“This is kind of ground zero for a new immigrant America,” said Daniel Ichinose, a demographer at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. “You have people speaking Mandarin and Vietnamese and Spanish all living together and facing many common challenges.”
The children of the immigrants who began transforming the area a generation ago are beginning to come of age, becoming cheerleaders for the region, running for political office and creating businesses that cater to a distinctly US-born audience.
There are countless stores that display signs in Mandarin, sell restaurant supplies and Chinese herbs, or advertise acupuncture or brokerage services. However, perhaps the most common storefront is the “boba” tea shop, where young patrons spend hours drinking cold milk tea with jellylike tapioca balls. Nearly every one of the region’s hundreds of strip malls boasts a cafe — or even two — offering a dizzying number of variations on the sweet drink.
Andrew and David Fung, who grew up in Seattle, were surprised to see the pervasiveness of Chinese and Taiwanese culture in the San Gabriel Valley.
After moving to the area a couple of years ago to try to break into the entertainment industry, the Fung brothers created several hip-hop videos celebrating what they termed the “boba life,” to embrace the area where, as their lyrics explain, “kids drink more milk tea than liquor.”
The videos became so wildly popular on the Internet that local leaders began showing them in official meetings.
“People here think it’s normal, hanging out to drink boba all day long, but this culture doesn’t exist everywhere, and we’re trying to tell them to embrace it, to own it,” said David Fung, 26. “We’ve got to teach ourselves to be proud of who we are and tell others about it.”
The Fung brothers have helped create a local ethnic pride that would have been unimaginable a generation ago, said Oliver Wang, a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, who grew up in San Marino in the 1980s and returned to the area three years ago.
The area could become central to Asian-American identity in the region in the way East Los Angeles is to Latinos or South Los Angeles is to African-Americans, he said.
“It wasn’t cool to be Chinese or cool to be Asian,” he said. “The idea that the San Gabriel Valley could be the locus of some kind of cultural movement or identity is fascinating. They are asserting cultural capital to create Asian-American identity that wasn’t there before, and one that is homegrown, not imported from Taiwan or Hong Kong.”
However, the growth has not come without some backlash. While there is rarely overt tension in the area these days, there is a history of clashes over English-only ordinances, and some people still speak in hushed tones about Chinese immigrants taking over the region.
More recently, there have been renewed complaints of “maternity tourism,” a cottage industry that brings Chinese women here to give birth so that their children can have US citizenship. Residents, including Asian immigrants, have complained to local officials about large houses that host dozens of pregnant women at a time.
Jay Chen, 35, a member of the Hacienda Heights school board in the San Gabriel Valley, recalled a 2010 controversy over a plan to create a Chinese-language class at a local middle school. Last year, when Chen challenged a longtime Republican congressman, Ed Royce, to represent a newly drawn district, he received a handful of messages using anti-Asian slurs.