Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Roots of Authentic Chinese Food in the San Gabriel Valley

Today the San Gabriel Valley is synonymous with its large Asian communities and the many hundreds of authentic Chinese restaurants representing multiple regional cuisines spanning from Monterey Park to San Gabriel to Rowland Heights. But it wasn't always that way. For over a century, due to the U.S. immigration laws barring most persons of Chinese descent from immigrating to America, the vast majority of Chinese Americans were us Toishanese with our roots in the rural villages outside of Canton. Our food was kind of boring and generally unrepresentative of Chinese food, though that's what America knew as Chinese food. And housing discrimination kept us largely bottled in various enclaves throughout the Los Angeles area, such as South Central Los Angeles and El Sereno on the eastside, with Asians (then called Orientals) not often seen in many suburban and outlying communities. While there was a significant Asian presence in the semi-rural agricultural San Gabriel Valley of the earlier 20th century, when that area urbanized in the mid-20th century there was no particular significant Chinese presence. Indeed, little or no Asian presence in a particular community was often the norm in mid-century Los Angeles. I remember cities such as Inglewood, Glendale and South Pasadena all being unabashedly 100 percent lily white even into the mid-1960s.

So how did the San Gabriel Valley and its wealth of authentic Chinese food come to be such an Asian food mecca? The obvious trigger was the mid-1960s change in immigration laws which began to allow large numbers of people to immigrate to the United States from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and eventually mainland China. And the literature credits visionary Chinese immigrant real estate developers in the 1970s and 1980s with founding the Asian community by selling Monterey Park as the "Chinese Beverly Hills" and using similar marketing slogans in campaigns in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But before these watershed events there was an important initial step in the Asianization of the San Gabriel Valley.

Growing up Chinese in Los Angeles in the early 1960s was a far cry from from today's world, something my children and their generation would not recognize. For one thing there weren't that many of us--we were well under one percent of the population. There was still residual racial discrimination against Asian Americans. I remember going with my parents while they were looking to buy a house in the Viewpark area of central Los Angeles (affectionately referred to by some as "Pill Hill" because of the concentration of Jewish and other Caucasian physicians living in the neighborhood), and hearing my dad being advised by the real estate broker to not even think about making an offer on a particular house, because all of the residents on the block had made a pact to keep their street white only. And there was workplace discrimination in many industries. For example, as my dad found out, certified public accounting firms would did not hire minorities or women. There was also employment discrimination against people who didn't speak unaccented English. That's one reason why I don't speak Chinese, as my parents were afraid that sending me to Chinese school to learn Chinese would affect my ability to speak perfect English and get a job.

Even in the early 1960s most of the Chinese population in Los Angeles was Toishanese in origin and significantly American born, as the initial post-World War II loosening of restrictions on Chinese immigration to America had yet to alter the demographics, with the real change in the mix of the Chinese populace being still a few years off. But it was 1962 and some things were changing on the civil rights front, so my family was able to move into one part of Viewpark. But more importantly, something was happening on the eastside. All of a sudden starting around 1964, a number of our eastside Toishanese family friends moved to Monterey Park, and specifically to the newly built Monterey Highlands community. (Apparently numerous Japanese Americans also moved into the neighborhood from places like Boyle Heights and El Sereno.)  We drove up to visit our family friends and saw new houses in a lovely hillside community, not too far from their familiar east L.A. haunts. Based on my vague recollections of the real estate markets at that time, those houses probably were priced in the $20,000 range. This was the perfect place for a Chinese American community to hatch.

However it took a while for real Chinese food to come to the Monterey Park area. Yes, the Los Angeles Chinese population swelled in the late 1960s with an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, thanks to the 1965 changes to the immigration law, but it's not like these new immigrants immediately made their way to Monterey Park. In the late 1960s and early 1970s you could sample the more modern style of Cantonese food brought by these new immigrants in L.A. Chinatown at places like Phoenix Inn, and find more progressive types of dim sum at Grandview Gardens. Heck, we'd drive to San Francisco to visit the iconic Nam Yuen in Chinatown, which also caught the new wave. But even into the mid-1970s, the primary option for Chinese food in Monterey Park was probably the old style Lum's Cantonese on Atlantic Blvd. Even Paul's Kitchen wouldn't open up its Monterey Park outpost for another few years. Eventually though, the new wave of immigrant Chinese did follow the steps of the Toishanese vanguard and found their way to Monterey Park.

To the best of my recollection, it wasn't until 1976 when Kin Kwok opened up at 500 W. Garvey in Monterey Park, with its thin Chinese egg noodles and other modern Hong Kong style dishes, that the tide of immigration that began a decade earlier would make its culinary mark on the San Gabriel Valley. And it would be almost another decade before the San Gabriel Valley would fully wrest the Chinese food mantel away from Los Angeles Chinatown.


  1. Wow very interesting article living in the SGV I've always wondered what it was like before us Asians moved in, do you regret not being able to speak Chinese though?