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How Chinese Entrepreneurs Transformed the San Gabriel Valley

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The Hilton Hotel in San Gabriel caters to Chinese tourists. Photo by Cebe Loomis

Korean and Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs, investors and political leaders are increasingly active players in the Los Angeles metropolitan area in mid-city Koreatown, the suburban Chinese San Gabriel Valley (SGV) and downtown LA. They have built shopping malls, hotels, condominiums and mixed-use projects servicing Asian immigrants and transnationals, tourists and local residents. These “immigrant growth machines” first emerged in the 1970s and 80s when the traditional Los Angeles growth machine comprised of native-born entrepreneurs and leaders was confronting white flight, slow-growth movements and a declining regional political consensus for growth (Fulton 1997, Purcell 2000, Light 2002).

Growth machines are partnerships of private and public sector interests that cooperate to advance urban development. Immigrant growth machines had to negotiate more cultural barriers, racial prejudice, and inter-ethnic conflicts than traditional growth machines. The Chinese faced more opposition from slow-growth interests than the Koreans. Yet they both persevered and are more established players now in the latest phase of metropolitan change where slow growth has given way to new growth driven by transnational capital investment, tourism and entertainment sectors, and a wave of commercial and residential gentrification bringing jobs and people back to downtown LA, mid-city and the SGV suburbs. While immigrant growth machines primarily forge new spatial clusters of urban growth and new political arenas of public/private partnership in mid-city and the suburbs, immigrant place entrepreneurs are also participants in  redevelopment and transformation of the traditional downtown LA growth machine. Immigrant growth machines are integral players in the metropolitan reinvention of 21st century LA.


The Traditional Growth Machine and Immigrant Growth Machines

The “growth machine” was conceived (Logan and Molotch 1987) to describe the coalition of interlocking private and public sector interests that promote urban development and generate tangible economic benefits but also social and environmental costs. In early 20th century Los Angeles the traditional Anglo growth machine emerged out of a coalition of interests including the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the Los Angeles Times, and the Department of Water and Power (McWilliams 1973). Urban development along the “Miracle Mile” Wilshire corridor to the west side resulted in a polarization between Downtown and Westside growth coalitions by the end of World War II (Davis 1990). The construction of the freeway system in the postwar period and the subsequent out-movement of jobs and people promoted urban sprawl, metropolitan fragmentation in governance, disinvestment and declining power of the urban center. White flight after the Watts Riot of 1965 further aggravated the city/suburbs divide but disinvestment from areas like the mid-city Wilshire district and the middle-ring SGV suburbs also opened up opportunities for incoming Korean and Chinese immigrants to establish new settlement and investment areas. In the view of Ivan Light (2002: 218), the “death of the growth machine” thesis promoted by Robert Fulton in his 1997 book Reluctant Metropolis, emphasizes the loss of political consensus for growth in the native-born population but ignores the rise of the immigrant component of the growth machine.

White flight after the Watts Riot of 1965 further aggravated the city/suburbs divide but disinvestment from areas like the mid-city Wilshire district and the middle-ring SGV suburbs also opened up opportunities for incoming Korean and Chinese immigrants to establish new settlement and investment areas.

By the 1980s a new growth coalition around African American Mayor Tom Bradley had engineered redevelopment of downtown with office and residential towers, hotels, and a new civic center (Music Center), building upon urban renewal at Bunker Hill that originated in the 1950s. When Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Olympics boosting its “global city” ambitions, Koreatown and the Chinese SGV were already known urban destinations and Japanese corporations were active investors downtown. Yet slow growth movements became active in the 1980s  throughout the region as suburban homeowners and hillside and coastal interests fought high-density development and rising property taxes while defending open space (Baldassare 1986, Sassen 1988, Davis 1990). San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession measures however were defeated at the polls in 2002. Meanwhile sports and entertainment interests opened up another front in downtown redevelopment at South Park with Staples Center (1999) and L.A. Live (2007). Suburban slow growth movements have subsided and been superseded by livable city movements advocating green space, public transit and New Urbanist planning featuring higher-density with enlivened public spaces (Gottlieb 2007). Slow growth has given way to new growth as livable neighborhoods become new touchstones for gentrification and urban tourism. The Los Angeles growth machine has apparently moved from imminent death to new life in the new millennium with immigrant agglomerations like Koreatown and the Chinese San Gabriel Valley among the key foci of urban development.

The Chinese and Korean growth machines contrast insofar as the Chinese engage in “autonomous” forms of public/private partnership in the small suburban cities of the SGV, while Korean immigrants in mid-city Koreatown operate as “auxiliary” players in the larger arena of Los Angeles city politics (Oh and Chung 2014). But while the Chinese have gained political clout in the suburban city halls of the SGV cities they also deal with homeowner and slow growth interests. We report here on the Chinese case in the context of broader comparative work with Angie Chung, Sookhee Oh, and Carolyn Choi who focus on Koreatown.

The Chinese Growth Machine(s) of the San Gabriel Valley

Chinese immigrants were largely restricted to a Chinatown in downtown LA but in the 1960s the liberalization of immigration law expanded the inflow and Civil Rights laws affirmed their rights to fair housing. A Taiwanese Chinese realtor and developer named Frederic Hsieh began promoting housing in the hills of Monterey Park to immigrants in the 1970s, dubbing the area the “Chinese Beverly Hills” (Horton et al. 1987). The Taiwanese were followed by Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese and the immigration spread into adjacent San Gabriel Valley cities like Alhambra, San Gabriel and Arcadia and by the 1990s a sprawling Chinese “ethnoburb” was established across 22 SGV cities (Li 1998, Lin and Robinson 2005).

The Chinese immigrant growth machine(s) involves partnership of transnational Chinese and local Chinese American entrepreneurs and politicians with native-born developers and public officials. Rather than being a spatially and politically unified immigrant growth machine, Chinese entrepreneurs are decentralized across the SGV in a “constellation” of independent growth machines that compete but also collaborate.

The constellation of Chinese-influenced SGV cities is linked by Chinese culture and there is municipal cooperation in supporting public booster events like the Lunar New Year and regional growth proposals like the Interstate-710 freeway expansion. But there has also been a lively spirit of free market competition over the years as the SGV cities have sought to attract Chinese investors, consumers, residents and tourists.

Monterey Park and “Managed growth”

The variations among the SGV Chinese growth machines reflect discrete differences in population and political opportunity structure including the presence or absence of slow growth movements. Chinese immigrants to Monterey Park encountered social conflict in the 1980s when a nativist slow growth movement the Residents Association of Monterey Park (RAMP) mobilized local political sentiments and propelled a slate of slow-growth city councilors into office. RAMP perceived the influx of new Chinese immigrant businesses and shopping malls on commercial boulevards and condominium complexes on their quiet residential streets of single family homes had eroded quality of life in their traditional suburban commuter town.

Barry Hatch was elected to the city council and became mayor during RAMP’s ascendance and galvanized native-born Anglo sentiments against the growing incidence of Chinese signage on the business corridors of Monterey Park with a campaign to make English the Official Language of the city. The measure was defeated and succeeding RAMP’s brief regime was a slate called Citizens for Harmony in Monterey Park (CHAMP) which joined candidates around a multicultural coalition of newcomer Chinese and established whites and Latinos. CHAMP launched Judy Chu to city councilor and mayor. CHAMP resisted the outright building moratoriums originated by RAMP and installed a more “managed growth” (Horton) policy including growth ordinances (passed in 1982) that required any development projects more than an acre to be subject to voter referendum for a zoning change (Prop L) and also limited new residential units to no more than 100 per year (Prop K). The passage of Prop S in 1990 extended the life and strengthened Prop K.

San Gabriel and Chinese Disneyland

The slow-growth regime and its legacy in Monterey Park put a damper on large-scale urban development for nearly two decades as Chinese investment shifted eastward to other SGV cities. In the 1990s San Gabriel became a new focus of with the building of the upscale San Gabriel Square shopping mall anchored by the Ranch 99 Asian supermarket and the Focus department store. The site is dubbed the “Chinese Disneyland” and the “Great Mall of China.” When the high-end San Gabriel Hilton was built across the street by Chinese developer Sonny Chen in 2005, and strong synergy between the shopping mall and the 4-star hotel began attracting more international Chinese tourists seeking high-end jewelers, clothing and accessory merchandise at lower prices than back home. Virtually every city in the SGV Chinese ethnoburb is involved with shopping malls, hotels and mixed-use commercial and residential projects aimed at local Chinese consumers and transnational tourists. Entrepreneurs and officials across the SGV cities tout business development, job creation and increased revenues from sales, property and hotel occupancy taxes.

Shopping malls, hotels and mixed-use commercial and residential projects aimed at local Chinese consumers and transnational tourists. Photo by Cebe Loomis.

Arcadia and Mansionization

In Arcadia a liberal policy towards demolition of single family homes led to a phenomenon of “mansionization” with giant homes targeted at Chinese buyers. Beginning in the 1990s in lower Arcadia, mansionization reached the more exclusive Highlands neighborhood in the San Gabriel foothills by the 2010s with mansions priced up to $6-$8 million dollars that squeeze like “big boxes” on modest sized lots dwarfing their neighbors. Chinese American architects design many homes with feng shui considerations and wok-friendly kitchens aimed at wealthy transnational Chinese searching for American real estate investments (Hawthorne 2014). Irate homeowners opposed to mansionization recently started movement Saving the Arcadia Highlands movement promoting housing code revision, launching lawsuits and a recall campaign against city councilors John Chandler, Sho Tay and John Wuo.

Older, more modest homes are quickly replaced by mansion in Arcadia.
Saving Arcadia is a movement that has opposed the "mansionization" of the city. 

Alhambra and Multicultural New Urbanism

In Alhambra there was a boom in mixed-use commercial/residential projects in the 1990s but a constituency of preservation minded activists pressed to implement design guidelines and keep development low-scale. The managed growth regime in Alhambra has mixed Cineplex and shopping mall developments with 4-6 story housing projects along Main Street, enlivening public and pedestrian life. A diversity branding campaign, Mosaic on Main Street boosted the image of multicultural New Urbanism with street banners (Cheng 2013). Slow growth activists are diverse in their political leanings, but many often point to costs of growth and the need for responsible growth that takes into consideration sustainability, traffic and environmental costs, lack of affordable housing, displacement of low income families and lack of long term planning. Activists claim pro-growth factions focus on the shortsighted prioritization of quick growth and revenue that often leads to the literal bulldozing of existing buildings and also the concerns of citizens. There are also environmental concerns about air pollution from the Interstate-10 freeway documented by students and parents at Mark Keppel high school in a campaign organized by Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Immigrant Growth Machines and Metropolitan Reinvention

Notwithstanding slow growth concerns, there is a veritable rush in new Chinese investment with over a dozen SGV hotel projects in the 2010s coming out of the Great Recession. Gradual relaxations on outward investment from China and  incentive of the American EB-5 visa program (offering a U.S. green card for job creating investments of $1 million have attracted more Chinese investors. Slow growth has turned to New Urbanist growth in Monterey Park with developer Ronnie Lam’s upscale Atlantic Times Square  condominium and shopping mall and plans for three new 4-star hotels. Chinese investment has increasingly moved beyond the SGV and into downtown LA/South Park with the Greenland and Oceanwide mixed-use condominium towers. The Korean immigrant growth machine has encountered less slow-growth resistance as evidenced by high-rise office and condominium towers in  Koreatown where new subway stations boost pedestrian life vs. automobiles and a denser more vertical New Urbanism.

Downtown LA and Vancouverism

The Chinese Metropolis and Oceanwide towers and Hanjin/Korean Airlines investment at the Wilshire Grand hotel and office project are amplifying higher-density in downtown Los Angeles. Asian public culture animates the global city of Los Angeles from Koreatown’s Korean Festival to Arcadia’s 626 Night Market. East Asian investment contributes to counteract metropolitan sprawl in Los Angeles with the vertical city urban model of Vancouverism that elevates high-rise living along with vibrant public life (see Metropolitics article by Nicolas Douay, June 12, 2015). In the new millennium, immigrant growth machines are part and parcel of LA’s urban and suburban reinvention.

Wilshire grand
The Wilshire Grand Towers and Center, a project of the Chinese Metropolis and Oceanwide towers and Hanjin/Korean Airlines will transform downtown's skyline. Photo courtesy of Wilshire Grand.

Top photo: Hacienda Heights' awe-inspiring Hsi Lai Temple is just one of many landmarks that speak to the impact of Chinese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley. Photo  by Jinjian Liang

*This article was previously published in Metro Politics. Research was funded by a National Science Foundation grant

Field interviews contributing to this article were conducted with Peter Chan, Shelly Chen, Yukio Kawaratani, Ronnie Lam, Hans Liang, Xing Liu, John Man, Eric Sunada, and Paul Talbot.

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