Political Tour Of San Gabriel Valley

By:  Henry Hu, Philip Lam, Leesa Mac






AAS 345

Professor S. Ropp

October 12, 2004






History and Background

            The San Gabriel Valley is a rather new suburban area for Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants in Southern California.  This Chinese suburbia consists of numerous cities, mainly Monterey Park, Alhambra, Arcadia, El Monte, Pasadena, Rosemead, San Gabriel, San Marino, South Pasadena, Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, and Walnut.  Of these thirteen cities the most popular or heavily populated with Chinese are between the streets of Valley Blvd, Atlantic Blvd, Garvey Blvd, and San Gabriel Blvd (which is also the area with the most Chinese related businesses).  Within the past thirty years, this area has become suburbia for the Chinese population in Southern California.

            By the mid-1970’s, many Chinese Americans moved to Monterey Park, which is 7.5 miles east of Downtown, Los Angeles.  Most of these people were young professionals that worked in Downtown, Los Angeles or established families from Chinatown.  They followed the trend of what is known as suburbanization, where many people began to move out of the inner city.  By the late 1970’s, Frederic Hsieh, a Chinese American realtor and investor, bought property in Monterey Park and aggressively advertised the city as the “Chinese Beverley Hills” in Chinese language newspapers throughout Hong Kong and Taiwan.  The advertisements implied the presence of good schools and affordable housing. From this point, immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong were drawn to Monterey Park and became a new Chinese community and with them brought rapid development of Chinese businesses.

            The Chinese population of Monterey Park continued to grow, and eventually Chinese immigrants began to move to neighboring cities of Monterey Park.  Between 1980 and 1990, the population of San Gabriel Valley increased by 359% and between 1982 and 1996, the number of Chinese in San Gabriel Valley grew from 604 to 9,656.  The 1990 Census suggests that San Gabriel Valley has an estimated 200,000 Chinese, which makes the region one of the largest centers of Chinese immigrants in the U.S.

            With all the population increase of Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley, there are still many conflicts with other ethnic groups.  By the 1980’s, there were many Chinese businesses in the area.  Since the majority of the population was Chinese, business signs in the area was primarily only in Chinese.  By 1987, many of the existing non-Chinese residents felt displaced and divided in their own communities.  By 1989 local laws required all businesses to have some sort of English words or bilingual signs stating the type of businesses in the area.



Major Issues Facing the Community

Due to recent interest rates lows and the rise in property value, many homes, apartments, and families in the San Gabriel area is facing the issue of rapid change. Thanks to low interest rates many homes and properties are being bought up very rapidly everywhere in the San Gabriel Valley especially by the Chinese. While many are moving into the community for living or business reasons, many are also leaving because selling property is currently one of the easiest way to make a big profit in California especially in the San Gabriel Valley area where expansion, investment, and remodeling has cause property value and the cost of living to rise rapidly. All this buying and selling might seem like a great thing for the capitalistic society we live in, but what we most people outside the community do not know is how it affects all the people living there who do not happen to own property and is currently renting a home or apartment. Since everyone cannot afford to own properties in the area, many Asians especially the Chinese are continuing to rent homes and apartments even though price of rent is going up yearly and sometimes monthly. To get a better understanding of the situation, we personally spoke to Tony and Cindy Cheng, residents that currently live in the Alhambra area of the San Gabriel Valley about this issue that the community is currently facing. They told us of how their rent has gone up several hundreds of dollars just in the past year or two. They currently live in a two-room apartment not far from Garfield Street, one of the major streets in the Alhambra area. The owner of the complex continues to raise the rent yearly without the fear that his tenants will move out because he knows that he can easily find new families to move in due to the high demands for living space in the area. This demand comes from the fact that many Chinese families that can afford to move out of the inner city choose the San Gabriel Valley for their next destination. They choose areas in the valley like Alhambra or neighboring areas like Monterey Park or Rosemead because it is not too far from the city and for the fact that they moving into Chinese influenced community. Many Chinese people like Tony and Cindy Cheng feel more comfortable living in this type of community where Chinese culture is there while the living conditions are better. According to Tony and Cindy, another source for all the demand for living space comes from Chinese that come from overseas countries like China and Taiwan. This recent wave of Chinese from overseas are usually financial stable or come with a reasonable amount of capital to start a fairly good life here and usually come over to further improve their financial situation. They usually come over and buy houses, property, and engage in business of some sort. Whether from the inner city or from overseas, there is always going to be more Chinese to replace anyone who decides to move away from this area says Tony and Cindy. Due to this fact, they have to either move out of the area that they like or be force to pay higher rent and endure the rising cost of living there. One other resident we spoke to was Michelle Poch whose family has already have been force to move into a car garage of someone’s house, which has been converted into a tiny house. The rent from the apartment they used to live in has been raised so much that they must live in someone’s former car garage. This is a very common thing in the community where families are converting areas of the house or rooms so that they can rent out to other individuals or families to either make some profit or just to keep up with the higher cost of living there. Another thing that Tony and Cindy notice is that old houses or properties are being bought up by wealthy Chinese usually from overseas and being torn down.  Bigger and newer structures are usually built in their place. Just across the street from where they live, four new townhouses have been built over a property where a single old house used to be. They said all the houses were bought way before they were even finished being built. This trend of replacing the old with the new and making better use of the space is very common in the area because as you drive through neighborhoods or even business areas, several townhouses replaces where a single house used to be and a multi-level shopping mall to replace an old piece of property are now common sights and trends in the community. This will just cause people that live in the area like Tony, Cindy, and Michelle to live in constant fear that the house or apartment they are living in can be sold any day now by the owners and they would be force to move out because chances are that the new owners will choose to rebuilt over old structures. Even though the living conditions and properties values are going up and this causes the community to be grow and be elevated, there are many families living in the area that cannot keep up with the rapid changes that causes a very unstable living situation for those that cannot afford to own property. In the end, this creates a system that slowly filters out the poor from the rich.

            Whether rich or poor, the immigrant community in the San Gabriel Valley has much to be proud of.  A settlement for a lawsuit against Wondries Toyota, a car dealership in Alhambra, was recently announced in April, 2004.  The result of this settlement requires businesses to provide contracts written in the language of the primary negotiation.  These languages include Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.  This will affect businesses such as car dealers, apartment owners, bankers and legal service providers.

            The Wondries Toyota lawsuit was filed in December of 2002, when Mandarin-speaking Chinese customers, represented by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), complained about being taken advantage of because of their limited English skills.  The Mandarin-speaking customers went specifically to Wondries Toyota because they advertised language assistance.  They claimed that they negotiated a deal orally with a specific price and interest rate, but ended up signing different contracts.  Because the contracts were in English, the immigrants did not understand exactly what they signed for.  This lawsuit helped increase recognition of this sort of fraud and discrimination, and also shows the significance of heavy contracts to be multilingual.  This assists public awareness in the San Gabriel Valley to those who are looking to purchase items with large transactions requiring contracts.  Also, APALC’s support for the Chinese community in this lawsuit helps Asians be alert and recognize that they must speak up and fight for their rights when they feel they are being cheated.  This lawsuit also helps the Chinese community in the area realize that there are organizations such as APALC that will help them in times of need.

            Another major issue according to the APALC facing San Gabriel Valley is low voter turnout among Asians.  Low voter turnout leads to less representation in the community.  This occurs because politicians would feel that there is no point of appealing to the Chinese American population because of the reduced attention or votes they receive during elections.  As a result, politicians believe that the Chinese American community in San Gabriel Valley is not as important and they would not receive different types of benefits and attention that is needed to obtain the assistance of the government when the community needs it.

Although low voter turnout is a major problem in this community, there are reasons why this is the case.  Much of the Chinese American residents of San Gabriel Valley are not bilingual and only speak different dialects of Chinese and minimal English.  The increase of bilingual assistance in this area would definitely help the problem of low voter turnout.  According to APALC, 36.3% of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) does not read English very well and 75.1% of APIA requires bilingual assistance.  In addition of requiring bilingual assistance, 52.9% of APIA would more likely vote if they were to receive bilingual assistance.  The low voter turnout is a major issue in the San Gabriel valley in relation of Chinese Americans, but with organizations like APALC getting more involved with elections and raising awareness, so that future elections like our coming presidential election may show that the Chinese community in San Gabriel Valley does have a voice (and a strong one too!).


Contemporary Situation

            The current situation in the San Gabriel Valley area is one that is filled with many trends. The trend of change, expansion, and investment is very common to the communities in the area. While many Chinese continue to move into the communities, there also many moving out for that very fact that it is getting crowded or the cost of living is just getting too high. Thanks to local and foreign investment, businesses are continuing to expand and grow.


Large shopping malls and plazas are popping up anywhere there is room for one. Empty properties lots are a thing of the past, for every piece of property is being bought up being used for mainly business reasons. A common business trend in the community is remodeling old shopping malls or building new ones that are filled with little shops that sell a wide variety of items and foods. Since eating and eating good is a very important part of the Chinese community, it is very common in these shopping malls to be filled with a variety of restaurants, cafes, and bakeries that can satisfy a wide range of tastes. Trendy clothing and new fashion shops is another common sight at these new shopping malls. Music and media shops sell all the newest hits or movies from major Asian countries such as China, Japan, and Korea, while gifts shops sell all kinds of accessories and electronics usually from Japan or Korea. Influence from overseas countries is very evident in the shops that open in these shopping malls. For example a Korean cosmetics company have recently decided to invest and open shops in various locations such as Focus Center and San Gabriel Superstore in Alhambra.

 Another common trend that is happening at these shopping malls is to include a supermarket grocery store usually a 99 Ranch Market or something similar where all the grocery shopping needs of people in the community can be meet. This makes it convenient for people in the community to do all their shopping in one area rather than driving around to several places. For those who get thirsty along the way while doing all this shopping, they can stop by a boba shop to pick up a drink or two.


While boba or drink cafes are common in these shopping malls, they can be considered a trend of their own. Boba drink shops are the Starbucks of the San Gabriel Valley area, but even though they serve coffee, that is not what it is popular for. It is the “boba” or little tapioca balls that added to a variety of drinks. The drinks that are served are anything from a wide variety of teas, coffees, smoothies, to specialty blended or mixed drinks, all of which boba can be added to which makes the drinks unique and enhances the drinking pleasure. Boba shops are popping up at everywhere at every corner or plaza, and while Tapioca Express and Lollicup are the two most common shops for boba drinks, there are numerous of privately own shops and even restaurants that serve boba drinks. Like food, boba shops each have their own distinct taste causing some to be very popular while others close down, not all boba shops do well even though is very popular in the community. Due number of boba shops and places that serve boba, competition is very evident in all the advertisement or marketing tools used to promote boba shops such as decorating and designing boba shops to be very flashy and unique to attract the new teenage or young adult crowd. Boba shops are filled with popular music and lights that create a perfect atmosphere for social gatherings where people to hang out, drink boba, and relax.


Like mentioned earlier, food is a very important aspect of Chinese in the community and many enjoy cooking at home either for preference or financial reasons, therefore Asian supermarkets are a very vital part of the community, and it is very common to see these Asian supermarkets out number the Ralphs or Vons in the San Gabriel Valley Area. Compared to the older Asian supermarkets, these new Asian supermarkets today tend to be as big or bigger than a common Ralphs or Vons supermarket. While these are some of the common new trends in the business world of the community, the streets are still filled up with numerous food restaurants that serve all kinds of Asian cuisines that range from Chinese, Vietnamese, to Thai. One thing one might come to notice nowadays while driving around in the streets in the San Gabriel Valley is that many of the cars on the streets are imports and they highly the outnumber domestics. Toyotas and Honda are the most common cars from Japan while BMW and Mercedes the most common cars from Europe that people in the community choose to buy and use. 

            Even though business and the financial world is probably currently the most dominate and noticeable Chinese presence in the San Gabriel Valley, the Chinese community is showing a rapid growth and expansion in living conditions and area. As the cost and standard of living in these communities continue to rise, many Chinese start to move further out to the edges or out of the county, some for better and some for worse. Homes are sold like hotcakes because of sudden rise in property value and low interest rates while others become more numerous and larger everywhere you go. At the same time, all this growth has given Chinese in the community a better chance to assimilate and become more aware of how they compare to other communities as they encounter different cultures as they expand. Evident of community awareness and participation can be seen in recent Asian organizations that have been created, one of which is the APALC and cultural celebrations like the recent Moon Festival Celebration prove Chinese in the community today are more likely to come out and participate politically and socially compared to the past. Another outcome of the dominant Chinese presence in the community leads to the need and presence of bilingual street signs, business signs, food menus, and even voting ballots.

            Like we all know, trends tend to change, end, or in some cases turn into common practices and whether it be shopping malls, foreign investment, or boba, the Chinese community will be the main ones affected if it falls into San Gabriel Valley.  Unlike trends, one thing certain to continue about the Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley is rapid growth and development.


Maps and Demographic Data


East San Gabriel Valley

Southwest San Gabriel Valley

Upper San Gabriel Valley





White alone




Black or African American alone




American Indian and Alaska Native alone




Asian alone




Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone




Some other race alone




Two or more races









  East San Gabriel Valley                                Southwest San Gabriel Valley


Upper San Gabriel Valley


***Maps and data was from the 2000 Cenus



Cheng, Cindy.  Personal Interview.  9 October 2004

Cheng, Tony.  Personal Interview.  9 October 2004

“Detailed Tables.”  U.S. Census Bureau. 2002.  10 October 2004. 


Feng, Kathay.  Survey Says…: A Report of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center’s Exit Poll

Project.  March 2000:  1-6                             

Li, Wei.  “Building Ethnoburbia:  The Emergence and manifestation of the Chinese Ethnoburb in

Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley.”  Journal of Asian American Studies 2.1 (1999):  1-28.

Martinez, Kristie A.. “California Law Requires Translated Contracts for Asians.”  Sentinel. 8

Jul 14, 2004.:  A10.

Pitt, Leonard.  Los Angeles:  A to Z.  Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press,


Poch, Michelle.  Personal Interview. 7 October 2004

Saito, Leland T..  Race and Politics:  Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb.  Urbana and Chicago:  University of Illinois Press, 1998 

Smith, Icy.  The Lonely Queue.  Gardena:  East West Discover Press, 2000.

“The Chinese American Experience in the San Gabriel Valley.”  Chinese American Museum. 

Summer, 1999.  <http://www.camla.org/history/sangabri.htm>