August 24, 2004

Events, opportunity bring Asians to South Bay

Copley News service

As communist rioters loosed bombs and fury in the streets of Hong Kong in 1967, Cecilia Yu made a decision that changed the direction of her life. It also foreshadowed a big change in the population of the United States.

"People were afraid," said Yu, recalling the turmoil that propelled her to enroll in engineering studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "Everyone wanted to have a foothold elsewhere."

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, political anxiety and frustration with an authoritarian government were already prompting many to look westward.

Then, with mainland China's opening in the 1980s, young people there began comparing notes on U.S. universities, with a special eye on the engineering and science departments.

Four decades later, despite their homelands' economic dynamism, young Chinese continue to come.

"The U.S. still has the best universities, most opportunities to find work after school," explained Occidental College history professor Wellington Chan, a native of Shanghai. "And our science and technology are still second to none."

Many, like Yu -- who worked as an engineer for Bechtel, married an immigrant and settled into the Palos Verdes Peninsula -- have come to stay.

Converting student visas to green cards, they became part of the most sustained wave of mass immigration in U.S. history. For while migrant tides from Northern Europe in the mid-19th century and from Eastern and Southern Europe in the early 20th century eventually ebbed, the currents from Asia and Latin America that began nearly four decades ago continue to gather force.

The number of Chinese green card recipients boomed from 26,000 in the 1950s to 110,000 in the 1960s, to 238,000 in the 1970s, to 445,000 in the 1980s to 529,000 in the 1990s. Most of the recent immigrants are relatives of those who came earlier, got established and exercised the family-friendly provisions of U.S. immigration law that allow them to bring in spouses, children and parents immediately. More distant relatives come in under a quota system that puts them on a waiting list that for many countries stretches out for years.

The boom has been equally impressive among immigrants from other Asian countries. Even counting Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China as one, five of the top 10 immigrant-sending countries of the '90s were Asian. The others were the Philippines, India, Korea and Vietnam.

And so while the 1960 census counted fewer than 1 million persons of Asian descent in the United States, 40 years later their numbers had grown to nearly 11.9 million

Ask Asian families why they choose to live in the South Bay and you'll likely hear an echo of Chih-Hsien Chien, who first came to the United States in the 1960s to study at Cornell University. His doctorate in microwave electronics eventually took him to Hughes Aircraft in Westchester, where he helped design radar systems to guide the weapons on F-15 fighters.

At first Chien and his family lived close to work. But as their children grew they looked south.

"We came to Rancho Palos Verdes for the schools," Chien said. All four of his children were valedictorians at high schools on the Peninsula. Three have graduated from Stanford University. The fourth is now enrolled there.

"For us, education is everything," said Chien, citing a tradition that dates back to Confucius.

At his Gardena office across from a strip mall of Korean restaurants and shops, James Park said he knows more than a dozen Korean families who own homes in Gardena but have rented a place in Torrance so their children can attend high school there.

"Elementary school, they're not worried so much," he said. But he added that parents zealously track the high schools' records of placing graduates in the best universities.

Such educational zeal has helped boost Torrance's Asian population to 31 percent, placing it 10th among U.S. communities with more than 100,000 residents. That's quite a jump from the 1960s, which Eleanor Huang recalls as a time when Asians knew they shouldn't try to buy real estate in parts of Torrance and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

"We knew you couldn't buy on The Hill and a good part of Torrance, too," said Huang, who manages a Chinese restaurant started by her immigrant father.

Before the 1965 immigration legislation set off the Asian boom, the Asian presence in the South Bay was defined almost entirely by the families of the Japanese immigrants who began farming flowers and strawberries and other crops in the Gardena area nearly a century ago.

Ironically, many came to the United States to fill a void in California farms left by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

The first race-based restriction on immigration, the law was an accommodation to the sometimes-violent resentment directed against Chinese who had first come in the 1850s to work California gold mines, then branched into railroad and farm labor.

From their beginning as field hands, many Japanese immigrants moved up quickly to become independent farmers, like the family of Gardena City Councilman Ron Ikejiri. When Ikejiri was a boy in the 1950s and his parents talked about their experiences at camp, he didn't realize that they meant their internment in Arizona during World War II.

"I thought they were talking about summer camp," said Ikejiri, part of the sansei, the third generation of Japanese-Americans. While some of them have taken over family gardening and nursery businesses, many others have entered the professions, including Ikejiri, a lawyer.

But prosperity in Japan, which paralleled the post-World War II European recovery that tamped down migration there, has kept immigration at relatively modest levels, far below the levels from other Asian nations.

In both the 1980s and 1990s, for example, Filipino immigration exceeded one-half million, largely through the sort of family connections that brought Ernesto Esteban to Carson.

As he sat outside Carson's Seafood Market, Esteban talked about how he got his green card through his sister, who was married to a Filipino-American nurse.

"I had to wait 10 years to get my green card,'' said Esteban, who said he was unemployed and worked most recently at a Carson business that manufactures movie DVDs.

His decade of waiting raised a theme that reverberates through the debate on immigration policy. Those who oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants say it would effectively punish those whose visas have been approved but who usually face long waits.

"Now if you want to bring in your brother or sister from the Philippines, the waiting time is 22 years,'' said Carl Schusterman, a Los Angeles immigration attorney who helps South Bay hospitals that look to the Philippines -- where a registered nurse makes about $150 a month -- to fill their chronic shortages.

Schusterman said that because visa requirements for nurses are less strict than those for physicians, he has represented Filipino doctors who take nurses' training so that they can work as RNs in the United States.

The chain of James Park's family migration illustrates the power of the family unification provisions that Congress adopted in the landmark 1965 immigration legislation. The Park family's story began with the 1950s migration of a physician who settled in Gardena. The doctor's wife then brought over her sisters, who were eventually able to sponsor their children, one of whom married Park and thus could provide him with a green card.

A photograph in Park's office, on a wall across from a shelf that holds a trophy from the South Bay Korean Golf Club, tells another part of the story.

It shows his family with the families of the three siblings he has sponsored, including a brother who owns a grocery store in Inglewood and another brother who owns a grocery store in Long Beach. Not in the photo are Park's father, whom he sponsored, and the siblings of Park's wife.

Across Western Avenue from Park's office, Cathy Kim served up the tapioca tea that is the signature drink of the Boba Loca franchise and explained that opportunities in education and business drew her family from Korea. Competition for university admittance is so severe there, she said, that only the very best get in.

"You have to study all the time" to pass the entrance exams, said Kim, a 30-year-old California State University, Northridge, graduate in interior design whose parents own a women's clothing factory in Los Angeles that employs many Latino immigrants.

"Here, I went to college and I own my own business; I could never do those things in Korea,'' Kim said.

The urge to own a business runs deep among Koreans, many of whom traded white-collar jobs in their native land to become independent entrepreneurs here. Liquor stores and dry cleaning shops became Korean niches, especially for those whose English skills were limited.

Novelist Helen Kim, whose family came to the United States in 1971 when she was 12, explained the panorama of attractions that lured her father.

He "was lured by the vast land, the material wealth, the opportunities and, most of all, the wealth," Kim wrote.

"He believed in the American system: If he worked hard enough, he would succeed. Unlike in Korea where, without good connections and right status, hard work didn't necessarily bring security, let alone success."

Drawn by such optimism, pushed by a politically repressive regime, boosted by the 1965 Immigration Act, 334,000 Koreans migrated to the United States in the 1980s, the peak decade of Korean migration. That was more than 50 times the number who came in the 1950s, when Korean immigrants tended to be adopted children or the brides of U.S. soldiers.

The Gardena phone book provides another measure of the Korean boom. The 1957 edition listed one Kim. The current version includes 180.

While political uncertainty prompted many Chinese to come to the United States, it was calamity that propelled John Phan and his family from Vietnam, where he had been a television cameraman and his wife had been a telephone operator at the U.S. Embassy.

At their Gardena home, where the Dodge van in the driveway displays an American flag decal, he recalls the turmoil of April 1975, when Saigon fell to the triumphant North Vietnamese army.

"Two days before the North Vietnamese moved in, the embassy put us on a transport plane to Guam,'' where a makeshift refugee camp had been hurriedly put together, he said. Two months later he was in California, hustling through a series of jobs before finding steady work as an aircraft mechanic.

Many more would follow. According to the 2000 census, 418,000 Vietnam refugees live in California, nearly half the total who fled to the United States. The South Bay phone book holds five columns of Nguyens.

Phan says it is no mystery why Vietnamese-owned nail parlors have spread so fast across Southern California.

"Vietnamese people have skillful hands, and they don't have to speak a lot of English to do that, and they don't have to go too long to school,'' he said. And a shop can provide work for an entire family, he noted.

But Phuong Hong, an honor-roll student at Leuzinger High School, said her parents have much higher hopes for her U.S-born generation.

"They tell us it's (work as a manicurist) OK as a part-time job,'' she said, sitting with four other Vietnamese-American teenagers who have relatives in the nail business. "But they want us to get a good education, and they don't want us to follow what they had to do."

What a smoothly polished nail is to a Vietnamese manicurist, a well-glazed doughnut is to many Cambodian refugees, including King Chea Lam and her husband, who own Jax Donuts at Pacific Coast Highway and Normandie Avenue in Harbor City.

They're there by 5 a.m., seven days a week, preparing dough and brewing coffee. Thoughts of their brutalized homeland are never far away.

Lam was 14 years old when the Khmer Rouge began mangling Cambodia with a fanatical brand of communism that was determined to impose "a pure agrarian society." Her family lived in a small city then, but the Khmer Rouge declared cities "irrelevant."

"They pushed the people out to the farms,'' said Lam, comfortable with English thanks to special classes at Long Beach City College. "They separated the children from the parents. It was horrible."

Four years later, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, Lam's family fled through the jungle to Thailand and the shelter of a refugee camp. Asked why so many Cambodians got into the doughnut business, she says, "We learn from each other and it spread."

Their hopes for the future are invested in their son, a 20-year-old biology major at UCLA. "I want him to be doctor,'' Lam said. "But he has to decide."

Some of the Cambodian refugees concentrated in Southern California have not shown the resilience of Lam or Sokha Mey, the self-proclaimed "Donut King" whose shop with a 10-foot-tall golden doughnut on the roof also includes a small shrine to Buddha by the back door.

"When I come here, I don't have money, I don't have education,'' Sokha Mey said. "If I go to work for a company, they pay minimum wage. So, the doughnut the only way."

Some of the refugees have not recovered from the Khmer Rouge brutality that exterminated -- through torture or starvation or a bullet through the head -- about 1 million Cambodians.

"Some people came here carrying a lot of trauma,'' said Rifka Hirsch, executive director of Cambodian Family, an organization that assists the refugees. Their problems were compounded by peasant backgrounds that had provided them with little education or preparation for life beyond the lush countryside.

"So, a lot of them depended on public assistance for a long time,'' she said.

The struggles of some Cambodian refugees are part of the underside of the Asian immigrant experience, hinting at the tensions and frustrations that simmer in many communities, said Jeanne Shimatsu of the Asian American Drug Abuse Program.

Shimatsu, who grew up in Monterrey Park, chafes at the "model minority" label that she says oversimplifies the story of Asian immigrants.

"That raises the bar and many can't reach it and fall through the cracks somehow,'' said Shimatsu, the granddaughter of Japanese immigrants.

An understated exasperation sometimes percolates to the surface of an extended conversation with Asian-Americans, a mild complaint that many whites will always assume that they effortlessly chalk up achievements.

Kim Ta, the U.S.-born daughter of Vietnamese refugees who advises a youth group of Vietnamese-Americans at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale and North High School in Torrance, said she is weary of the "where are you from?" question.

"If I have kids some day, they would always have to hear that,'' she said.

She acknowledges that the question sometimes begins with curiosity about her ethnic background.

"But with some people it ties to the idea that you must have come just to take the benefits of the country and not give anything back. It's the perpetual foreigner idea."

She said the "model minority" stereotype encourages the idea that academic success comes easily to Asian-Americans and trivializes their hard work and perseverance. "It ignores the experience of Asian-Americans who are struggling," said the 25-year-old. "It overlooks that reality."

While many Chinese have converted student visas into green cards, there continues a flow of peasants from rural China like 19 men discovered Feb. 24 in a shipping container at the Port of Los Angeles.

Such migrants usually have more in common with the average Latino immigrant than with the Asian migrants who have made it in the South Bay.

"They're coming here to do service jobs, restaurants, hotels, that sort of thing,'' said Kevin Jeffery, a deputy special agent-in-charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.

The smuggling rate from China is $40,000 to $50,000, Jeffery said, and it's usually paid off through a long indentured servitude to a restaurant owner or businessman in a heavily Chinese immigrant community.