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Asian Population Surges in County

Times Staff Writers

In a testament to the changing makeup of the Southland, a report released Wednesday found that for the first time, Asian Americans now constitute at least half the population of seven Los Angeles County cities.

In 1990, only Monterey Park had an Asian majority. But according to the study by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Asians now make up 61% of the population in Cerritos, 58% in Walnut, 52% in Rowland Heights and 50% in San Gabriel, San Marino and Rosemead.

All but Cerritos are in the San Gabriel Valley, which experienced a 20% increase in Asian population between 1990 and 2000, according to the study.

There is, quipped San Gabriel Valley resident Michael Hoong on Wednesday, one prerequisite for living there: “Speak Mandarin.”

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Actually, the Asian and Pacific Islander population in the county includes more than 45 ethnic groups speaking 28 languages, according to the first such report for Los Angeles County since 1996, researchers said.

Asians, said Walnut Mayor Joaquin Lim, have “completely changed the landscape. It’s not just the mix of businesses. You hear so many different Asian languages in the supermarket now. They’ve invested their money and uplifted the community.”

Countywide, the Asian population increased by 35% between 1990 and 2000, according to the study. Asians now constitute 13% of the county’s population.

Lim, who has lived in Walnut for 16 years, said the region has benefited because so many Asian immigrants are professionals or entrepreneurs.

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“Asians want the suburban American dream: two cars and two dogs,” he said. “Cities like ours are alluring to them because it’s beautiful out here. Homes are a minimum of 2,000 square feet. We have gentle, rolling hills. The school district is one of the best in Los Angeles County, and we’re surrounded by industrial areas, so it’s easy to set up shop.”

The political impact of the growth has yet to be felt, said Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge), whose 44th Assembly District also includes Arcadia and Temple City. It will take time for the numbers to translate into political influence, she said, because Asians tend to eschew politics.

“It’s not only an ethnic learning curve, but it’s culturally like night and day for us, because we are not supposed to be outspoken, stand up in front of groups and speak about how we feel,” Liu said.

“The evolution of the Asian Americans becoming part of the mainstream is a work in progress.”

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Using census data issued last summer on ethnic group breakdowns, the study also found that a growing number of Asians identified themselves as multiracial, a new category in the 2000 census.

“They’re the group of the future,” said Paul Ong, professor of urban planning at UCLA’s School of Public Policy and Social Research. “There’s no question, they’re going to be a growing segment.”

The county’s Japanese population, for example, decreased 14% between 1990 and 2000, but those identifying themselves as multiracial Japanese increased 6%.

Kimiko Kelly, chief researcher of the study, who is biracial, said that in the 1990 census, she chose “Asian” because it only allowed one choice. That troubled her, because it did not accurately describe her racial parentage: an Irish American father and Japanese mother.

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“Where do you put somebody like me?” she said. In 2000, she marked both categories.

The study, done in partnership with United Way, also examined education, healthcare, language proficiency and income of the county’s Asian and Pacific Islanders and found wide disparities.

For example, while 42% of Asian Americans have at least a bachelor’s degree, 18% do not have a high school education. More than half of Cambodians lack high school diplomas, the report said.

Even among Chinese, there was a huge gap in schooling. While 43% of Chinese had college or advanced degrees, 24% did not graduate from high school.

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Economically, Asians also covered a wide span. Their median income was $47,406, higher than all other racial groups except for whites.

But some Asian groups were among the poorest in the county, with half of Hmongs and 38% of Cambodians living below the poverty line, the study said.

Overall, the report found, the single fastest-growing group of Asians in the county were Chinese Americans, who now make up 27% of the county’s Asian population of 1.3 million.

“We’re all over the place,” said Hoong, a 19-year-old Chinese-Vietnamese American who lives in Baldwin Park.

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