There are few places in the United States that are more important to the Chinese-American community than Monterey Park, California.
Known as the first suburban Chinatown, the city owes its changes to the late Chinese-American real estate developer Fred Hsiehwho marketed the community about seven miles east of downtown Los Angeles as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.”
His vision would initiate a demographic transformation beginning in the 1970s when Monterey Park and the neighboring city of Alhambra welcomed more and more middle-class ethnic Chinese residents, both from home and abroad. In 1983, the city made history by naming its first Chinese-American female mayor, Lily Lee Chen.
Ms. Chen stood up against xenophobia and led a fight against an English-only movement in the city, driven by residents who were upset by the cultural changes plaguing their community. The tension would last decades, and bets to impose “modern latin letters” in the city’s signage were the source of contentious disputes as recently as 2013.
The resistance had little effect. By the 1990s, Monterey Park had nearly replaced Los Angeles’ Chinatown as the metro area’s top destination for authentic Chinese food. Larger Asian supermarkets began to emerge, stocked with the freshest produce and dominated by ethnic Chinese businessmen from Vietnam. Schools in the area also faced massive changes in their student bodies, as Chinese families demanded a greater emphasis on academics, leading to the disappearance of activities such as soccer programs.
The Chinese and Taiwanese delegations insisted on visiting Monterey Park on their trips to Los Angeles. Councilors who had no experience in international relations received intensive courses in managing the two sides, learning to avoid mentioning the Taiwan Strait and to seat Taiwanese and Chinese delegates equidistant from the mayor at official banquets to ensure neither side felt disrespected.
The development of Monterey Park reflected the changes taking place thousands of miles away in Asia. While many of the city’s earliest ethnic Chinese residents came from Hong Kong and Taiwan, it would be receiving more and more arrivals from mainland China Starting around 2000 as the world’s most populous country it experienced historic economic growth.
Trade between the United States and China forced more wealthy Chinese immigrants to put down roots in the city, but also made it a destination for undocumented immigrants, who were funneled to work in the suburb’s many restaurants, nail and massage parlors.
Over time, Monterey Park would take on some of the traits of a working-class urban Chinatown. Employment agencies offering minimum wage jobs increasingly lined up on one of its main thoroughfares, Garvey Avenue. The city would also become home to a growing number of illegal pensions for undocumented immigrants. By then, many middle- and upper-middle-class ethnic Chinese had skipped Monterey Park and moved farther east into the San Gabriel Valley to fill homes and mansions in communities like Arcadia and Walnut.