Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Today's Video Shoot With Lucas Kwan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times

Today's video shoot with Lucas Kwan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times at Hui Tou Xiang restaurant in San Gabriel went quite well, and was much more extensive than I was led to believe.   Peterson indicated beforehand  he wanted to focus on how Monterey Park became a Chinese town, and implied the interview would be a short one, seeming to indicate I was doing just a minor segment of the video.  Peterson specifically mentioned Frederick Hsieh, the real estate entrepreneur who sold Monterey Park as the "Chinese Beverly Hills" to overseas Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong, leading to today's San Gabriel Valley mega Asian community.  However while Hsieh's exploits have been well publicized, the Asianization of the San Gabriel Valley began a decade before Hsieh came on the scene.  As such I was a bit anxious as to whether I would be able to move the conversation to cover what happened prior to Hsieh's arrival.

What few people realize is that the rise of the San Gabriel Valley as a massive Chinese American/Asian American community is the result of historic housing discrimination in the city of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles is a city of the 20th century.  In 1900 there were only 100,000 residents of Los Angeles.  But in the early 20th century hundreds of thousands of people piled into LA from back east, such that by 1930 the population of Los Angeles grew to 1.25 million.

As a result there was the massive development of new residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles.  The dark side of this boom was that most of these neighborhoods were reserved for white people only, through the use of deed restrictions which barred minority occupancy.  So if you were a Chinese American or other minority in Los Angeles, there were only certain parts of town where you could live.  In the mid-20th century you’d find the Chinese largely concentrated in south LA and parts of east LA, such as El Sereno.

Then in the late 1950s new residential neighborhoods were developed in Monterey Park.  There was a heavily Japanese neighborhood in east LA right on the southern border of Monterey Park.  These Japanese found that the developers of a new subdivision on the Monterey Park side were willing to sell to them, so they made the short move from the old residences on the Los Angeles side to the new houses on the Monterey Park side of the border.  This was the start of the great Asian migration to the San Gabriel Valley.  Soon thereafter in the early 1960s, the hillside Monterey Highlands area was developed and Chinese Americans from nearby El Sereno, as well as south LA, found that they were welcome there.  By 1970 there were over 2,000 Chinese Americans living in Monterey Park, mostly American born Chinese engineers and professionals and their families.  

As it turns out 1970 was probably the year that the restrictions on Chinese immigration to the US had a practical effect, opening the doors for Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan to move to the Los Angeles area.  This is where Hsieh came to Monterey Park in the early 1970s and found a growing community of Chinese Americans and had the vision to recognize this to be an ideal landing spot for the new wave of Chinese immigrants.

Surprisingly, this is not where the interview started at, as Peterson delved into my background as a Chinese food observer and I responded about my initial interest in American history and geography, the revelation brought by the pioneering "Orientals in America" class at UCLA in 1969, and the convergence of the two when I started to travel the country and eat at Chinese restaurants.  Then I talked about the convergence of meeting people at work who had been in the first wave of Hong Kong students who came to college in the US with the appearance of the new and improved Hong Kong style of Cantonese food.  

When he asked where I grew up, I started talking about Crenshaw/West Adams, and how we were part of the changing racial makeup of the area in the 1950s, and how the pendulum has swung back into today's gentrification.  Surprisingly, Peterson brought up the issue of housing discriminating, recounting how his mother's family was only able to move into Culver City via subterfuge, and asked me if I had experienced anything like that.  I told him about the time a real estate broker (named Orrin Fuller, if I recall correctly) showed us a house on Charlene Ave. in View Park, but after leaving the house informed us not to make an offer because all the homeowners on the block had made a pact to not sell to a minority buyer.   

Of course this was the perfect segue into talking about how the origins of Chinese and Asian San Gabriel Valley were rooted in the historic housing discrimination in Los Angeles.  He asked if there was friction caused by the arrival of the Chinese in Monterey Park, and I mentioned the English signage proposal as a past issue, but that became moot when Chinese became a majority of the population in Monterey Park and Chinese councilmembers and mayors came into office.  Peterson also asked various other questions, such as how Chinese food changed with the arrival of Hong Kong immigrants, how Chinese influence has marched eastward across the San Gabriel Valley as newer housing tracts came on line (I sent him my article on that topic as a pre-read), and why Los Angeles has become the pre-eminent Chinese food center in the US.  I answered this latter question by pointing out that Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York have comparable numbers of Chinese residents, but a big difference was that there is such a large contiguous concentration of Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley, where as Chinese communities in San Francisco and New York were more spread out.  I also pointed out the existence of the food centric "626 Generation" of millennials and young adults, for which there was no comparable group in San Francisco and New York.  A final topic was the flip in Chinese food from Cantonese to non-Cantonese in just the past few years, and I made my usual comments that Cantonese restaurants probably represent only 10 percent of new Chinese restaurant openings, in the San Gabriel Valley, which are dominated instead by Sichuan food, hotpots, and skewers.

One interesting tidbit mentioned by Peterson was that he advised famed Sichuanese chef Yu Bo who has indicated the desire to open a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles not to do so.   Apparently Yu Bo wants to open a highly upscale restaurant and Peterson told him he didn’t think it would succeed based on the upscale level that Yu Bo seems to be contemplating.  I agreed, stating that Los Angeles will not support fine Chinese dining based on the failure of Hakkasan to succeed in Beverly Hills despite successful branches in Manhattan and San Francisco. I explained that Manhattan has Wall Street and corporate headquarters and San Francisco is Wall Street West and also has many corporate headquarters.  This provides a lot of expense account money to spend on fine dining, Chinese or otherwise, which people who have expense accounts view as free money (whether or not it actually is).  In contrast Los Angeles was not a financial center, has only has a few corporate headquarters, weighted in the entertainment industry, and as such does not have the expense account sustaining sources that New York and San Francisco have. Peterson said Los Angeles was too casual to support fine dining anyway, pointing out that people here who often dine out in shorts would not accept restaurants having dress codes.

Afterwards the camera crew, Cody Long, a gentleman with a neatly trimmed beard and Vesta Partovi, a short woman with dark hair, staged two short scenes, one an ending scene where we thanked each other, and the other one where we walked to our booth.   There was also one canned insert during the interview where I explained my inability to use chopsticks.  We ordered hui tou dumplings and fish dumplings, the latter which were superb. All in all, the video session lasted nearly an hour. Afterwards I asked Peterson the exact nature of the day's shoot, and he indicated that they're doing a series of neighborhood food profiles, and this was part of the program on Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley.  For some reason the kitchen then sent out two more orders of hui tou dumplings and an order of leek dumplings. After our meeting was over, the crew packed up and headed to Koreatown where they were shooting their next video.