This article is an edited chapter on the major historical events and contemporary characteristics of the Taiwanese American community, excerpted from The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century, edited by Eric Lai and Dennis Arguelles in conjunction with AsianWeek Magazine and published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
A Community Formed Through Revolution
Compared to the roughly 2.7 million Chinese living in America, the Taiwanese American population is a tiny drop in the bucket. The 2000 Census counted just 144,795 Taiwanese Americans in the United States, with more than 75,000 -- or about half -- living in California (there are also Taiwanese clustered around Washington D.C., Houston, and the suburbs of New York City).
Like the Cantonese or Shanghairiese, the Taiwanese are ethnically Chinese, though, like the above groups, they speak their own dialect in addition to Mandarin, Still, there are important reasons why Taiwanese Americans maintain a distinct identity. After being defeated by the Communists, the Nationalist government -- along with a million and a half Chinese -- fled the mainland for the island of Taiwan in the late 1940s, where they established a U.S.-backed government.
But repression during the early days of the regime -- many Taiwanese opponents to the nationalists were killed or imprisoned -- as well as the quashing of local traditions bred resentment. Most native Taiwanese, unlike the newer arrivals, fiercely oppose reunification with the mainland, Today, Taiwan is no longer ruled by a military government, but by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which represents the majority native Taiwanese population. The DPP firmly opposes reunification with China.
Like most other Asian groups, the Taiwanese first started coming to the United States in large numbers during the mid-1960s under provisions in the new immigration laws that allowed in the skilled and highly-educated. As a result, the Taiwanese American population is mostly well-educated and well-off: among Taiwanese 25 years or older, 60 percent had a bachelor's degree or better in 1990, compared to a rate of 40 percent among Chinese, and 20 percent among all APAs.
Among those employed 16 years or older, 82 percent of Taiwanese Americans were either in "managerial and professional specialty occupations" or "technical, sales and administrative occupations," compared to 67 percent for all Chinese and 58 percent in the general population, in 1990. The average family income in 1990 was more than $62,000, versus $51 ,931 for all Chinese, and $43,803 for the general population. At the same time, 11 .2 percent of Taiwanese families in 1990 were below the poverty level -- higher than the overall population's figure of 10 percent.
Using 2008 data from the Census Bureau, the Migration Information Source highlights several interesting statistics about Taiwanese immigrants living in the U.S.:
- There were about 342,000 foreign born from Taiwan residing in the United States -- 47 percent of them in California alone.
- Seventy-six percent of Taiwanese immigrant adults owned the home they resided in compared to 57 percent of all immigrants and 73 percent of native-born adults.
- Among the Taiwanese foreign born, 72 percent were naturalized US citizens while just 43 percent of all immigrants were naturalized.
- Over 70 percent of Taiwanese-born adults had a bachelor's degree or higher, more than double the rate among the foreign born overall (28 percent) and the native-born adult population (27 percent).
- Management, business, and finance was the dominant occupation reported by Taiwanese immigrant men (23 percent) and Taiwanese immigrant women (28 percent).
The First Suburban Asian American Enclave
Though Taiwanese communities can be found all over the United States, the unofficial capital of Taiwanese America is the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park. More than 61 percent of the population in the year 2000 was Asian, with the largest slice being Taiwanese immigrants. Monterey Park's transformation into "Little Taipei" is due almost single-handedly to the late Chinese American real estate developer, Frederic Hsieh.
In 1970, two years before Hsieh bought his first property in Monterey Park, the city was about 50 percent white, 34 percent Hispanic, and 15 percent Asian, with the majority of the Asians being Japanese. Hsieh promoted Monterey Park to the new, increasingly-moneyed immigrants just then arriving from Taiwan and Hong Kong, who were seeking an alternative to settling in Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York.
Cleverly, Hsieh translated Monterey Park in Chinese into Mengtelu Gongyuan, meaning "Lush, Very Green Park." He promoted the city's telephone area code 818 -- as the number 8 is considered lucky by the Chinese and many other Asians -- and the suburb's good schools, always a factor for immigrant families. In 1977, Hsieh told Monterey Park's incredulous Chamber of Commerce, "You may not know it, but [Monterey Park] will serve as the mecca for Chinese business."
By the 1980s, Hsieh's vision had come true. In 1996, at least two-thirds of Monterey Park's 5,000 businesses were owned by Chinese. Monterey Park had a Chinese mayor, and a predominantly Asian city council.
The influx brought a backlash. "Will the last American to leave Monterey Park please bring the flag?" read a sign at a local gas station. The city council debated whether to make English the official language and force businesses to put up English language signs. The conflict eventually subsided, and Monterey Park and the neighboring suburbs are now a relatively shining example of a multicultural community.
By the late 1990s, immigration from Taiwan slowed. The country's standard of living had risen; there was less economic incentive to leave. In 1989, 13,974 Taiwanese immigrated to the United States; ten years later, the number was barely half of that. Also, many of the wealthier, more-established Chinese and Taiwanese had moved east to suburbs like San Marino or South Pasadena, or south to Orange County suburbs like Tustin and Anaheim Hills. But Monterey Park remains the cultural and business capital of Taiwanese in Los Angeles and, by extension, in the rest of the country.
Copyright © 2003 by Eric Lai, Dennis Arguelles, AsianWeek Magazine, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.
Suggested reference: Lai, Eric. 2003. "Taiwanese Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/taiwanese.shtml> ().
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