chinese American now,” he said.