Thousands of immigrants had moved into Monterey Park from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong -- sparking a backlash among longtime residents in the suburb who sought a ban on Chinese-language storefront signs. A sign posted at one gas station in the city came to symbolize the divide: "Will the Last American Leaving Monterey Park Please Take Down the American Flag."
Chu and Eng, both products of UCLA and the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, became voices for Chinese Americans in the battle and eventually helped beat back the rules limiting signs to English.
Twenty-five years later, they are the community's undisputed power couple -- she, a veteran assemblywoman now running for the Board of Equalization; he, a Monterey Park councilman seeking the seat she will vacate.
But the married couple represent a local Chinese community that is far different than when they started in politics. Some question whether they have changed with the times.
The Chinese community has become an economic powerhouse, especially since the rise of China, which is Southern California's No. 1 trading partner with more than $85 billion in two-way trade.
Issues of social justice and race relations that the couple have long championed are still of concern. But among small-business owners and entrepreneurs, other issues have gained importance, such as taxes, trade and labor laws.
Eng and Chu are unabashed Democratic liberals who have parlayed support in the Chinese community with labor and Latinos. This has been crucial, political observers say, because the Chinese vote is not enough to get elected to many offices.
Some of their positions have raised eyebrows -- like Chu's support for a union at a local Chinese newspaper and a local hospital, as well as her approval of same-sex marriage.
"She wants to be perceived as the spokesperson for the Chinese American and Asian American communities. That's not totally correct," said John Wong, a Republican who is chairman of the county assessment appeals board and is running in the Republican primary for a seat on the Board of Equalization.
Chu, 52, is the more famous of the couple. She is a household name in the Chinese community, largely because of her sustained tenure in elected office.
As the most prominent local Chinese American official in Sacramento, she wins the support -- and financial contributions -- of some Chinese Americans who admit that they don't support all her positions, but rarely voice their complaints in public.
Charlie Woo, board of directors chairman for the Center for Asian Americans United for Self-Empowerment, said he was privately criticized by Chinese business owners when the assemblywoman spoke in favor of employer-paid health insurance for workers at a forum his organization held two years ago.
"They wanted to know why would I allow her to use the forum to advocate her philosophy," Woo said.
Still, Woo said many of those with concerns continue to support her. "When you have one leader, not everyone is going to agree 100%" with you, he said.
Yong Chen, a history professor at UC Irvine, said Chu's revered status among many Chinese has given her cover to stake out positions on issues that might traditionally not be so popular in the community.
"To many Chinese, traditional families are very important. Most will not support gay marriage," he said, adding that it is hard to classify the community as either right- or left-leaning. "There is indeed a lot of money and a lot of rich people coming in from China. At the same time, there are also a lot of people who fit the profile of a Democrat supporter: immigrant workers."
Chu said she realizes not all her supporters might agree on every one of her positions but said she could not betray her beliefs.
"You can't box the Chinese American community in anymore," Chu said. "As the community has grown, it has become more liberal in some ways and more conservative in other ways. I've worked very hard to be responsive to the community and represent their wide divergence of views as best I can in the state Legislature."
She said it would be hypocritical of her not to support same-sex marriage, considering that a century ago the Legislature was using similar rhetoric to prohibit Chinese from marrying whites.
Eng, a 60-year-old immigration lawyer, acknowledged that the Chinese in Los Angeles County -- who number about 280,000, the largest concentration in the United States -- are much more established than they were when he arrived on the scene in Monterey Park. But he said many in the community are still struggling.
"I think that's really a stereotype," Eng said of the view that the Chinese American community is now universally prosperous. "We live in a society of complexities. Such a broad brush isn't true."
(A U.S. census report released two years ago found that the median household income for Chinese Americans was $60,058, compared with $50,046 for the population as a whole).
In the Legislature, Chu has championed the rights of Asians, though she says she has tried not to make it the focus of her Sacramento tenure.
She pushed "Kenny's Law," a bill that required judges to routinely issue orders of protection for victims of hate crimes and their families. It was named after 17-year-old Kenneth Chiu, a Taiwanese American who was stabbed to death by a white supremacist neighbor in Laguna Hills.
After Chinese customers complained about being tricked into car loans with high interest rates at a Toyota dealership in Alhambra, Chu pushed through a law requiring businesses that negotiate with customers in Chinese, Korean, Tagalog or Vietnamese to provide contracts written in those languages.
Unlike many of their constituents, Chu and Eng were born in the U.S. and never learned to speak Chinese fluently.
Chu is the second of four children. Her father was a union machinist at Lockheed and her mother was a cannery worker who joined the Teamsters. Chu was raised near 62nd Street and Normandie Avenue in South Los Angeles. She attended UCLA as an undergraduate math major in the early 1970s and got involved in the burgeoning field of Asian American studies.
Eng, a native of Hawaii and the son of a second-generation Chinese American garment wholesaler, was attending UCLA law school at the time.
The two married in 1978 and Eng opened a community law office for immigrants on Temple Street west of Beaudry Avenue in downtown alongside Stewart Kwoh, who is now the executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which Chu and Eng helped found.
Chu became increasingly active with her teaching. She earned a doctorate in psychology. Eng became an immigration attorney. The couple have spent the last two decades in a hilltop neighborhood of nearly identical cream-colored, two-story stucco homes with orange-tiled roofs.
Lily Chen, a city councilwoman from 1982 to 1986 and the nation's first Chinese American mayor, said she encouraged Chu and Eng to move to Monterey Park to launch their political careers. "I have never seen a couple with such a precise plan to pursue politics," Chen said, explaining that Chu and Eng understood they had to start on the school board, head to the City Council, and then higher office.
The two helped lead the Coalition for Harmony, a group that opposed the council's attempt to make English the city's official language.
Bridge-building outside the Asian community has been the key to Chu's ascendance, observers say. She lost her bids for the state Assembly in 1994 to Diane Martinez and 1998 to Gloria Romero partly because she could not find enough support among Latinos, who make up the majority of voters in the 49th District. But in 2001, she was armed with endorsements from Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) and Sheriff Lee Baca.
Chu said she was particularly proud of her efforts in helping workers unionize at the Chinese Daily News and Garfield Medical Center, which has a largely Chinese clientele. Her actions won praise within labor circles for tackling an issue so close to home. But critics, such as Wong, say it shows she's out of touch with Chinese business owners trying to keep costs down.
Chu's bid for the Board of Equalization is for its District 4 seat, which essentially encompasses Los Angeles County. The board is a little-known but powerful entity that collects taxes and hears taxpayer disputes.
Chu's chief opponent in the primary is Assemblyman Jerome Horton of Inglewood who, like Chu, is being termed out of the Assembly. Horton says his 21-year experience with the board as an auditor and supervisor makes him better qualified.
Eng's main competitor for the 49th District, which encompasses most of the western San Gabriel Valley, is Alhambra City Councilman Daniel Arguello. David Siegrist, a former Rio Hondo Community College board member, is also running.
The outcome of the race could depend greatly on how much of the Latino vote Eng can garner. Asians and Latinos each constitute 33% of the district's registered voters, said Allan Hoffenblum of the California Target Book.
So far, Eng has obtained key Latino endorsements from Solis, county Supervisor Gloria Molina and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as well as the county Federation of Labor and the California Teachers Assn.
Arguello is a contract compliance officer who has a background in banking. He has been endorsed by Sens. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) and Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and Assemblymen Ed Chavez (D-La Puente) and Dario Frommer (D-Glendale).
Arguello, who lost to Chu in the 2001 special election, said the time has come for a change.
"It was Judy's turn," he said of his loss to Chu. "She ran three times."