Whether you’re Asian American or not, I presume that you have heard of, and have probably visited, at least one Chinatown around the U.S. As history shows us, such Chinatowns were created largely out of necessity by Chinese immigrants who, in many cases, were restricted in terms of where they could live and what kinds of jobs they could have.
All of these “traditional” Chinatowns and other Asian enclaves are located in central urban areas in cities like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and others. Through the years, they’ve seen their ups and downs but since the influx of some 20 million Asian immigrants after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, many Chinatowns have grown, expanded, and flourished.
In fact, particularly in southern California and New York City, the arrival of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean immigrants was so large that the original urban Chinatowns had no more room for them. Also, many of these newer Asian immigrants were more affluent and didn’t want to settled for the crowded and noisy residences in these older urban enclaves and instead, wanted to “cash in” on their middle class status and live in the suburbs.
With this in mind, beginning in the early 1980s, the first suburban Chinatowns emerged in Monterey Park (San Gabriel Valley), CA and Flushing (Queens), NY. Professor Susie Ling of Pasadena City College has just written a very interesting and informative history of Asians in the San Gabriel Valley, which dates back even earlier than the 1965 Immigration Act and how the first suburban Chinatown in the country developed there. Here are some excerpts:
According to the 1990 census, Monterey Park had a majority 56 percent Asian population. Inevitably, White flight took place and more Mandarin Chinese – followed by populations of other Asians – started to migrate to the other suburban communities of San Gabriel Valley including Alhambra, San Gabriel, Rosemead, etc.
After some initial resistance, public libraries and schools began to embrace multilingualism and multiculturalism. Alhambra High School established Mandarin into their foreign language curriculum. Alhambra Rotary is very ethnically diverse and supports myriad community activities. Since 1991, the City of Alhambra and the City of San Gabriel have jointly sponsored a Lunar New Year parade. . . .
Of course there are problems in the San Gabriel Valley. Development has led to congestion. Unemployment, homelessness, and drug abuse are real. There are Asian gangs, Latino gangs, and even mixed gangs. There have been racial squabbles at each of the local high schools. Asians are underrepresented in certain professions and overrepresented in certain industries.
But for the young generation of San Gabriel residents, diversity is norm. As happily as they embrace new technologies, they accept social change and think it is normal. Multilingual, multiracial, and multicultural, they are comfortable in diversity and they expect diversity. The Asian American youth do not know that they are “supposed to” major in engineering and not in sports.
They would not understand why they would want to or “should” date someone of their own ethnic background, as many of their uncles and aunties have mixed marriages. With cultural tolerance is a great celebration of other forms of diversity, from disability, to sexual orientation, to lifestyle. These kids are the Asian American generation that owns the San Gabriel Valley.
Having studied cities like Monterey Park in graduate school, I am fascinated by how its development into the country’s first suburban Chinatown represents a very complex, sometimes volatile, but always fascinating mix of globalization, demographic change, ethnic succession, and cultural pluralism. For those who’d like to learn more about it, I recommend The Politics of Diversity: Immigration, Resistance, and Change in Monterey Park, California. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
As I’ve written about before, these kinds of suburban Chinatowns and other Asian ethnic enclaves are, more than likely, going to become more numerous and bigger as (1) The Asian American population continues to grow significantly and (2) urban Asian enclaves such as Chinatown are slowly becoming gentrified as urban developers and city planners continue to attract residents — especially affluent ones — back to central urban areas.
Nonetheless, while it’s always nice to see more of these types of suburban enclaves that are focal points of diversity and racial/ethnic pluralism, you can only make history once and that is Monterey Park’s/the San Gabriel Valley’s distinction: the first truly suburban Chinatown in the U.S.