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How the San Gabriel Valley Became America's "Suburban Chinatown"

San Gabriel Valley Business Sign in Chinese

Many business signs in the San Gabriel Valley are only in Chinese. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

Although the San Gabriel Valley has had Asian residents since at least the 1870s (beginning with Chinese laborers, followed in the early 20th century by Japanese and Filipino agricultural workers), it has only been within the last 50 years that the region came to be known as the “Suburban Chinatown.” After the end of World War II, some former Japanese residents interned during the war returned, but new housing developments rapidly spread across the San Gabriel Valley, replacing most of what had been agricultural land. These developments came with racially-restrictive housing “covenants,” bringing in large numbers of white newcomers, but keeping out any new Asian residents. By the 1950s, discriminatory covenants had been rescinded and Latinos and Asian Americans began migrating into the valley’s suburban communities. The vast majority of Chinese Americans in the Los Angeles area, however, remained largely concentrated in the city of Los Angeles, particularly in the Downtown and Chinatown area.

In 1963, Frederic “Fred” Hsieh’s (pronounced “Shay”) arrived in the United States as a foreign student from Hong Kong (his family having, years earlier, escaped therefrom communist China). He first lived in Los Angeles to study English, but then transferred to Hartnell Community College in Salinas and, later, to Oregon State University.

Hsieh graduated with his master’s degree from Oregon State in 1969, and was recruited by the City of Los Angeles to return to Los Angeles to work as an engineer. He temporarily left his pregnant wife and pets behind in Oregon and lived in a bachelor apartment in Chinatown, walking to work at City Hall. When finding it difficult to find affordable housing for a family with a new baby and pets, he decided to buy his own property. He purchased a five-unit apartment building in Echo Park, living in one unit and renting out the others. He then purchased a four-unit property in Silver Lake. Hsieh found a new interest in real estate and, after obtaining a real estate license, received permission from his city employer to work part-time as a realtor. This led him to Monterey Park in 1972, a city that was affordable, fairly close to Downtown Los Angeles, and offering newer homes and a school system considered better than that of Los Angeles. It also had the largest Chinese population outside of Los Angeles (2,200 in 1970). In 1960, Monterey Park had elected Alfred Song, a Korean American from Hawaii, to its city council and, a year later, elected him to be the first Asian American in the California legislature. Hsieh was quick to see Monterey Park’s potential for Chinese immigrants seeking new homes, so he began purchasing vacant properties there to resell at premium prices.

During the 1970s, increased tension between Taiwan and China, along with loosened U.S. immigration policy, motivated increasing numbers of affluent Taiwanese to immigrate to the United States. The young, forward-looking Hsieh saw this opportunity and formed the Mandarin Realty Company to promote and sell them homes in Monterey Park. Hsieh began aggressively marketing Monterey Park in Taiwan, likening its hills to the hills of Taipei and labeling the city, in Chinese terms, as “Lush, Very Green Park.” As an added gimmick, he highlighted the city’s then area code, 818, exploiting Chinese belief in the number 8 as bringing prosperity and good luck. He labelled the city, the “Chinese Beverly Hills.”

Hsieh’s marketing paid off. Thousands of Taiwanese immigrants arrived to scoop up Monterey Park property. It became as much a destination for Taiwanese and Chinese visitors as was San Francisco and Vancouver.

Promoting Monterey Park

From the exhibit "Origins - Expanding the Community: Monterey Park" at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

In 1977, Hsieh hosted a lunch for some of Monterey Park’s civic and business leaders where he laid out his vision for the city becoming a Chinese boomtown. The entirely white audience was mostly dismissive and some even resented Hsieh’s audacity for seeking to remake their city. Nevertheless, Hsieh’s confidence and the flow of Asian newcomers to Monterey Park did not stop. Soon, immigrants from Hong Kong and mainland China followed, seeking to join the city’s rapidly-growing Chinese-speaking community. Businesses began relocating from Chinatown and new businesses opened to cater to Chinese-speaking customers. Chinese signage proliferated throughout the city. By the 1980s, Monterey Park had become dubbed “Little Taipei.” Years earlier, the 1970 Census reported Monterey Park’s population to be about 15 percent Asian. By 1980, it had risen to 34 percent.

In 1982, Lily Lee Chen was elected to Monterey Park’s city council, joining Monty Manibog, a Filipino American attorney who, in 1972, became the first Filipino American elected to office in the United States. A year later, Chen became mayor of Monterey Park, the first Chinese American woman to serve as mayor of a U.S. city.

Long-time white and even Latino residents of Monterey Park were less welcoming of the quickly emerging Asian character of their city. “White flight” began accelerating as white (and Latino) residents began selling out at premium prices. Many of those that remained, however, complained of negative interactions with Asian newcomers on the road and in the marketplace. They complained of all-Chinese business signage. In 1985, an effort to declare English as the official language of Monterey Park failed, but, in the following year, a so-called “anti-growth” movement managed to vote Lily Chen and two other councilmembers off the city council. The new council majority quickly passed resolutions that supported English as the nation’s official language and that directed Monterey Park police to assist federal immigration authorities with immigration enforcement. They also fired the city planning commission, seen as “pro-Chinese development,” and then imposed a moratorium on new construction. All these actions were seen as clearly hostile to both long-time and new Chinese residents. The resulting pushback from the Chinese American community pressured the council to withdraw its resolutions and, in 1989, the council was forced to rescind the building moratorium. This left residents, regardless of their views, with resentment and bitterness. Asian property buyers and developers began to expand their sights to other communities in the San Gabriel Valley.

Los Angeles Times, Sep. 15, 1988

From the exhibit "Origins - Expanding the Community: Monterey Park" at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

San Gabriel Valley, Apr. 16, 1989

From the exhibit "Origins - Expanding the Community: Monterey Park" at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

Hsieh died in 1999, but his vision for Monterey Park was fully realized. From 1970 through 1990, Monterey Park’s total population had grown about 24 percent and its Asian population had quadrupled. The 1990 Census reported the city to be 57 percent Asian, making it the first U.S. city with a majority Asian population. However, as Monterey Park became increasingly crowded and local politics more contentious, Chinese newcomers turned to finding homes in neighboring Alhambra, Rosemead, San Gabriel, Montebello, East and South San Gabriel, Temple City, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights and Walnut. Wealthier Chinese purchased homes in San Marino, Arcadia, South Pasadena and Bradbury.

Chinese Business Telephone Directories, San Gabriel Valley

From the exhibit "Origins - Expanding the Community: Monterey Park" at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

Today, according to 2022 Census estimates, the Asian population makes up about 34 percent of the population of the San Gabriel Valley, up from 2 percent in 1970. There are now 11 cities and one unincorporated community in the San Gabriel Valley with a majority Asian population.* San Marino's Asian population itself was reported to be at almost 69 percent. These communities make up the largest population concentration of Asian communities in any U.S. county.

Soaring Teaport in Temple City

The "Soaring Teapot," in Camellia Square at Rosemead Boulevard and Las Tunas Drive in Temple City. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

* San Gabriel Valley communities where Asians make up the majority of the population: San Marino (66.5%), South San Gabriel (66.4%), Walnut (65.6%), Monterey Park (65.1%), Temple City (64.9%), Rosemead (64.4%), Rowland Heights (62.1%), Diamond Bar (61.0%), San Gabriel (60.7%), Arcadia (56.9%), East San Gabriel (56.1%), and Alhambra (50.7%).

Listen to a 1990 oral interview with Fred Hsieh by the Monterey Park Historical Heritage Commission in the collection of the Monterey Park Bruggemeyer Library.

Also see:
-- "Most Chinese" Communities in America
-- Asians in Los Angeles County - By the Numbers