Now reading Wokking the Suburbs

Wokking the Suburbs

Monterey Park, California, and the rise of the suburban Chinatown.

This story comes from Lucky Peach #5: The Chinatown Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

As he stepped woozily into the first American afternoon of his life, the last thing my father wanted to do was eat Chinese food. He scanned the crowd for the friend who’d come from Providence (my father would stay with this friend for a few weeks before heading to Amherst to begin his graduate studies). That friend didn’t know how to drive, however, so he promised to buy lunch for another friend in exchange for a ride to the Boston airport. The two young men greeted my father at the gate, exchanged some backslaps, and rushed him to the car, where they stowed the sum total of his worldly possessions in the trunk and folded him into the backseat. Then they gleefully set off for Boston’s Chinatown, a portal back into the world my father (and these friends before him) had just left behind. Camaraderie and goodwill were fine enough reasons to drive hours to fetch someone from the airport; just as important was the airport’s proximity to food you couldn’t get in Providence.

He remembers nothing about the meal itself. He was still nauseous from the journey—Taipei to Tokyo to Seattle to Boston—and, after all, he’d spent every single day of the first twenty-something years of his life eating Chinese food.

“For someone who had just come from Taiwan, it was no good. For someone who came from Providence, it must have been very good!” he laughs.

When my mother came to the United States a few years after my father (Taipei-Tokyo-San Francisco), the family friends who picked her up at least had the decency to wait a day and allow her to find her legs before taking her to a restaurant in the nearest Chinatown.

“I remember the place was called Jing Long, Golden Dragon. Many years later there was a gang massacre in there,” she casually recalls. “I still remember the place. It was San Francisco’s most famous. The woman who brought me was very happy but I wasn’t hungry. “Of course, they always think if you come from Taiwan or China you must be hungry for Chinese food.”

It was the early 1970s, and my parents had each arrived in the United States with only a vague sense of what their respective futures held, beyond a few years of graduate studies. They certainly didn’t know they would be repeating these treks in the coming decades, subjecting weary passengers (namely, me) to their own long drives in search of Chinese food. I often daydream about this period of their lives and imagine them grappling with some sense of terminal dislocation, starving for familiar aromas, and regretting the warnings of their fellow new Americans that these were the last good Chinese spots for the next hundred or so miles. They would eventually meet and marry in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (where they acquired a taste for pizza), and then live for a spell in Texas (where they were told that the local steak house wasn’t for “their kind”), before settling in suburban California. Maybe this was what it meant to live in America. You could move around. You were afforded opportunities unavailable back home. You were free to go by “Eric” at work and name your children after US presidents. You could refashion yourself a churchgoer, a lover of rum-raisin ice cream, an aficionado of classical music or Bob Dylan, a fan of the Dallas Cowboys because everyone else in the neighborhood seemed to be one. But for all the opportunities, those first days in America had prepared them for one reality: sometimes you had to drive great distances in order to eat well.

There was nothing exceptional about all this—versions of this journey stretch back hundreds of years, in all different directions, and you often get the impression while abroad that there are Chinese people everywhere. In the 1840s and 1850s, shiploads of Chinese men came to the United States from the impoverished Guangdong Province, lured by economic prospects throughout the still-expanding American West. They laid the railroad tracks (so that other people could go places), mined the gold, and went wherever there was work, yet this was the limit of their mobility. Sequestered in the cities’ least desirable quarters by byzantine legal codes and social pressure—and without the means (and sometimes desire) to return home—they began building self-sustained Chinatowns. Decades of exclusionary policies that limited Chinese immigration to the United States stood until World War II. In 1965, when reforms to immigration policy allowed for new generations of young Chinese men and women—like my parents—to work and settle in the United States.

Communities of Chinese students began forming in tiny, remote college towns hundreds of miles away from the nearest Chinatown. My parents enjoyed the modest and itinerant life of graduate school, staying a bit longer than they probably should have. There were the potlucks with friends (the rare occasion for my mother to make lion’s head meatballs), road trips to landmarks they’d read about in magazines, the bustling communion of dorm life.

“Sometimes when people cooked, if the smell was strong,” my dad remembers, “the Caucasians would get mad and complain.”

The first my mother ever heard of Chinatown was in Life magazine. Back in Taiwan, her father had invested in a subscription and given my mom and her siblings “American” names in the 1950s, out of some faint desire to show them a world beyond the dreariness of postwar Taipei. But “Chinatown” was a strange thing for her to wrap her mind around.

“I knew there was a place called Chinatown in America,” she tells me, “but it was a foreign place.”

And yet, my father says, “Chinatown could connect you back to Taiwan. It was mostly Cantonese, so it wasn’t exactly like where you came from; they didn’t even speak the same dialect. But it came the closest. You could buy newspapers, magazines. There was food.” He pauses and tries to find the right phrasing. “Spiritual food.”

I never asked my father what he meant by this—“spiritual food.” I liked the sound of it. It was probably just a provisional way of translating his thoughts into English; something a little too metaphysical sounding that he would no doubt have retracted if pressed for clarification. “There was a place on Broadway around Seventy-Second,” he suddenly recalls. Between living in Amherst and Champaign-Urbana, he had spent a brief spell in Manhattan. He still draws on this forty-year-old memory of the city’s layout whenever he comes to visit me.

“There was a Chinese restaurant that had youtiao”—long, deep-fried strips of dough usually dipped in warm soy milk (or, if you were me circa 1982, a bowl of sugar). It was one of those things that connected him to Taiwan, even if the restaurant only served it once a week, so that wayward students could follow a trail of youtiao flakes back to where they came from.

Life in small college towns was a long way from Chinatown, but at least there were other immigrant students around. The suburbs outside Dallas, where we moved so my father could work as an engineer, afforded plenty of space. But one could get lost in that vastness. A few years ago, I found a small square of brittle, yellowed paper that dated back to this brief spell. It was an ad my mother had taken out in the local classifieds:

CHINESE COOKING LESSONS—learn to Cook exotic dishes using ingredients and utensils readily available. $12 per class. For further information call Mrs. Hsu at: 867-0712.

“When we moved there, there was nothing to do,” she recalls. “I thought it was a good idea. There wasn’t much Asian food and nobody was teaching it. You couldn’t get the ingredients, like bok choy.” It was startling to realize that my parents too found life in a gargantuan cul-de-sac stifling. Nobody ever called. “I was depressed,” she laughs, the way people do when something is funny because it is safely in the past. After all, our next stop was California.

I grew up in Cupertino, a suburb one is contractually obliged to describe as “the heart of Silicon Valley,” or at least one of its major arteries. Suburbs are about the leisurely conquest of space, an alternative to the uncomfortable density of the city. But the illusion of tranquility frays at the edges: the neurosis required to maintain so neatly manicured a lawn, the pristine sidewalks that nobody walks on, the holy wars fought to keep one municipality from oozing into the next. It’s a cliché to say that life in the suburbs struck me as staid and uneventful; perhaps I just didn’t yet appreciate what was special about it.

A sort of reprieve from Cupertino’s tedium would come on the weekends, when my parents would toss me in the backseat with my Walkman and drive for long stretches, often to other suburbs, in search of Chinese food, provisions, a bowl of fresh soy milk. There had been Chinese people in Texas, but not quite like there were in California, where the 1980s tech industry was creating a new set of desires. We would drive to Campbell, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, obscure tracts of San Jose, sometimes as far as Milpitas. I would stare out the window at all that flatness and wonder why everything wasn’t just closer together like in San Francisco—those were the trips I liked, whenever we would sync some kind of big-city errand with morning dim sum. Driving all that way just to get to another strip mall felt self-defeating, despite the novelty of seeing what exotic mascot adorned someone else’s high school or whether they had a vintage Taco Bell. I would always moan when we arrived at the strip mall we had been searching for.

I didn’t understand my parents’ excitement; it was all Chinese food to me. You could get “Chinese” food at home—delivered, no less, with fortune cookies!—so what was the point of a long pilgrimage to somewhere else? I was baffled when I treated my grandmother to a feast at a newly opened Panda Express, only to see her stare down at the table in disappointment. The levees of her Styrofoam plate had been breached; her sauces were pooling into one. I had never seen that look on her face before.

To my parents, these treks from one suburb to another were worthwhile, even meditative. Once we reached the restaurants, my mother and father, usually given to superhuman selflessness, would forget about me altogether as they studied their menus carefully, reading all the names aloud to each other, astounded that you could get that here.

They would sketch out the optimal configuration of dishes and finalize their Perfect Order; then they would remember that I had to eat too, and set me up with something basic: a reddish-brown bowl of hand-drawn beef noodles or maybe some combination of bun and shredded meat. Any animosities that had crystallized during our journey melted away instantly.

The food we found in these suburbs was not only more Chinese than “Chinese” food of the take-out sort—it was more Chinese than Chinatown food. We rarely drove to San Francisco’s Chinatown anymore; the things my parents craved couldn’t be found there. The urban Chinatown—with its tourists and souvenir lipstick holders and monochromatic chow mein—was no more familiar to my parents than the lazy sprawl of California’s suburbs. But the latter, where you could run into classmates from Taiwan or dorm mates from Illinois, afforded them more space to think about things—was this “home” now? What more could you want? For my father, years before, the reminder of his childhood in Taiwan had come in the form of an occasional youtiao. Now my parents could eat better than anyone back in Taiwan could, and they could finally try dishes they had only heard about as children. As they got further away from their origins, their sense of identity grew hazy. Food was their mooring.

Between dishes, my parents would study the Chinese-language newspapers as though there would be a quiz on the way home. I would take in the loud glee of all the adults in the room, which shattered the prevailing stereotypes of Chinese as a serious, reticent people. It all seemed so improbable: the transcendent strip-mall meal, the noisy flock of Chinese folks who’d driven God knows what distances to convene in this room. To people who had come from other places, this wasn’t about authenticity. It was an experience that was at once familiar and completely novel.

Suburbs are seen as founts of conformity, but they are rarely places beholden to tradition. Nobody goes to the suburbs on a vision quest—most are drawn instead by the promise of ready-made status, a stability in life modeled after the stability of neat, predictable blocks and gated communities. And yet, a suburb might also be seen as a slate that can be perpetually wiped clean to accommodate new aspirations.

There remain vestiges of what stood before, and these histories capture the cyclical aspirations that define the suburb: Cherry Tree Lane, where an actual orchard was once the best possible use of free acreage; the distinctive, peaked roof of a former Sizzler turned dim sum spot; the Hallmark retailer, all windows and glass ledges, that is now a noodle shop; and the kitschy railroad-car diner across the street that’s now another noodle shop. But Cupertino was still in transition throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Monterey Park, hundreds of miles to our south, was the finished article.

All suburban Chinatowns owe something to Frederic Hsieh, a young realtor who regarded Monterey Park and foresaw the future. He began buying properties all over this otherwise generic community in the mid-1970s and blitzed newspapers throughout Taiwan and Hong Kong with promises of a “Chinese Beverly Hills” located a short drive from Los Angeles’s Chinatown. While there had been a steady stream of Chinese immigrants over the previous decade, Hsieh guessed that the uncertain political situation in Asia combined with greater business opportunities in the United States would bring more of them to California. Instead of the cramped, urban Chinatowns in San Francisco or Flushing, Hsieh wanted to offer these newcomers a version of the American dream: wide streets, multicar garages, good schools, minimal culture shock, and a short drive to Chinatown. In 1977, he invited twenty of the city’s most prominent civic and business leaders to a meeting over lunch (Chinese food, naturally) and explained that he was building a “modern-day mecca” for the droves of Chinese immigrants on their way. This didn’t go over so well with some of Monterey Park’s predominantly white establishment, who mistook his bluster for arrogance. As a member of the city’s Planning Commission later told the Los Angeles Times, “Everyone in the room thought the guy was blowing smoke. Then when I got home I thought, what gall. What ineffable gall. He was going to come into my living room and change my furniture?”

Gall was contagious. The following year, Wu Jin Shen, a former stockbroker from Taiwan, opened Diho Market, Monterey Park’s first Asian grocery. Wu would eventually oversee a chain of stores with four hundred employees and $30 million in sales. Soon after, a Laura Scudder potato-chip factory that had been remade into a Safeway was remade into an Asian supermarket. Another grocery store was refitted with a Pagoda-style roof.

Chinese restaurateurs were the shock troops of Hsieh’s would-be conquest. “The first thing Monterey Park residents noticed were the Chinese restaurants that popped up,” a different but no less alarmist piece the citizen quoted in the Times recalled. “Then came the three Chinese shopping centers, the Chinese banks, and the Chinese theater showing first-run movies from Hong Kong—with English subtitles.”

In Monterey Park, such audacity (if you wanted to call it that) threatened the community’s stability. Residents offended by, say, the razing of split-level ranch-style homes from the historical 1970s to accommodate apartment complexes drew on their worst instincts to try and push through “Official English” legislation in the mid-1980s. “Will the Last American to Leave Monterey Park Please Bring the Flag?” bumper stickers were distributed.

But this hyperlocal kind of nativism couldn’t turn back the demographic tide. In 1990, Monterey Park became the first city in the continental United States with a majority-Asian population. Yet Monterey Park’s growing citizenry didn’t embody a single sensibility. There were affluent professionals from Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as longtime residents of Los Angeles’s Chinatown looking to move to the suburbs. As Tim Fong, a sociologist who has studied Monterey Park, observed in the Chicago Tribune, “The Chinese jumped a step. They didn’t play the (slow) assimilation game.” This isn’t to say these new immigrants rejected assimilation. They were just becoming something entirely new.

Monterey Park became the first suburb that Chinese people would drive for hours to visit and eat in, for the same reasons earlier generations of immigrants had sought out the nearest urban Chinatown. And the changing population and the wealth they brought with them created new opportunities for all sorts of businesspeople, especially aspiring restaurateurs. The typical Chinese American restaurant made saucy, ostentatiously deep-fried concessions to mainstream appetites, leading to the ever-present rumor that most establishments had “secret menus” meant for more discerning eaters. It might be more accurate to say that most chefs at Chinese restaurants are more versatile than they initially let on—either that or families like mine possess Jedi-level powers of off-the-menu persuasion. But in a place like Monterey Park, the pressure to appeal to non-Chinese appetites disappeared. The concept of “mainstream” no longer held; neck bones and chicken feet and pork bellies and various gelatinous things could pay the bills and then some.

While the old Chinatown was all clutter, meats that still resembled animals roasting in windows, and chopsticks typefaces, the new, more privileged one wouldn’t be obligated to play games. It didn’t beg for attention, for there was a surplus of space in the suburbs, and nobody’s cooking smells had to disturb anyone else. Rather than being confined to the worst parts of town, these new immigrants generally possessed the freedom to go where they pleased.

With the rapid expansion of the transpacific economy, Monterey Park was inevitable, particularly in California in the late 1980s and 1990s. Once Monterey Park was established, the model spread through neighboring communities in the greater San Gabriel Valley just outside Los Angeles. The same thing was happening in Santa Clara County in the Bay Area, bolstered by a burgeoning tech industry and the relative proximity to Asia. Good schools, the stability of suburban life, and abundant space were attractive traits of Long Island, Westchester, and Connecticut, the outer rings of Houston and Dallas. These became the new centers of Chinese life in America, similar in function to big-city Chinatowns but different in their privilege and access to the newest overseas trends. By 2000, there were six Asian American–majority suburbs, all of them in California: Daly City, Cerritos, Milpitas, Monterey Park, Rowland Heights, and Walnut. The census that year also indicated that a majority of Asians in the United States were living in the suburbs. Today there are new high-tech suburbs emerging in places like Bellevue, Washington, Harris, and Fort Bend Counties in Texas and Montgomery County in Maryland.

In the burgeoning suburban Chinatowns popping up throughout California, a new strain of Chinese American culture was incubating. The casual sprawl of the suburbs was amenable to this kind of meandering, gradual transformation—flagging businesses were remade to accommodate the new demographic, while strip malls began turning, store by store, into crowded islands of Chinese food and the latest in asymmetrical hair art. You could buy youtiao or dim sum every day rather than as a weekends-only delicacy. Chefs from Taiwan and Hong Kong began joining the waves of engineers coming to California. There were no secret menus, just menus written in Chinese; no need to bill oneself as “the Chinese Delmonico’s,” when you could move right into the old Delmonico’s storefront.

By the early 1990s, Cupertino had become a suburban Chinatown like all the rest—filled with bubble-tea cafés and competing Chinese bookstores, video rental shops stocked with nothing but Nth-Generation VHS bootlegs, parking lots mazy with modified Hondas and moms hoping to preserve their complexions with full-face visors and sleeve-length driving gloves. The Cupertino Asian population had grown from 23 percent in 1990 to 44 percent in 2000 to 63 percent in 2010, with Chinese alone constituting one-fourth of the city’s population. By now, a quorum of my parents’ brothers, sisters, and parents had settled in the Bay Area as well, and Taiwan represented but a distant and imaginary former homeland. The chances are good that a few square miles in the South Bay promise more diverse options than most Chinese cities. One of the major grocery stores roasted their turkeys Peking Duck style during Thanksgiving. I remember my mom taking a detour one afternoon, after my cello lessons, to buy some dumplings. We ended up in a neighborhood I didn’t recognize and pulled into the driveway of a friend of a friend of my mother’s. She took us into her garage, opened up a giant freezer that looked more appropriate for stashing a body, and began explaining the different varieties of homemade dumplings and steamed buns she had on offer.

“Anything you can think of,” my mom reflects, “you can find it. Within these towns around us, you can eat everything.”

Every Saturday morning, my mom’s parents would collect the family at some far-flung Chinese restaurant. Someone would hear about a new spot in the Chinese-language papers, locally published guidebooks, or through word of mouth, and we would caravan to a previously unexplored strip mall. We would follow the best cooks from restaurant to restaurant.

My grandparents—who had moved to nearby Sunnyvale in the late 1980s—led an astonishingly diverse senior-citizens’ group on frequent lunch outings, so they had an in with all the best restaurants. It was a modest kind of glamour. Extra dishes would arrive, the owner would come by and pay respects, and dessert was on the house and from off the menu. My grandmother would always press a twenty into the palm of her favorite waiter to find out if there was any fresh gossip from the kitchen—if someone had defected to another restaurant or earned his or her fortune and moved back to Taiwan. To this day, I don’t know the names of any of the restaurants we frequented other than Chopstix (because the name seemed too eager to please), Chef Chu’s (ditto), and Hong Fu (because of its aggressive font). Instead, there was “the one in the David Lynch motel,” “the one where Uncle Danny yelled at me” (my fault), “the one with the fake moat,” “the one by the baseball-card store,” “the one with the beef noodles,” “the one where we’ll actually wait for a table,” and—because of its size, huge wing of private rooms, and teeming staff—“the Death Star.”

My family would squawk and gossip, the kids would alternate between exaggerated sighs of boredom and chopsticks swordplay. My grandmother would be at the center of it, chewing her greens dry of their nutrients and then spitting them into a spare teacup, something she had supposedly done since the 1920s. There would be extra bowls everywhere, filled with ungodly mixtures of unfinished soup, superfluous sauces, and tea that had gone cold. At some point, an uncle would begin practicing the Spanish he’d picked up at his grocery-store-deli-counter job on whatever “amigo” was busing our table.

It took me a while to understand that my parents had not been yearning for some mythical home all these years. Taiwan, as my father recently explained to me, held little promise in the 1960s. They had left out of necessity. Their pursuit of good food through city and suburb hadn’t been born out of some state of disenchantment so much as it had been an excuse to explore, meet up with old schoolmates, and have a good meal. Over the years, they had grown to love other things—my father’s from-nowhere affections for Mediterranean (“Mediterrane”) food, lemon pound cake, and the gyro spot that had taken over the old Taco Bell; my mother’s obsessions with carrot cake, sandwiches, and this one specific burrito place (that happened to be in an airport); their discovery of much, much better pizza than what had passed for Champaign-Urbana’s finest.

The South Bay’s suburbs were home now. This was where my parents had become American. I remember when my parents began to feel a little wary of the even newer immigrants from Taiwan and China—the ones who couldn’t recall that the old mall used to be here, the ones who assumed that Cupertino had always been this way, the ones who hadn’t lived through the days when youtiao was scarce. (Then again, my parents don’t eat youtiao anymore: “Too oily,” they say.)

In the beginning, my parents were looking for somewhere comfortable to live—somewhere that wasn’t quite as crazed as the city but cosmopolitan enough that you wouldn’t stand out while ordering a steak. But for newer immigrants, “ease of living” was the least of their concerns. Even a pioneering city like Monterey Park began to seem run-of-the-mill compared to the newer, fancier suburban settlements available to the affluent. Throughout Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China, developers were building new neighborhoods designed to mimic places like San Marino and Cupertino—with their accompanying restaurants—places that, to those regarding America from afar, had become as famous as Beverly Hills.

I got married this summer and my parents threw us a Chinese banquet in Cupertino at “the Death Star.” One of my aunts now wears the captain’s armband left behind by my late grandmother, and the larger family’s willingness to drive great distances ends somewhere around Milpitas, about half an hour away from where everyone lives. My grandfather isn’t as mobile as he once was, so the Saturday lunches have become week-night dinners at his apartment. Our banquet was as good an excuse as any to gather the entire family. We came from New York and relatives came from Southern California, Connecticut, and Colorado, where, my father always reminds me, it will be years before the Chinese-food scene catches up to what we take for granted. I was reminded of all that I had left behind: the contrast of textures and temperatures that make up a proper, nightlong, multicourse Chinese meal; the transcendence of a correctly steamed fish, particularly the tiny, silken cheeks; the stress you feel when the lazy Susan doesn’t seem to be spinning fast enough; the sheer number of extra bowls and cups my family requires.

“The Death Star” anchors an old, largely abandoned mall built in the 1970s. Down the street, the quaint-sounding Cupertino Village—one of the area’s many Chinese shopping centers—is now a nightmare of crowds and cars on the weekends, and there are newer, flashier, even more insular suburban Chinatowns to the north and south. There are at least two Asian grocers that specialize in organic fruits and vegetables, and an epidemic of frozen-yogurt shops. The parking lot of the bubble-tea spot—near where the pre-boom “Pot Sticker King” once stood—is now the preferred hangout for high-school students. Cupertino grows stranger to me with every visit, but I guess that’s what happens when you imbue a familiar store or an old potato-chip factory with sentimental significance.

These days, when my parents pick me up from the airport, I ask to be taken to “the one where we are willing to wait.” I get to choose where we go. I’ve come a long way.