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.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

So How Far Would You Drive For A Meal?

I have a friend who lives in Monterey Park, in the heart of the Chinese food empire, and who is a big fan of Chinese food. She also won't drive more than a mile away from home for food. While that still gives her a decent array of Chinese restaurants to choose from, it also eliminates probably 95 percent of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, and correspondingly most of the best restaurants there.

On the other hand, there are virtually no limits on where I travel in search of food, which led me to wonder how exactly what was the furthest I've driven for food and how far other people might be willing to drive. Now I don't mean vacations that are devoted to or inspired by food, such as travelling to New Orleans or New York to sample various examples of the cuisine there.. Rather how far would you drive from a fixed point in search of a single meal? In my case it was 150 miles one way, 300 miles round trip.

As far as a single meal is considered, the furthest I travelled was 150 miles from Naples, Florida to St. Petersburg, Florida, plus the 150 miles back. And this doesn't count the 110 miles I drove from Miami to Naples earlier the same day. Here's what happened. A few years ago we had a firm meeting in Naples, FL, but the closest airport I could fly to was Miami. After landing in Miami I headed to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, where I grabbed a copy of the local Chinese newspaper which apparently covered all of Florida. Even though I don't read Chinese, I find that Chinese language newspapers are a great source for finding authentic Chinese restaurants in strange cities, and the ads always include the English name and street address. Anyway as I went through the Miami newspaper an advertisement for a Hong Kong style Chinese restaurant in St. Petersburg caught my eye. I had previously visited the adjoining city of Tampa where at the time I had great difficulty locating any Chinese restaurants at all, let alone anything good or authentic, so I was totally intrigued by the prospect of something authentic in St. Pete. So the next morning I drove from Miami to my hotel in Naples, checked in, and then immediately dashed out to drive to St. Petersburg and back. By California standards, the food at Lucky Star Hong Kong wasn't particularly good, but it was surely much better than anything I ate while I was in Naples.

Honorable mention for my longest drive goes to the time when I was attending a meeting in Monterey, California. Having a long lunch break I decided to drive to Silicon Valley for lunch. Yeah, that was only 75 miles one way and a 150 mile round trip. But I enjoyed the lunch adventure so much that I also drove back from Monterey to Silicon Valley that same night for dinner, which matches the same 300 daily mileage on the Florida trip. And not quite as ambitious was the 90 miles drive from Chicago to West Allis, Wisconsin, to eat at Fortune Chinese Restaurant (which incidentally was quite good). This was a perplexing one in that I had assumed some kind of suburban Chinese community must have developed in this Milwaukee suburb, akin to Monterey Park in California, to be able to support an authentic Chinese restaurant. However, when I got there and chatted up the owner, I asked how many Chinese lived in the Milwaukee area. He said about a hundred. Is that enough to justify an authentic Chinese restaurant?

Now if you count same day driving trips for multiple meals, my driving range is further. For example, a few weeks before 9/11, I flew from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., landing after 4pm eastern time. I immediately hopped in my rental car and headed to Philadelphia, where I hit up Philadelphia Chinatown. (You have to do things like that to reach 6,000 Chinese restaurants.) I finally got to my D.C. hotel a little before midnight. But my longest driving adventure was flying from Los Angeles to Dallas, landing around noontime, getting my rental car and driving to Houston, a one way drive of over 250 miles. I then headed to Houston's "Chinatown" on Bellaire Blvd., made the rounds, and drove back to Dallas, arriving back sometime after midnight. This time I almost bit off more than I could chew because I didn't account for arriving in Houston at the start of rush hour. For those of you not familiar with that city, they have traffic congestion which can hold its own with Los Angeles, so arriving there at the beginning of rush hour and leaving before rush hour ended led to an unplanned and frustrating encounter with traffic on top of a 500 mile plus round trip after a three hour airplane flight.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Fundamentals of Investments

The most insane piece of investment advice I've ever heard was relayed by a friend who was taking an investments class at the local adult school. The instructor's key to investments and stock selection was to pick the stock of solid companies with which you dealt and trusted. The insane part of this advice is that it totally ignores valuation. Yes, Google may be a great company, but before you buy it shouldn't you ask whether it's currently selling for $50 a share or $1,000? And even if it's a good idea to buy stock in "good" companies, wouldn't it make sense that the current price already reflects the value that you have perceived?

Now this is not to say that people haven't made a lot of money in some stocks using this approach. and indeed this approach is so common to have a name--fundamental analysis. For example, fanatics of Apple products who backed up their product devotion with a financial investment have done well. On the other hand you could have paid $644 for Apple stock a few weeks ago and be down $27 a share. After all, no stock always trades at an all time high. And what about the devoted followers of Blackberry, or Palm Pilot or the Windows operating system or Farmville? You
would have lost big bucks if you backed up your fundamental analysis with cash.

Generally speaking, a stock's current price reflects what the investing public knows and expects about a company. (The term "investing public" does not refer to the man-on-the street public, but rather professional investors, and what you or I think about a stock's valuation doesn't matter.) Subsequent changes in value reflect how revised knowledge and expectations differ from the past. I'd say that many investors have owned Apple stock at some point in time in the past, but when their primary product was the MacIntosh computer, and it seemed to be losing ground to Windows based computers such that it would become extinct, a lot of people bailed out. Like me.

With all this in mind, it turns out that the recent public offering of Facebook capsulizes this discussion very well. There was a frenzy in the IPO as public demand under the fundamentalist approach (plus greed on the part of the issuer) sent the offering price way above the original expectation. While there was pro forma financial information issued, since Facebook had not been publicly traded there wasn't the history of company commentary and investment adviser analysis to determine if the $38 IPO price was realistic or not. As post-IPO trading first showed, and the first public quarterly earnings release emphasized, it was not by a long shot.

On the other hand, since future stock price movements are caused by subsequent changes in facts and expectations, who's to say that despite the negative fundamental news about Facebook that its current price of $20 might be an undervaluation? Only time will tell whether this fundamentally unsound stock is now actually a good buy.

And since I've brought up the subject of Facebook, I'll close with another dig at the way the state of California balanced its budget for the fiscal year that just started. It projected $1.8 billion in revenue from taxes paid by original Facebook shareholders who could monetize their investments once the company went public. At a sales price of $38 per share, that might have been a realistic number. But due to the lock up period, those insiders were not immediately permitted to sell their shares, and will have to wait until the upcoming weeks and months. So at $20 per share, the actual California budget deficit just got larger as California is not going to realize $1.8 billion. This also reinforces the underlying weakness of California's income tax system which disproportionately (much more than the federal government) relies on taxing the rich. While that strategy may work in good times, it's toxic when things don't go well since the income of wealthier taxpayers is much more adversely affected when times are bad, and makes forecasting revenues highly unpredictable.