Koreans find a good fit in Fullerton

Perhaps the future of Orange County can be found in the rows of cookie-cutter houses in Fullerton’s hillside neighborhood of Amerige Heights. On what used to be the site of the Hughes Aircraft plant, developers have built spacious homes, sprawling parks and landscaped roundabouts next to a large shopping center with a Target and an Albertsons.

But past the master-planned veneer is the changing face of Orange County. Next to Albertsons is a taekwondo studio; across from Target is a Korean tofu stew restaurant. Not far away are two of the largest Korean churches in the state.

Amerige Heights, just like the villages in Irvine and the newer housing tracts of Tustin, has become a destination for Asian Americans, drawn by high-performing schools, relatively crime-free neighborhoods and good jobs. According to recently released U.S. Census data, the Asian population in every city with available data in Orange County has gone up. Countywide, the Asian population has increased roughly 16% since 2000, a much faster rate than the Latino population and in the opposite direction of the white population, which has dropped nearly 8%.

Fullerton, once a traditionally white bedroom community in northern Orange County, has seen growing numbers of Asians moving into its middle-class neighborhoods such as Amerige Heights, where real estate agents estimate more than half of the residents are of Korean descent. To cater to them, smaller Korean churches have sprouted in the area, such as Crossway Community Church in Brea. Korean parents even started a Korean PTA at Sunny Hills High School, where Asian Americans make up half of the student body.


It was a different place 25 years ago when Virginia Han moved to town. There were no Korean markets and few Korean newspapers and radio stations. “But now there are so many Koreans, it’s like Korean, Korean, Korean,” said Han, a real estate agent.

Most of Han’s clients are Korean, some arriving directly from South Korea. “In Korea, they hear about Orange County from their friends and relatives,” Han said. “They hear that Fullerton is the No. 1 city for Koreans. It’s close to Korean shopping, but it’s far away from low-income apartment areas. Also, it has very good schools.”

Fullerton is now 21% Asian American -- a 35% jump since 2000, according to detailed U.S. Census data that averages surveys from 2005 to 2007. The increase puts Fullerton among the cities with the fastest growing Asian American populations in Southern California.

The numbers are further proof of Orange County’s accelerating diversification -- Irvine, one of the model master-planned communities, is now dotted with Buddhist temples, Chinese banks and Asian grocery stores; central Orange County is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of the country of Vietnam; and Santa Ana has one of the largest Latino populations in the nation.


Two forces appear to be shaping the population shift, said Paul Ong, a demographer and professor of urban planning, social welfare and Asian American studies at UCLA. One is that many Asian Americans are moving in from other areas, attracted to Orange County’s thriving Asian cultural institutions and economic opportunities. The other is that many Asians are continuing to emigrate from their homelands, a result of “chain migration” in which relatives are allowed to sponsor other relatives here.

On the flip side, Ong said, the white population has decreased and become older, with lower birth rates than the county’s Asians and Latinos.

Koreans make up the second largest Asian ethnic group in Orange County, after Vietnamese. But unlike Vietnamese refugees who built the thriving business enclave of Westminster’s Little Saigon, where block after block is filled with Vietnamese mom-and-pop shops, the imprint of Korean Americans has been far more gradual.

In Fullerton, there are no overwhelmingly Korean enclaves or neighborhoods. Instead, pockets of Korean bakeries, travel agencies, banks and markets have taken root.


Korean entrepreneurs are purchasing entire shopping centers in Fullerton and remaking them, such as an old Pavilions market that gave way to a Korean travel agency and tutoring center, said John Godlewski, Fullerton’s community development director. He predicts the future will bring similar developments catering to Asian Americans.

“I’m getting calls from some of the older neighbors saying, ‘We cannot read the signs. It’s not written in English,’ ” Godlewski said. “People see things are changing, that they are not the way they used to be.”

Korean Americans who move to Fullerton say that the growing Korean business community is simply an added bonus. They are more drawn to the city for the same reasons as other residents. Real estate agent Douglas Kim said many of his clients in Amerige Heights are Korean residents looking for upgrades from their older homes.

“Most Asians -- and in fact most people -- look for neighborhoods with good schools and neighborhood amenities, and with low crime rates,” Ong said. “What has happened to Asians is that as they become more acculturated, they are less tied or dependent on ethnic enclaves.”


When Dok Kim, an attorney, moved his family to Fullerton four years ago, his priority was finding a new house within the bounds of the reputable Sunny Hills High School so that his 7-year-old could someday attend. He wasn’t surprised when both of his neighbors turned out to be Korean.

“I really enjoy living here. Fullerton has nice schools, new areas and nice shopping malls,” said Kim, 37. “I can walk to Starbucks and shop at Albertsons and Old Navy. And whenever I need it, I can get Korean groceries not far away.”

Many Korean Americans in Orange County started off in Garden Grove because of its cheap apartments and proximity to Little Seoul, a stretch along Garden Grove Boulevard where Korean entrepreneurs began setting up shop in the 1980s, said John Ahn, former president of the Korean-American Federation of Orange County.

As a student in 1979, Ahn lived in Garden Grove but became turned off by what he said was an unsafe area. Like many Korean Americans who first got their footing in Garden Grove, Ahn was lured to some of the more posh areas of the county.


“A lot of people did what I did. Young couples look for a job in the Garden Grove area and live there for three or four years. Then their children grow up and people are looking for bigger houses,” Ahn said. “They don’t have a choice in Garden Grove, so they move to another city like Fullerton or Irvine.”

Ahn now lives in a gated community in Anaheim Hills but still drives to Garden Grove every weekend for the grocery stores and restaurants.