Merlin Chowkwanyun is a doctoral candidate in history and public health at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an Institute of Education Sciences fellow. He is an upcoming Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin.
In southern California, the number of Asian suburbs is growing rapidly.
In the last several decades, the myth of the homogenous suburb has eroded. This is especially true for immigrants. In 2000, researchers discovered that 52 percent of immigrants in metropolitan areas were living in suburbs. One facet of this transformation has attracted less scrutiny: over the last quarter century, hundreds of thousands of Asian migrants have arrived in the suburbs.
The best place to witness this rapid transformation is in the suburbs east of central Los Angeles, an area known as the San Gabriel Valley. In 1980, few would have imagined that the region would today be a cluster of majority and near-majority Asian suburbs. Here’s a demographic snapshot of the Valley in 1980:
Only in Monterey Park did Asian households approach even a third of the population. The other Valley suburbs, like South Pasadena (8 percent), Rosemead (7.3 percent), and Alhambra (9.4 percent), remained in the single digits.
By 1990, a far more noticeable transformation had begun, as the following map shows:
Monterey Park became the first suburb to turn majority-Asian, with an Asian household percentage of 53.2 percent. Sociologist Timothy Fong dubbed it "the first suburban Chinatown."
Rosemead jumped from 21.9 percent in 1980 to 29.2 percent. There were similar increases in Alhambra (31.9 percent) and South Pasadena (15.7 percent). Even suburbs with very small Asian populations in 1980 saw huge spikes. Arcadia went from 2.7 percent Asian-headed households to 16.5 percent; San Marino from 5.1 percent to 23.7 percent, and San Gabriel from 6.43 percent to 27.1 percent.
Outside the San Gabriel Valley, in Los Angeles County as a whole, the change was much more gradual. The percentage of Asian households grew from 4.9 percent in 1980 to 9.3 percent in 1990, which made the neighborhoods of the San Gabriel Valley even more demographically remarkable. Many new Asian immigrants who settled there bypassed the conventional suburbanization process of first settling in ethnic enclaves in the urban core and moving outward to the suburban periphery over time. In the San Gabriel Valley, suburbs were the new ethnic enclaves and frequent first destinations.
These trends continued into the new millennium. As the 2000 map shows, the growing number of suburbs where Asian households were a third or more of the population (indicated with the darkest purple) reflected increases in concentration and dispersion of Asian settlement.
One other Valley suburb, Walnut (not pictured), joined Monterey Park and became majority-Asian, with an Asian household percentage of 53.1 percent. Rowland Heights was close, at 49.8 percent. In 1980, they had only been 7 percent and 9.4 percent Asian, respectively. As for Monterey Park, its percentage of Asian households reached 60.7 percent by 2000, twice what it was in 1980.
The rapid Asianization of suburbanization occurred alongside steady Latino migration. In some San Gabriel Valley suburbs, the new Asian arrivals lived alongside Latinos (both multi-generational and immigrants) and whites. In these "tri-ethnic" suburbs, demographic transitions were often marked by some tension. In other suburbs, the neighbors of the new Asian arrivals were mostly white. (More disturbingly, with a few major exceptions like Pasadena, black households typically made up less than 5 percent of households in these suburbs.)
Since 2000, more than a half-dozen additional suburbs in the region have become majority-Asian. These maps best capture the emergence of majority-Asians suburbs over the past thirty years, from 1980 to 2010:
If we also look at maps that show Asian household between 40 percent and 50 percent, we see that an additional crop of suburbs are on the brink of becoming majority-Asian:
Likewise, if we examine total population, not just households, we see that even more suburbs can be classified as majority-Asian:
The uniqueness of this pattern of suburbanization cannot be overemphasized. In 2010, of the 29,514 geographic areas across the country defined as “places” by the United States Census Bureau - which typically correspond to recognized cities, towns, suburbs, and other, mostly unincorporated, areas - only 37, or 0.1 percent, were majority-Asian. If one considers places where the percentage of Asian households is 25 percent or higher, still only 183 places—0.6 percent of the total—meet the cutoff. All 183 places are in about a dozen states, most of which contain only a handful of them, and the vast majority are small places with fewer than 10,000 households. California is the enormous exception: the state alone has almost forty places with more than 10,000 households and an Asian household percentage of at least 25 percent. Hawaii, the only other state with multiple places meeting these criteria, has just five.
Put simply, the story we tell here is distinctly Californian, one specific to the San Gabriel Valley in the south and Silicon Valley in the north. Pictured below, the latter region (where NBA star Jeremy Lin grew up) has seen similar processes of mass Asian suburbanization in the last thirty years.
Is this spatial arrangement the exception or the rule for California’s growing Asian population? Maybe both. Within Los Angeles County writ large, 34.8 percent of Asian households are in Census places with Asian household percentages of 25 percent or higher. Just 17.5 percent of Asian households in the County are located in majority-Asian places. Nationally, those figures are even smaller, with 19.6 percent of Asian households in Census places with Asian household percentages of 25 percent or more, and only 5.7 percent in majority-Asian places.
Most Asians don’t live in the kinds of places we have discussed. In this respect, the San Gabriel Valley is simply one facet of the incredible heterogeneity of Asian settlement in the United States. Despite the remarkable growth of Asian populations in the suburban enclaves we describe, many Asians still live in neighborhoods with small or dispersed Asian populations.
At the same time, the historical trends we chronicle are increasing enough to suggest that the Asianization of suburbanization will take place elsewhere. It’s already happening in states like New Jersey, where Asians make up only 8.3 percent of the state’s population but represent a third or more of the population in suburban boroughs like Fort Lee and Palisades Park.
Such areas complicate scholarly arguments that characterize Asians as an upwardly mobile population more likely than other groups to move into more affluent majority-white areas. The notion resurfaced recently in a widely publicized Pew Center report which contrasted the "residential enclaves" and "other Asian communities in cities" of the past with the ostensibly exceptional residential assimilation of Asians in the present. It declared that:
Asian Americans are much more likely than any other racial group to live in a racially mixed neighborhood. Just 11 percent currently live in a census tract in which Asian Americans are a majority.
These generalizations are misleading. Despite sustained immigration, Asians are a much smaller proportion of the American population than blacks or Latinos, so it’s not surprising that in the national aggregate, only 11 percent live in a majority-Asian tract. (As the report’s authors themselves explain, "Each of the other [non-Asian] groups is more numerous than Asians, thereby creating larger potential pools for racial enclaves.") These geographic generalizations also tend to fall apart with a more granular focus. Our data from San Gabriel Valley belies the notion that “residential enclaves,” for at least some Asians, are a thing of the past. Indeed, they are continuing to form, even among Asians with the means to live where they please.
Another hole in a simplistic assimilation narrative is the San Gabriel Valley’s internal economic diversity. Asian median household income in Monterey Park and Alhambra is $51,608 and $49,972, respectively. Asian households in South Pasadena and Arcadia are significantly more affluent, with median incomes of $82,330 and $84,202. Asian households in La Cañada and San Marino are among the richest in the state, with median household incomes of $117,396 and $154,744. These figures exemplify what has become a cliché among scholars of the Asian experience in the United States: the need to disaggregate the population on several axes, region among them. Aggregate statistics of Asian characteristics reported only at the level of large geographic areas—the sort reported frequently by media outlets and think tanks—obscure this differentiation.
There are also multiple Asian migratory streams in the region, where most Asian adults are immigrants. In Los Angeles County, 68.1 percent of the Asian population was foreign-born in 2010. Within the County, most come from countries in East Asia (42.7 percent) and Southeast Asia (40.0 percent), followed by South Asians (17.3 percent).
But contrary to popular perception, the most frequent country of origin is in Southeast Asia, not East Asia. That would be the Philippines, which accounts for 23.a percent of Asian immigrants, followed by Korea (15.9 percent), China (13.1 percent), and Vietnam (9.4 percent). That differs somewhat from the national pattern, for which the Philippines (17.7 percent), India (17.1 percent), China (14.8 percent), and Vietnam (11.9 percent) were the top four sending countries for foreign-born Asians. Calculating these figures is complex, and there is more than one way to do it. For more complete data or elaboration, feel free to contact the authors.
Within the San Gabriel Valley, settlement patterns of Asian subgroups aren't random. In some Valley suburbs, the percentage of the immigrant Asian population from East Asian countries is much higher than it is in the county as a whole. Take South Pasadena, Arcadia, and San Marino, for example, with their East Asian foreign-born percentages of 75.5 percent, 79 percent, and 86.8 percent, respectively. In these suburbs, the Taiwanese foreign-born population is also disproportionately large compared to the county, and its members tend to live alongside a Chinese population that is also more concentrated.
Southeast Asians, on the other hand, are comparatively sparse. For example, despite Filipinos’ prominence among Asian immigrants in the county at large (23.1 percent), they comprise a small portion of these three East Asian-heavy suburbs’ foreign-born Asian population: 2.8 percent in San Marino, 3.9 percent in Arcadia, and 7.0 percent in South Pasadena.
In contrast, San Gabriel Valley suburbs with smaller East Asian immigrant populations tend to contain larger Southeast Asian populations. In Rosemead, for example, 65.9 percent of the Asian foreign-born population comes from Southeast Asian countries, compared to 33.8 percent from East Asia. La Puente reports similar figures. Rosemead and La Puente are also home to highly concentrated Vietnamese and Filipino populations, respectively. In Rosemead, 54 percent of Asians are Vietnamese; in La Puente, 32.4 percent of Asians are Filipino.
Not surprisingly, there are economic determinants at play. The most affluent suburbs tend to have more East Asians and fewer Southeast Asians. Conversely, Southeast Asians tend to reside in less-affluent suburbs. The two tables below summarize these patterns using a sample of Valley suburbs:
It would be wrong, though, to jump from this to blanket conclusions about socioeconomic status, even among disaggregated, particular Asian ethnic groups. Most lower-income Southeast Asian-heavy suburbs contain significant East Asian populations. Likewise, most higher-income East Asian-heavy suburbs contain substantial Southeast Asian populations.
All of these San Gabriel Valley characteristics affirm the findings of University of Pennsylvania scholar Michael B. Katz and his co-authors, who in a recent study write:
Immigrants now usually go directly to suburbs. But their choice of suburb is not random. It rests on both their own economic circumstances and the opportunities for affordable housing and work in different kinds of municipalities as well as, undoubtedly, on family ties.
Much of the literature on immigrant suburbanization obscures internal economic differentiation—the role of class—within immigrant groups and paints the distinction between city and suburb with a broad brush that misses the internal heterogeneity within metropolitan regions.
The San Gabriel Valley resists generalizations. It’s a collection of small suburbs, but they hardly resemble the uniform white communities of cultural lore. It’s a massive immigrant enclave, but it’s as ethnically and economically diverse as Los Angeles itself. As these photographs comparing business districts in San Marino and San Gabriel show, the degree of Asian influence varies enormously within the region, even among neighborhoods only a few miles apart:
In Part II, we focus our attention on the most unusual community in the Valley: San Marino. Once one of the richest, whitest, and most conservative towns in California, it became a majority-Asian suburb in less than thirty years. A close look at San Marino illuminates much—albeit in an extreme way—about the transformation of the San Gabriel Valley as a whole.