| | |

Chinese American Ethnic Enclaves: Reppin’ the 626

Just a few decades ago, Asian immigrant communities were growing exponentially in and around Los Angeles County. Today, these immigrants’ Asian American children are establishing identities as they sift through a local multicultural terrain where Asians and Asian Americans are a numerical majority. In this post, David Mayeda uses the Fung Brothers’ (featuring Jsason Chen) recent video gone viral, “626“, to discuss the United States’ 1965 Immigration Act and its impact on the development of Chinese ethnic enclaves.

If you haven’t seen the recent video gone viral, “626” by the Fung Brothers, featuring Jason Chen, go ahead and watch below (“626” stands for the area code specific to much of the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California):

As this humorous and catchy video shows, significant aspects of Chinese culture have become fully integrated into the broader San Gabriel Valley community (or “SGV” as they say). Signage has been adapted with Chinese characters. Local eateries cater to Chinese immigrants, Chinese Americans, and really numerous Asian American ethnic groups. And most clearly exemplified in this video, young Asian American adults can find comfort and take pride in reppin’ the 626 from a distinct perspective that weaves together their ethnicity with popular culture.

But the SGV and similar communities across the world did not materialize out of nowhere. As the highly influential sociologist C. Wright Mills argued, it is critical that we as individuals place our current individual circumstances within historical contexts, accounting also for the ways institutions in society have been structured, often times rife with power inequalities.

When discussing Asian American history, a discussion of immigration history is imperative, and that history begins with “inclusion” as exploited labour. However, as increasing numbers of Asian immigrants arrived on American shores, racial discrimination on the part of the mainstream likewise grew. Consequently, a series of federal immigration laws were established that sought to exclude immigrants in general, but which were directed primarily at Asians. The first of these laws was the the Chinese Exlusion Act of 1882. Immigration policies were not loosened until 1965 when the 1965 Immigration Act was passed. This Act improved the chances for hopeful emigrants across countries in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America who desired to move to the United States if they met certain criteria. Without getting into explicit details, these criteria included having family already in the U.S., holding professional skills of execptional ability, working in an occupation with labor shortages in the U.S. (e.g., nursing), and/or being a political refugee.

The 1965 Immigration Act was applicable to other regions of the world as well, but it has been most influential in altering the United States’ ethnic demographics for Asian and Latin Americans. Presently, although there are fewer Asian Americans than Latin Americans in the United States, Asian Americans are rising in population at a faster rate, hold increasing political clout, and as has been covered here in SociologyInFocus, even today they still struggle combating the model minority stereotype (see here and here).

Returning to the SGV, it is now clearly a Chinese American (or one might say more broadly, Asian American) ethnic enclave, where Asian immigrants have developed a culturally rich subeconomy within the dominant American culture. In this ethnic enclave and others like it, individuals can work with each other to find employment, secure loans, and build spaces that maintain ethnic culture. The SGV, however, did not become this way without conflict. Not too many decades ago in the 1970s and 80s, Chinese and Chinese American residents in the SGV (particularly in Monterey Park) had to fight for their civil rights as Caucasian American residents spoke out against the influx of Chinese immigrants and the culture they displayed across various businesses. Caucasian residents for example, argued heavily in political circles that signage should be English only (Saito & Horton, 1994).

Thus, the rich Chinese culture that now exists across the SGV is a ramification of the political struggles that young peoples’ parents and grandparents went through not too long ago. As young Asian Americans develop ethnic identities that merge ethnic tradition with popular culture and rely on ethnic enclaves to enhance those identities, it is important to locate those contemporary experiences within a structured history that was rife with racial discrimination, but one where political activism on the part of ethnic minorities helped to build a future where ethnic culture now flourishes. And that, is the sociological imagination put in practice!

Picture of Hong Kong Supermarket in Monterey Park, California via Wikipedia.

See also article from the LA Times on this topic.

Reference: Saito, L. T., & Horton, J. (1994). The new Chinese immigration and the rise of Asian American politics in Monterey Park, California. In P. Ong, E. Bonacich, & L. Cheng (eds.) The New Asian Immigration in Los Angeles and Global Restructuring (pp. 233-263). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Dig Deeper:

  1. The “Asian American community” is actually full of multiple ethnic communities. What exactly does this mean? Are all Asians the same?
  2. How do you see young people from differnt ethnic groups engaging in forms of popular culture, and how can you tie this involvement to a structured history?
  3. What ethnic enclaves exist in or around your community? Have you noticed that with their development, sometimes comes political resistance from the mainstream? If so, how does this resistance come about? What are the political issues?
  4. What positive elements do you see ethnic enclaves bringing to society? (If nothing else, think about the food displayed in the “626” video).