When Dr. James Chinn moved to Arcadia in 1956, no bank would approve a home loan for anyone who looked Asian. Arcadia was a small town of chicken farms and big, deep lots built by largely white Christian and Mormon World War II veterans. The population, about 28,700 in the early ’50s, had exploded to about 41,000 by 1960, according to Arcadia Historical Society figures. The Chinns — the first ethnically Chinese family to move to Arcadia — had chosen Arcadia for its schools, neighborhoods, and proximity to the hospital where Dr. Chinn worked. Dr. Chinn eventually borrowed money from an Italian builder in Rosemead to purchase a home in the city.
After they moved in, a real estate developer tried to oust the Chinns from their property because, the Chinns charged, they were not Caucasian. The Chinns eventually settled the lawsuit against the developer. Today, James’ sons, Douglas and Mahlon, still live here. But over the last 25 years, Arcadia has undergone a dramatic change: the city has become 59.2 percent Asian, according to US 2010 census figures.
“There were one or two Chinese restaurants when I was growing up,” Mahlon Chinn said. “Now, whenever you want to go out, there are many Chinese restaurants. It’s the language, the food, and the gigantic Mercedes dealership. That speaks volumes.”
This transition has come with tensions of its own, raising complicated questions about Arcadia’s identity and the way in which immigrants change and are changed by the American communities they move to.
Fleeing to Arcadia
Arcadia’s first immigrants from Asia included Taiwanese seeking better educational opportunities, escaping uncertainty following the normalization of US-China relations in the late 1970s. Still, Asians remained a minority through 1990, registering 23.4 percent of the city’s 48,290 residents in the Census that year. Whites comprised 71.5 percent of Arcadia’s population. But immigration accelerated in the 1990s and early 2000s. This was first driven by Hong Kong migrants who were concerned about their city’s stability after it reverted to China in 1997. By the early 2000s, a larger group of wealthy immigrants, worried about pollution and politics, began arriving from mainland China.
“They don’t have confidence in China,” said David Lee, a former president of the Arcadia High School Chinese Parents Booster Club. “The future is so uncertain . . . They don’t know what will happen when their kids are ready to get started. Sending the kids to America is buying an insurance policy.”
By 2015, the percentage of whites plummeted to 30.3 percent of Arcadia’s population of 57,564, while the number of Asians soared to 58.8 percent, according to US census five-year estimates.
This has fed a perception that many Chinese come to Arcadia not to be a part of America, but to take advantage of it. “They are coming here not to become truly American citizens — they are coming here for financial, education and business reasons, but their heart lies in China,” said Eva Chinn, Douglas Chinn’s wife. “The Chinese before came here to be American citizens. Those coming here recently came for America’s advantages, but not to become part of the melting pot. They are Chinese first and Americans second.”
Some traditional community activities have disappeared due to lack of interest, volunteers and money. Arcadia no longer enters a float in the annual Rose Parade, nor does the school district hold the Carnival, a once popular annual fundraising event. And there are many well-documented complaints about wealthy immigrants driving up housing prices.
“It is almost like there are parallel universes with longtime members of Arcadia and some who only speak English 10 percent of the time,” said Gary Kovacic, Arcadia’s former mayor.
But the Chinese immigrants are shaping and contributing to the community, too — a dynamic perhaps most visible at Arcadia High School, the center of the city’s immigrant community. Originally, seeking greater involvement in the high school, Taiwanese parents wanted to form a Chinese PTA, but the main PTA objected, saying the Chinese were welcome to join the main organization. Resentment grew and Chinese reluctance to participate — due in part to feeling uncomfortable about their English skills — “didn’t go unnoticed,” one Arcadia resident said.
Eventually, the Chinese agreed to use their current name — the Arcadia High School Chinese Parents Booster Club — leaving the traditional PTA as the official one. The Booster Club does more than share back-to-school night information for new immigrants: it aims to change the Chinese perception of teachers as “second parents” and advocates volunteering. The Booster Club often asks its roughly 300 members to help at activities like football games, track and field events, and dance performances. It has donated about $216,000 over the last decade to school clubs and sports teams, and for academic needs.
Students, too, have become more involved. Zoe He, a former Arcadia High School student, created a podcast in her sophomore year called California Highway 1, which discussed high school issues, covering topics like Great Gatsby Day. “Friends in China were curious about school life here and asked me a lot of questions, so I created a platform about my high school life here,” she said. He said her service had 10,000 subscribers at its peak, including students in her hometown of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong.
The high school’s marching band reflects this shift, too. “The population was growing older and younger families weren’t moving in because they couldn’t afford to live here,” said Tom Landes, the former music director. “When I started, the band was about 150, a good size for a high school, but by the early ’90s, the size had fallen to 100.” Later, following the school’s addition of ninth grade and Chinese participation, the music program expanded to over 700 students by 2012, when Landes retired. “One of the things that was great for the music program is that the Chinese highly value music as part of their culture,” Landes said. “In the ’90s, about 25 percent of the student body participated in music-related curriculum.”
The school has also strengthened its English-as-a-second-language program, published Chinese and English communications, established digital presences on the Chinese social media platforms Weibo and WeChat, and held numerous Chinese media events. School activities also reflect the changing demographics. “Arcadia used to have one of the best football teams in the San Gabriel Valley, but communities change over time and student interests evolve,” said David Vannasdall, Arcadia Unified School District superintendent. “The school may look different now, but we are strong in golf and tennis. We tend to excel in individual sports. If that’s what the students’ interest is in, it’s our job to provide it. The school looks different from 40 years ago, but I never understood why it should look the same. It looks different, but we’re still awesome.”
New and Old Institutions
Community involvement is not only for culturally nimble students. The Arcadia Chinese Association (ACA), a non-profit civic organization, and the city government co-sponsor Law Day when volunteers dispense free legal advice. Among other activities, the ACA hosts a popular annual senior citizens’ luncheon celebrating Chinese New Year and promotes volunteering.
The Arcadia Performing Arts Center, the community theater which is a venue for Arcadia High School’s drama, dance, and music performances, is also grappling with the issue of community involvement. Facing a Chinese perception that local theater is irrelevant to Chinese audiences, Maki Hsieh, a Taiwanese-American executive director of the center, and Steven Volpe, the high school’s theater department head, are changing that image and wooing Chinese financial sponsorship. “The Chinese weren’t seeing that they’re represented on stage and they were shying away from this American tradition,” Hsieh said. But with the recent drama production of “The Giver,” Volpe cast the first Asian-American, Kaitlin Grace Aquino, in the lead role in sixty-six years. Hsieh has also landed two pledges of substantial funding: $100,000 from Lily Liu, the first Asian arts benefactor for the center’s Arcadia Performing Arts Foundation, and significant contributions from the Cheng Family Foundation, a major donor to the artistic and education community in the Los Angeles area.
But this growing engagement by both immigrant students and their parents has created tensions within Chinese communities too, particularly as some parents—often still in the mainland — wanted their children focused exclusively on academic performance. Many of these debates continue to play out in discussion groups on WeChat, the social messaging application developed by the mainland Chinese internet giant Tencent. “A lot of families on WeChat are very vocal against doing anything but studying,” Hsieh said. “They say the way to succeed in America is to find a job, don’t give back to the community, and keep it in the family. This is an Old World idea. The New World idea is to emphasize community service, duty and leadership.”
“If you can be involved and be a volunteer, little by little you’ll know American culture,” said Joanna Liang, a former ACA president.