Lunar New Year shots: A grim moment in Monterey Park, America’s first suburban Chinatown

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Sometime between 1970 and 1990, Monterey Park became America’s first suburban Chinatown, where rapid demographic change heralded conflicts over language, signs, a changing business world, and political voice. In 2023, it’s a city on the move again, but as a tight-knit community whose residents typify what it means to be an Asian-American — and the spectrum within.

On Sunday, these residents and leaders were reeling after a mass shooting at a dance studio that killed 10 people and injured 10 others during a Chinese New Year festival that attracted tens of thousands of revelers and left many reflecting on their city with both heartbreak and pride.

“#MontereyPark is home to my diasporic family. This is where you’ll find the best damn Chinese food in the US,” said one identified person in a tweet as Bianca-Mabute Louie, a scholar and activist. She said she wanted people to know a few things about Monterey Park. “It is the 1st Asian ethnoburb: an ethnic enclave in the ‘burbs that thrives because it refuses to assimilate, instead unashamedly catering to its own immigrant community.”

City Councilwoman Yvonne Yiu is one of four Asian Americans on the five-member council.

“We have a strong and loving community here in Monterey Park. … We must show each other the strength and decency of our community. To lend a helping hand and be there in the moment of need,” she said. “This is what defines us, this is what it means to be a community. Please pray for the victims and their families, pray for the city to be restored and pray for all residents of Monterey Park to be strong and united!”

The suburb less than 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles is demographically one of the oldest cities in LA County, with a median age of 43.1 years according to the 2020 Census. Still, it is a city that now has two Asian -has US councilors who have come out as gay – including a 35-year-old.

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It is a city of Atlantic Times Square, a mixed-use development where two bedrooms are available to rent for $3,300. But it’s also a boarding house town, where older, first-generation Chinese Americans live on couches for $15 a night.

It was in the mid-1970s when Fred Hsieh, a real estate manager and developer, announced Monterey Park as “the Chinese Beverly Hills.” He saw the city, about 15 to 20 minutes from Los Angeles’ Chinatown, as a suitable place to grow for the Chinese American community, including those from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The city of 61,000 in the hilly transition from East Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley soon had the highest concentration of Asian residents of any city in the country and was the starting point of a mass migration that would transform the identity of dozens of cities into the East.

The Atlantic Times Square shopping district, with restaurants and an AMC movie theater and apartments above, along North Atlantic Avenue in Monterey Park.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

That transformation, from 14% Asian in 1970 to 65% today, has led to milestones of Asian participation in American politics, from the election of the country’s first Asian female mayor to the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress. chosen.

Monterey Park initially attracted Taiwanese investors and professionals. But by the mid-1980s, those coming from mainland China outnumbered those from Taiwan, Min Zhou, a UCLA sociology professor who has studied the city for decades, wrote in her 2008 paper.

There were first-generation immigrants looking for work, but there were “parachute children,” those who were left alone in the US for education. There were also “spacemen,” Chinese transnationals with their wives and children who stayed in Monterey Park as they shuttled back and forth between China and the US, Zhou wrote.

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The change has also led to conflict over issues as technical as city planning and as visceral as language.

In 1985, two years after Lily Lee Chen became the first Chinese-American woman to be elected mayor of an American city, a city-sponsored study found a community with racial discord. White and Latino residents expressed strong anti-Asian sentiments, and Asians complained about racism in schools and Asians being unrepresented.

That same year, as the national media characterized Monterey Park as a middle-class melting pot, a group of residents led an effort to make English the city’s official language. A bumper sticker became popular with locals: “The last American to leave Monterey Park, will you please take the flag?”

At the time, the prospect of a Chinese-dominated city government was many longtime residents’ worst nightmare, Francisco Alonso, a former mayor, told The Times in 2015.

“When you go through too rapid a change, when this completely different culture zooms in, there’s friction first,” he told The Times.

A decade of condominium and apartment building, touched by Hsieh, erupted as a problem in the 1986 municipal elections. Long-time residents — tormented by Chinese-language business signs and traffic congestion — joined forces under the banner of controlled growth.

Chen and the two incumbents were wiped out by three challengers who supported a policy of no growth.

The new council pushed through a moratorium on the construction of condominiums and apartments and a resolution backing English as the country’s official language and calling on the police to help immigration authorities track down those illegally residing in the country .

A backswell brought several hundred residents of Taiwan to a protest at city hall. A man with a megaphone sang the civil rights song “We Shall Overcome.” Grandmothers and children carried placards that read, “Hell no, we’re not going” and “America, land of oppression.”

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Twelve weeks after the demonstration, under continued pressure from the Chinese community, the city council voted 3 to 2 to withdraw the Anglophone and Immigration resolution.

But if the demonstration carried the outrage of another era, it also offered a glimpse into the future. Chinese community leaders said it was a sign of political maturity.

A movement called Citizens for Harmony in Monterey Park brokered what Jan Lin, a sociology professor at Occidental College, called a “moderate resolution” to address development issues. The movement also launched Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) to her election as a councilman and ultimately the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress in 2009.

By the 2000s, an “immigrant growth machine” had begun to take full effect in the city, Lin said. Atlantic Times Square, with its AMC theater and shops aimed at younger Asian Americans, became a landmark.

The city faces a number of challenges.

Garvey Avenue, the center of the city, has been a street where immigrants find work and set up their mom-and-pop businesses. Yet the main lots along the street have been empty for years.

Some immigrants, especially those who are wealthier, move out of the city to more affluent areas such as Hacienda Heights and San Marino.

More recently, the pandemic caused a slowdown in travel from China at a time when the city viewed tourism as a way to generate revenue — including a Courtyard by Marriott hotel opening in 2021 across from Atlantic Times Square.

Yet the city remains what Zhou called the “commercial center of the Chinese ethnoburb.”

In an interview with The Times Sunday afternoon, Mayor Henry Lo called Monterey Park “a resilient community” that remains strong during the pandemic that has hit Asian Americans hard.

“Often, when there are challenges, we stuck together,” he said. “We will be able to heal and move forward together from this final crisis.”

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