Dragon Roars in San Gabriel

Times Staff Writer

The son of a seamstress and a cook, Chi Mui didn't speak any English when he left Hong Kong for the United States in 1963. At the time, San Gabriel, the city where he would be elected to office 40 years later, was still a mostly sleepy white and Latino suburb.

Mui, 53, became the city's first Chinese American mayor last week, the latest symbol of San Gabriel's rise as the new center of the region's Chinese community.

San Gabriel has seen an explosion of Chinese retail and commercial development in the last few years, fueled by a wave of new immigration from China. But the city has emerged as far more than just another ethnic enclave, luring foodies from around the country to high-end restaurants such as Mission 261 as well as second- and third-generation Chinese Americans to its diverse array of stores and eateries.

A drive down San Gabriel's stretch of Valley Boulevard -- which Mui likes to call the Golden Mile -- reveals a flourishing Asian commercial district with more than 100 Asian restaurants and multistoried, Mediterranean-style shopping plazas featuring noodle shops next to appointment-only jewelry stores selling $40,000 watches.

Even the 14-month-old Hilton hotel was configured to serve a community where half the 40,000 residents are Asian, printing such things as menus and floor plans in English and Chinese.

The hotel is believed to be the only Hilton in the continental United States with a fully equipped Chinese kitchen -- a workspace that caters to the half a dozen Chinese weddings that take place at the hotel each weekend.

With its trendy boutiques, warehouse-size Asian supermarkets and seemingly endless dining options representing all corners of Chinese cuisine, many say San Gabriel has become what Monterey Park and Alhambra used to be: the prime destination for local and visiting Chinese.

"San Gabriel is the epicenter of where the Chinese community is today," said Carl Chu, a Taiwanese American and author of "Finding Chinese Food in Los Angeles," who insists that the only place to find authentic Peking duck -- not deep-fried -- in Southern California is in San Gabriel.

Chu said San Gabriel's rising profile has supplanted the San Gabriel Valley's traditional Chinese powerhouses of Monterey Park and Alhambra. More than a generation ago, Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong immigrants transformed the strip malls of those two suburbs into Chinatown east.

"If you've been to Monterey Park lately, you'll see that it's a shadow of its former self," said Chu, adding that he used to do his grocery shopping in Monterey Park before discovering San Gabriel. "It's a lot quieter than it was 10 or 15 years ago."

That's partly by design. As San Gabriel has embraced Chinese businesses, Monterey Park is trying to diversify its commercial core by luring more chain stores and non-Chinese retailers. Alhambra has done that to an even greater extent.

"Monterey Park already had the experience of the first immigrants moving in," said Monterey Park Councilman Mike Eng. "We learned from it. We realized that, in the long term, residents value diversity. I think we're the gold standard for cities with large Asian American populations -- a vision of a progressive city where Asian American businesses develop side by side with national retailers."

With Monterey Park already built out, Asian developers discovered that San Gabriel was hungry for new tax revenue.

Though there are no hard statistics, officials and community leaders agree that the city has drawn many immigrants from mainland China and ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.

Many were working-class immigrants and contributed immediately to the surge in restaurants and mom-and-pop shops that stayed open late.

As time went on, the developments became more sophisticated, and more money was invested in higher-end eateries and stores.

"If you talk to neighboring cities about San Gabriel's development, they'd probably be jealous," said David Lang, a public relations director who has served as host for delegations from China at the Hilton.

Indeed, John Tran, a councilman in Rosemead, the next city east of San Gabriel, said he hopes Rosemead can feed off of San Gabriel's success.

The first major Chinese retail hub "started in Monterey Park on the corner of Atlantic and Garvey," Tran said. "That carried over to San Gabriel. Hopefully, the growth will carry on to Rosemead."

Leading the city's Asian development early on was San Gabriel Square, a mall larger than the Rose Bowl that was built on old drive-in theater property at Valley Boulevard and Del Mar Avenue in 1990.

"If you're hosting visitors from China, San Gabriel Square is the mall you want to showcase," Lang said. "It's a point of pride, like saying, 'Look, we Chinese Americans have something like this to shop in.' "

Today, the space still draws thousands of shoppers and tourists from near and far with its myriad restaurants, stores and 99 Ranch supermarket.

"I love this place, it's like a new Chinatown," said Jack Ha, 24, as he stepped out of Media King, a CD and DVD store that brings to mind the Virgin Megastore if it sold nothing but Asian films and music.

"When I think of Monterey Park, I think of it being an old Chinatown," Ha said. "San Gabriel is hip. It's a happening place."

Just around the corner in the shopping square was an urban clothing store selling the kind of apparel found on Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

Across the street from San Gabriel Plaza is the custard-colored Hilton, where more than half of the 5,500 monthly guests are from either China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, vice president and general manager Ted Zachariadis said.

"This is a booming town," Zachariadis said. "The Asian influence is so evident. Over 70% of our staff is Asian."

The kitchen staff on a recent day was 100% Chinese. The head chef, from Shanghai, showed off his stainless steel wok station and a tower of steamers used to cook dim sum.

"You have to serve good food," Zachariadis said, because the Chinese guests "know if the fish was alive and fresh just by tasting it."

In the lobby, a gift shop was selling four Chinese daily newspapers and phone cards for calling countries in Asia. Down a hallway was an office for Wynn hotels and casinos (many Chinese visitors have a lively affection for Las Vegas). Across it was a Chinese vitamin outlet. One store carried designer handbags and another precious jewelry -- a an indication of the new wealth in China.

Looking back on the last 15 years of development, longtime San Gabriel Councilman Harry Baldwin said the Asian influx has invigorated what had been a quiet city starved for tax revenue.

"We've welcomed them and it has turned into a boon for our city," Baldwin said. "I don't think we're the new Monterey Park. We have our own vibrant Asian culture."

Baldwin said the appointment of Mui, elected to the City Council in 2003, as mayor was a long time coming because the city needed a council that better reflected its residents.

At the meeting where he took the mayor's seat for the first time, Mui told a standing-room-only crowd that his journey represented a classic American success story for immigrants from China, who have long referred to the United States as Gold Mountain.

He said his relatives still in China were "so proud a son has gone to America and realized the Golden Mountain dream and brought back pride to the elders and ancestors."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday April 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction San Gabriel: An article in the March 31 California section about San Gabriel's Chinese community said the city's Hilton hotel was believed to be the only Hilton in the continental United States with a fully equipped Chinese kitchen. The Hilton in Universal City also has a Chinese kitchen.
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