The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
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.
The Vietnamese American community is one of the fastest-growing Asian ethnic groups in the U.S. Many scholars would also say that based upon their refugee experiences and their relative recent arrival into the U.S., Vietnamese Americans also have one of the highest levels of ethnic solidarity of all Asian groups as well.
Much of their social cohesion centers around their ethnic enclaves in the two largest metropolitan areas with the largest Vietnamese American populations: Orange County and San Jose. As articles from the Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News describe, both these Vietnamese American enclaves are poised for some upcoming changes: the Orange County one is debating plans to add New York City-style high rises while the San Jose one adopts a controversial official name:
About the Orange County Little Saigon:
Imagine what would happen if New York City-style development came to the heart of Orange County’s Little Saigon, now a jumble of mom-and-pop shops in mostly old strip malls. Lofts would sit atop high-end stores. People would lounge at outdoor restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The area would have hotels and a sculpture garden.
And the street of old newspaper and TV offices would become the “Vietnamese American Times Square,” complete with plasma screens and electronic headline news signs. That’s the ambitious vision put forth by a group of land-use experts to transform the area, home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the country. Little Saigon has not lived up to its potential as a tourist spot, the group says, and it’s going to take a lot of money, cooperation and faith to get it to the next level. . . .
Community leaders have long worried that the three square miles that make up the district would slowly decline as the second and third generations of Vietnamese families moved away.
And regarding San Jose’s Vietnamese American enclave:
In a dynamic and dramatic scene before one of the largest crowds to ever gather at City Hall, the San Jose City Council on Tuesday designated a busy hub of Vietnamese-owned businesses “Saigon Business District,” enraging several hundred people who stormed City Hall demanding the name “Little Saigon.”
Throughout the night the boisterous crowd of mostly “Little Saigon” supporters shouted and booed, forcing Mayor Chuck Reed to repeatedly tell the crowd to “calm down, calm, down,” and council members to defend colleague Madison Nguyen, who proposed the name “Saigon Business District.” . . .
Nguyen, the first Vietnamese woman elected to office in California, proposed the name “Saigon Business District” as a compromise, she said, for dueling factions in the Vietnamese community who wanted either Little Saigon or New Saigon. . . . Nguyen’s proposal infuriated many of her constituents. “We will not forget those who break our hearts and we will remember those who honor the Vietnamese-American community,” said Van Le, a “Little Saigon” supporter. . . .
Nguyen said the area should have its own identity – separate from other Little Saigons. And business owners prefer that the name have “business district” in it. “Little Saigon” is opposed by the Story Road Business Association and the San Jose Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which has members in the area.
As you can see, there are certainly elements of controversy regarding both of these proposed changes, particularly debate between Vietnamese Americans as different sides tout their own vision of what their community should look like, or even be named.
As a Vietnamese American myself, I know better than to choose sides in either debate at this point. For now, as a sociologist, I will point out that issues surrounding land use actually play a very vital part in terms of maintaining social solidarity among a particular cultural group. In other words, for any group to maintain cohesion, it helps to have a physical space that can serve as a central focal point.
Within this physical space, more concrete mechanisms serve to maintain ethnic identity — social organizations, churches, political offices, businesses, residences, an official name, etc. These elements form the basis for any strong ethnic enclave and the “Little Saigons” in Orange County and San Jose are no different.
In addition and in the case of a refugee group such as Vietnamese Americans, their original homeland was “taken away” from them by the communists at the end of the Viet Nam War, so the physical spaces of these ethnic enclaves also serve as a “temporary” (in the eyes of some Vietnamese refugees) or even a more permanent replacement for their original homeland.
With this in mind, when there are proposals to change any of these elements, not only is the physical characteristic of such enclaves subject to change, but so too is the nature and strength of the existing ethnic solidarity placed at risk as well.
That is why you already see a lot of contention surrounding the different questions in each of these Vietnamese American ethnic enclaves — not only is the nature of their physical space subjected to change, but so too is the fundamental nature of their ethnic identity.
When most Americans think about how or why the first Chinatowns appeared in California in the mid-1800s, most assume that it was because the Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. instinctively wanted to live among each other and to seclude themselves from the rest of American society. In fact, the real reason why Chinatowns first appeared was just the opposite — Chinese immigrants were basically forced to live in their own secluded neighborhoods and had no other choice.
You see, as after the end of the Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, White workers increasingly saw Chinese immigrants as economic threats who would someday take over their jobs. Based on these paranoid and racist sentiments, an anti-Chinese movement emerged that eventually culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first time in U.S. history that one ethnic group was singled out and forbidden from coming to the U.S., and for those already here, forbidden from becoming U.S. citizens.
Other local and state laws restricted where the Chinese could live, what jobs they could have, denied them a public education, and prevented them from marrying Whites. In other words, it was not a matter of the Chinese not wanting to assimilate into mainstream American society — in fact, they weren’t even given the option of even attempting to do so.
Therefore, in the face of this overwhelming hostility, for their physical and economic survival, Chinese immigrants had no other choice but to form their own ethnic enclaves — the first Chinatowns. These Chinatowns at least allowed the Chinese to make a living among themselves, taught them small business ownership skills, and as some scholars argued, ultimately promoted greater ethnic solidarity among the Chinese.
In the eyes of most Americans, these Chinatowns were at best, seen as curious outposts where visitors could experience a “taste of the exotic” and at its worst, as filthy ghettos overrun by subhuman heathens from a mysterious and faraway land. Based on these popular stereotypes, for much of their existence, Americans basically left these Chinatowns alone — until now.
Starting in the 1970s, many Chinatowns around the country began to flourish and expand (most notably in New York City and San Francisco) as large numbers of Chinese immigrants began arriving as a result of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. As more Chinese immigrants moved in and ethnic businesses opened up, these Chinatowns almost single-handedly revitalized many largely abandoned urban downtown areas.
However, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, their recent success has started to lead to their undoing — as downtown areas become hip, fashionable, trendy, and desirable again, many Chinatowns are fighting for their existence in the face of overwhelming demands for their land and grand development plans:
Residents of [Boston's] Chinatown next door see the 20 acres – called the “Chinatown Gateway” on zoning maps – as their best chance to develop much-needed affordable housing and alleviate a severe housing crunch. But the city’s redevelopment authority has dubbed the area “South Bay” and envisions a new downtown district with upscale apartments, hotels, and offices.
This struggle in Boston is the latest in a land squeeze that is changing the nature of Chinatowns across the United States. As America’s downtowns become hip again, urban real estate is becoming so valuable that ethnic enclaves find it increasingly difficult to survive as the first stop for new immigrants, usually with few skills and no English.
Once a fixture in most major US cities, many Chinatowns have ceased to exist as magnets for new arrivals. San Diego’s Chinatown is now a historic district. A coalition in Phoenix is trying to save the last remaining Chinatown structure from becoming a luxury apartment building. Four of the enclaves in the 10 largest cities – in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia – are now commercial areas. Dallas, which never had a historic Chinatown, designated a retail center as “Chinatown” in the 1980s. Other Chinatowns in Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are today primarily tourist spots. . . .
Urban development will ultimately win out, and as part of that trend, Chinatown will become a tourist destination, predicts Michael Liu, a research associate at the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “The question is, who will this new Chinatown benefit?” asks Mr. [Peter] Kwong, the author.
Are Chinatowns like the one in Boston destined to fade away into the pages of Americans history as the article implies? To be honest, the picture is not encouraging. As history shows, much like how the spread of capitalism around the world has fundamentally transformed many societies and economies, the march of gentrification and urban/suburban development has been almost overwhelming and has leveled historic neighborhood after historic neighborhood. Therefore, on that front, the prognosis is not encouraging.
At the same time, the other component of this trend lies with the Asian American population itself and the paradoxes of its successes. That is, as Asian Americans have increasingly achieved socioeconomic parity with the majority White population — and in some instances, have surpassed them — many Asian Americans feel uninhibited and unrestricted in moving into mixed or predominantly White affluent neighborhoods and other social settings.
In other words, Asian Americans are increasingly integrating themselves into the American mainstream. As a result, many may not longer have a strong attachment to traditional ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns any longer. While they may still have a strong sense of their Asian identity, they want to enjoy the products and luxuries of their hard work, many of which are likely to be located outside of traditional urban Chinatowns. In that sense, for many Asian- and Chinese Americans, there is less demand for what Chinatowns have to offer.
However, in the midst of these developments, there seems to be an interesting middle ground emerging — the development of suburban Chinatowns and ethnic enclaves. Rather than being located inside crowded urban downtown areas, many of these new ethnic enclaves are located in the suburbs and therein lies their appeal — Chinese and other Asian American residents get to enjoy the amenities associated with their affluence that only suburbs can provide while at the same time, also enjoy the company and social-psychological comfort of having large numbers of co-ethnic neighbors.
In fact, many suburban Chinatowns and other Asian-majority communities now exist around the country — Monterey Park and its surrounding cities in southern California; Sunnyvale and its neighboring cities in northern California; and Flushing, Bayside, and Palisades Park and others in the New York City metropolitan area. As they continue to flourish and attract even more residents, they stand as perhaps a new model of assimilation in contemporary American society.
That is, as the world in general but American society in particular continue to become more globalized and transnational, the definition of what it means to be an American is changing and expanding. The new, emerging picture includes room for those who may not have been born in the U.S., who may not be White, and who might prefer to live in a co-ethnic enclave, but who nonetheless consistently make valuable contributions to American society, its culture, and its economy.
Ultimately, we may not know what will become of the traditional urban Chinatowns that are increasingly becoming gentrified. However, the evidence that does exist suggests that while the form and location of these ethnic enclaves may change, their vibrancy, attraction, and value to American culture remains as strong as ever.
From a demographic point of view, it is only a matter of time before any given Asian American enclave becomes too crowded. After that happens, Asian Americans will then inevitably disperse and move into new areas, creating new Asian American communities. This has happened in southern California, the New York City metro area, and now, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, is apparently starting to happen in northwest Philadelphia:
Immigration advocates have long argued that Philadelphia, a former hub for factories and foreigners, could stem its population loss by recruiting immigrants. Other cities, such as Boston, have used immigration as a strategy for urban renewal. It appears immigrants are arriving even without a plan to lure them. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released last week, the foreign-born last year were 11 percent of the city population, a jump from 9 percent in 2000.
In Oxford Circle and other areas of the Northeast, cheaper housing appears to be the draw. At least four realty agencies have opened near Cottman Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard in the last two years. The Chinese characters on their storefronts hint at marked ethnic change in the neighborhood. . . . Brokers say rowhouses that would have fetched $80,000 in early 2004 now go for double that. Almost all the buyers are Chinese-born New Yorkers. . . .
The influx has been so dramatic that nearby Solis-Cohen Elementary School converted book closets into classrooms and added two trailers in a parking lot for 250 more students – half of them new residents. “The people who’ve resided here for a long time are passing away or moving to retirement communities,” said Joseph Baum, the school’s principal. “And they are being replaced by families with children.”
The article also notes that in this case, it wasn’t just overcrowding and exorbitant housing prices that pushed many Asian Americans out of New York City — it was also the economic fallout as a result of September 11, 2001. Further, as with any form of cultural or in this case residential change, there’s bound to be some resistance, conflict, or hostility from long-term residents of the neighborhood.
We’ll have to see if history repeats itself or if a more orderly form of integration and assimilation takes place — on both sides.