When billboards in Chinese start appearing, along with Korean and Japanese grocery stores and restaurants that span tastes from almost all of Asia, they are signs that you have entered California's San Gabriel Valley.
For some people, it is a bedroom community of Los Angeles. For others, the Asian enclave is a home away from home.
Known to the locals as the “SGV,” San Gabriel Valley spans 36 kilometers east of downtown Los Angeles, with close to half a million Asians living there. Nine cities in the area are majority-Asian.
They include the city of Walnut, where Mike Chou’s family settled in 1989 when they immigrated from Taiwan. Walnut already had an established Chinese community.
“My parents, they didn’t speak English at the time, so it’s made it easier for them to kind of get around,” said Chou, who was 5 when his family arrived in the United States. “It’s so close to all the shopping. It’s so close to the (Chinese) grocery stores. It made fitting in there a lot easier.”
Chinese arrived in 1970s
According to the 2019 San Gabriel Valley Economic Forecast and Regional Overview Report, the SGV has a large ethnic Chinese population that started in the 1970s, with a flood of immigrants from Taiwan.
Chou is now a real estate agent with an 80% Asian clientele — half of them Chinese. Speaking fluent Mandarin and English, Chou has been so successful in real estate that he now leads a multilingual team of agents, including Roxane Sheng, who immigrated to the United States from China in 2005 for graduate school and stayed.
“Most of my clients are Mandarin-speaking Chinese,” Sheng said. “But they’re either living here and work here, or study here. Or they come to United States just to reinvest, to buy investment property. But they still go back to China and live there.”
In the past 10 to 15 years, Chou said people from mainland China have become the new immigrants to the SGV.
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Mild climate, lots of land
Sheng said the area’s mild climate and the relatively close distance to China make Southern California attractive to Chinese homebuyers. A common language is another attraction.
“Everyone speaks Mandarin.” Sheng said. “They can walk into a bank, post office, grocery stores — they can do everything without speaking English.”
For immigrants who largely lived in expensive high-rise apartments in China, the San Gabriel Valley offers an additional perk.
“We have plenty of single-family homes,” Sheng explained. “They just find a house. They get the land. They get the yard, and they have no neighbors up or down below them. And home prices are still cheaper if they move from Beijing or Shanghai.”
Immigrants from other Southeast Asian countries also live in the region.
Annie Xu, another agent on Chou’s real estate team, was raised in the Philippines of ethnic Chinese parents. She speaks Tagalog, Hokkien, Mandarin and English.
“I’ve been doing real estate for three years, because I used to be a stay-at-home mom,” said Xu, who came to the U.S. with her husband. “And then when my youngest turned 2, I decided that I want to do something. Real estate is a business that you don’t need a lot of startup costs.”
As a real estate agent, she has worked with immigrants from China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia.
One of her clients is Shabana Khan, a half-Pakistani Indian immigrant seeking a house with a yard. Khan moved to the San Gabriel Valley from New York.
“New York has the vibe of the energy and stuff, but you can get it here, too,” Khan said. “But as soon as you have kids, I think California is the best place to settle down. San Gabriel Valley is amazing. You have so many different cultures within Asia.”
Many immigrants, some undocumented
South Asians are among the fastest-growing Asian American groups in the SGV, according to a 2018 report by the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles.
Using numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, Advancing Justice also found that more than 67% of Asian Americans in the SGV are immigrants, including an estimated 58,000 people who are undocumented. Close to a third in the region are low income, according to the report.
“Some of them just immigrated here, and they haven’t found a stable job. Or their English is not good enough that they have to compromise for a job that’s not ideal for them,” Sheng said.
Regardless of socioeconomic status, the report found that San Gabriel Valley’s Asian population continues to grow.
“You have a lot of restaurants and grocery stores that are in Chinese. And some of the workers, they only speak Chinese, so they don’t speak English. It makes it easy if you’re an immigrant to come here and just kind of feel very much at home,” Chou said.