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Which way, Milpitas?

Way to Go: Travelers encountering this sign on McCarthy Blvd. in Milpitas are forced with a directional decision: stay or go, but don't just sit there thinking about it.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Picked on and patronized, Milpitans know success is the best revenge

By Richard Sine

EXACTLY AT NOON, Robert Chan and an assistant put on powder-blue robes and headdresses and lit incense before a shrine to their Master, Wong Tai Sin. The wise Master looked back at Chan with pursed lips and eyebrows slightly upturned, as if his child had done something slightly amusing and a little too precocious. Two gongs were sounded to signal that all assembled were ready to receive the Master's spirit.

Chan kowtowed to his Master's image and offered it fruit and sake. Then he stood, closed his eyes and grasped a gai, a wooden rod with a T-handle and a downturned pointer. At first slowly, then faster, the pointer began to swirl around on the surface of a polished silver platter. Chan's assistant sat with pen and notebook paper at the ready on one end of the table. Chan began to recite Chinese characters to his assistant. The rod was spelling out Chinese characters, a message from the Master.

A couple of times Chan abruptly lifted the gai and slammed it back down on the platter. The bang! jolted the dozen or so observers, most dressed casually in jeans and polo shirts, who had gathered to watch the ceremony in the little temple. The bangs were to welcome the goddess of mercy and Buddha himself, who also graced the ceremony. They were so violent that they fractured the glass on the rosewood table beneath the platter.

Speaking through his channeler, the Master said he was pleased that Chan had established this new temple and that so many people had come to attend his opening ceremony. Meanwhile, the caterers had quietly rolled a table of dim sum past the ceremony and into a back room. With the ceremony over, Chan and his well-wishers retired there to eat and talk.

Chan told me this was the first ceremony of its sort in the United States to honor his Master, a sage of the Taoist sect.

The new temple, by the way, was located in a mall.

Not just any mall, but the new Milpitas Square mall, which, when it opened last year, was touted as the largest Asian-themed shopping center in Northern California. The anchor tenant, Ranch 99 Market ("We Try Harder To Make 100"), opened late last August.

When the Wong Tai Sin temple opened in early September of last year, most of its neighbors had still not moved into the empty storefronts. Now the stark, Mission/Italian Villa stucco shopping center is filled out with about 61 new merchants--only one store space is empty--and 18 of them are restaurants, like Tung Kee Noodle House and Mayflower Restaurant. Some shops carry goods that Asians would have to look hard to find elsewhere, like the Evergreen Bookstore, whose books and magazines all are in Cantonese and Mandarin. Then there are services merely aimed at Asians, the hair shops, a dentist and a few retail outlets that sell golf clubs, jewelry or fashionable clothes by Versace and Armani.

I stumbled onto the temple the day before it opened. The still rather spare front room contained a desk and several beautiful rosewood bookcases and tables, all of which sported price tags. Fliers on the front door mentioned free astrology readings, t'ai chi classes and acupressure sessions. Hundreds of pink slips of paper displaying fortunes were on a rack by the wall. (You shake a cup full of sticks until one stick falls out. Each stick is marked with a number. Fortune 81 reads: "By the mountain bridge the pheasant stretches her wings/flying up, flying down, she dances and she sings/But in happiness and gladness, she forgets not to look around/in time she leaves just to avoid the danger of being found.")

Chan, a retired sales director for a major Hong Kong trading firm, told me that he had been appointed to set up this new temple. When I asked him who had appointed him to the task, he gestured toward the shrine and said, "the Master," as if he were talking about his pal Joey.

But why in a mall? Chan answered the question by repeating the Master's orders. After the ceremony I asked the same question of his assistant, Anita, who stubbornly stuck to the point: "The Master chose this spot for his own reasons," she told me.

The Master was plainly a wise man.

Surely, I thought, Chan must have been motivated by the excellent location when he chose this rather unusual site for a temple last fall.

But now the Master's temple has disappeared without a trace, and no one seems to know what happened to Chan. He defaulted on the shopping center lease and vacated the center before the end of last year, according to Milpitas Square's property manager, who asked not to be named.

"If you find him," she says, "let me know."

Malls of Fortune

MILPITANS ARE A pragmatic lot; they always have been. They've overcome a funny name--Milpitas is a diminutive form of milpas, the Spanish word meaning "corn fields." They've overcome a hick stereotype and a quite literally putrid reputation to become a masterfully integrated, low-crime suburb with some of the last remaining affordable housing in the county, but a median household income surpassed only by Palo Alto.

Milpitas boosters like to portray the town as Silicon Valley East, and it is true that the greater part of the town's employment comes from disk-drive manufacturing and the like. But to the outside observer, Milpitas may come off as a town of wealth without luxury. The town is bisected by not one but two major freeways. It's built on two hairy earthquake faults. The hundreds of thousands of passersby who drive through Milpitas on their way somewhere else will notice three major landmarks: two enormous malls and one massive landfill. As a visitor to Milpitas, I found myself inexorably drawn to those malls.

One of them, The Great Mall of the Bay Area, is the largest discount outlet mall west of the Mississippi. It receives about a million visitors a month; on an average day in peak season more shoppers visit the mall than live in Milpitas itself. A thousand tour buses a year, carrying tourists from all over the world, make stops there.

And then those tourists climb back into the bus and move on. Milpitas itself still has no museums, no art galleries, no significant theater space and only a handful of quality restaurants. Geographically it's a flat, dry city until you get to the Calaveras foothills, pretty enough rollers in themselves but mere ripples when compared to the verdant Santa Cruz Mountains on the other lip of the bowl.

One day as I drove north on 880, passing first those consumer dreamworks and then the BFI Landfill off Dixon Landing Road, where the consumer goods are eventually banished, I was reminded of old schoolbook diagrams of sea sponges, those astonishingly simple beasts composed of little more than a gaping mouth, a body sac and an anus--such a basic hydraulic machine that you wonder what makes it count as "living." I thought of how much of America looked like this and worried briefly about what we were coming to.

No doubt the average Milpitan would think me silly.

Christopher Gardner

Stick Schtick: Leslie Halvason dips dogs at "Hot Dog On a Stick" in Milpitas' Great Mall.

Decent Living

DALE CONCEPCION, the 18-year-old store supervisor of the Black Market Minerals store located near the food court in the Great Mall, circulates around a checkout stand that is covered with $3 rings and charm necklaces. Simply clad in a breezy white crew-neck blouse and black skirt, with her jet black hair parted right down the middle and held up in a bun in back, she calls her workers Honey when she gives instructions: "Honey, go get Raymond."

Concepcion loves Milpitas, partly because her family moved here from Los Angeles six years ago.

"It's quiet," she says. "This is the most decent and quiet town I've lived in."

She was stunned by the shooting at the Great Mall that allegedly involved San Jose firefighter Tom Gremminger. She was handed a memo from mall management 20 minutes after the incident.

"I was suprised. I didn't think that would happen in Milpitas," Concepcion recalls.

Her co-worker, Raymond Sandoval, clad in a tie-dyed shirt and black jeans, grew up here and is somewhat critical of his native city. He says the cops are ticket-happy, there's no entertainment in town and the malls are "claustrophobic" or "ethnically aggressive."

Sandoval waxes quixotic about the melding of races in Milpitas.

"Racism can never be beat unless we integrate," he says. Sandoval is pretty well-integrated himself. He claims both European and Latino heritage, and he's gay. He wants to see people all jumbled up together like the wild mixture of jewelry and trinkets imported for the store: Brazilian mixed with Kenyan, Native American, Chinese, Indian, Peruvian and Indonesian.

Like his hometown, Sandoval has always been a little hard to pin down ethnically.

"I'd go to high school one day looking like a cholo and the next day looking like a white suburbanite," he said.

Racial issues aside, you can count Sandoval on the anti-growth side of local politics. The 33-year-old grew up on a Milpitas ranch where Highway 237 now runs. His father happened to drive semi trucks for a man who owned a ranch and some houses there.

"We used to have to go run through the mud to visit our neighbors," he recalls. He longs for the old Milpitas, before the shopping centers sprang up.

"As much as it's grown, I think it's taken a lot of the natural beauty away," he said.

Man From Milpitas

MILPITAS MAY HAVE been a crossroads of commerce long before anyone had ever heard of a "mall." As it prepared to expand the Elmwood Jail in Milpitas, the county hired Ohlone Family Group archaeologists to exhume a grave underneath the site. The archaeologists found graves containing shiny shells from Monterey and bird-bone earrings from Sacramento. This suggests that Milpitas might have been a trading post that attracted Indians from around Northern California, according to Steve Munzel, past president of the Milpitas Historical Association. Indians from the Central Valley may have found a convenient pass through the foothills along the canyon formed by Coyote Creek.

Despite possibly being one of the oldest commercial centers in the state, Milpitas just couldn't get any respect during the past two centuries.

In the 1800s Milpitas became a stage stop on the trip from San Jose to Oakland and a crossroads with the Milpitas-Alviso Road, then part of the only road from San Francisco to Oakland. A couple of adobe saloons and a blacksmith opened to service passersby, but Milpitas was really just a sleepy rural town with a small port--until the locals made the mistake of taking themselves a little too seriously.

In 1863, with the Civil War in full swing, California held a statewide convention to decide whether to stay in the Union or join the Confederacy. A delegation of Milpitans came bearing a big sign that read: "As Milpitas goes, so goes the state." This turned out to be true--Milpitas voted to stay Union--but it rather amused Californians who had never heard of the town with the funny name.

Thus was born the legend of the Man from Milpitas. "Nowadays, when we want to try to understand the appeal of something to the average man, we ask how it will play in Peoria," explains Munzel. "In the 1800s, people asked how it would fly with the Man from Milpitas."

With the emergence of vaudeville, Milpitas became the butt of endless jokes among comedians working the Orpheum circuit. Comics would talk up the town's wondrous museum, cathedral and ancient ruins, none of which were to be found (then or now). A common joke was that the first prize in a contest was "a round-trip ticket to beautiful Milpitas." Second prize was a one-way ticket to the same destination.

During the 1960s, the town was plagued by a dump, a sewage plant and possibly a hog farm that visitors traveling on the freeways would sometimes smell just as they saw the "Milpitas City Limits" sign. Since then, however, the hog farm has disappeared, and the dump has been tempered.

It didn't help when Tim Hunter made the 1987 movie River's Edge, based on the real-life rape and murder of a 17-year-old Milpitas girl by her boyfriend. Milpitas became the place where a lowlife teen choked his main squeeze to death, had sex with her corpse and walked off into the sunset. The movie explores what happened after the murder--the guy shows his pals the body, and they don't report the crime.

great mall

Car Culture

MILPITAS GAINED a certain measure of self-respect in the early 1950s when Ford Motor Co. rumbled onto the scene and made Milpitas a bona fide city by bankrolling a bid for incorporation. But Ford created Milpitas only after San Jose refused to annex the land where Ford wanted to build a plant. The proposal meant strip annexing: taking miles of Old Oakland Road--but none of the land touching it, except Ford's--into the city.

Former San Jose Mayor Robert Doerr voted against the Ford annexation in his days as a City Council member because he considered strip annexation unethical at the time. The annexation bid lost narrowly, by a 4-3 vote, in a heated closed-door meeting of the council (these were the days before sunshine laws opened up council meetings to the public).

Ford still needed a city to provide services like water, sewer and trash collection, so when San Jose refused to annex, the company circulated petitions to form Milpitas, and the voters approved.

Later, Doerr reconsidered his Ford decision, he says. During the valley annexation wars of the 1950s, he concluded that the valley needed regional planning--without it, a developer could peddle a project to several cities until it found one that would annex.

The only way to provide an overall plan, he concluded, would be to get as much land as possible inside San Jose's city limits.

"I've often wondered, Would the area [of Milpitas] have been better if it had been part of San Jose?" Doerr says.

After building cars for 50 years, the Ford plant closed in 1983, but Milpitas was well-placed to avoid Rust Belt purgatory. Semiconductor plants soon moved in to take the plant's place. Pear orchards and strawberry fields disappeared under more subdivisions. Within a decade the Great Mall of the Bay Area had moved into the Ford plant, and one of the city's largest ranches, McCarthy Ranch, had become the site of another big mall. (The ranch's owner, Joe McCarthy, hopes to build a new housing and commercial project over what remains of his farmland. Rumor has it he's poised to file applications within a few months.)

Just as other towns in the valley were starting to worry about sprawl and retaining their characters, Milpitas took all comers. In an effort to redevelop its city core, the San Jose Redevelopment Agency banned hotels from any location except downtown. Milpitas responded by welcoming two major airport hotels just inside its borders, thus sucking away millions in hotel taxes that San Jose could have landed like a fish in a barrel. Milpitas had the space and the freeway access to land more retail, more offices, more housing than the rest of the valley could dream about. North San Jose residents today spend much of their shopping money in Milpitas.

Milpitas Motormouths

POLITICS TEND to be pyrotechnical in the city that Ford built. There's the group of Weller Ranch residents, led by Joe McGadden, who recently stormed City Hall and convinced the City Council to rezone their neighborhood so it will not be subject to the city's restrictive hillside planning ordinance.

They were victorious, but now the Weller Ranch posse wants to recall Councilmember Trish Dixon for stubbornly opposing the zone change, although she eventually voted in favor of it.

And then there was the Great Phone Incident. In September 1996 a number of city employees used office-issued cell phones to make long-distance calls on weekends and to call 900 numbers in Canada. City Manager Larry Moore got flamed by Finance Director Larry Sabo, who accused Moore of thwarting a phone investigation. When the council decided not to discipline Moore, police officers registered a vote of no confidence against Moore. Three smaller unions followed suit.

Now there's a lawsuit alleging that Mayor Henry Manayan's vote on the eventual decision to cut Moore and others loose was cast only because four other councilmembers threatened that he wouldn't get any legislation passed otherwise. In January, the council got rid of Moore and other city staffers by not renewing contracts or by cutting them short. Moore walked away with about $99,000 in severance pay because his contract with the city was chopped nine months short.

Eastern Magic

WITH ACRES of box retail, miles of tract housing, a stomped-out downtown and thousands of cars piled on top of each other on the freeways at all times of the day, Milpitas would seem the true city of the future, or perhaps the end of history. Yet even the two big malls retain a trace of sentimentality. From the outside, the Great Mall still looks pretty much like the Ford auto plant.

On the inside, ceiling beams are still exposed to give it an industrial look. Many window fronts feature displays of vintage Ford Mustangs and other cars once manufactured at the plant.

McCarthy Ranch, a "power center" mall along 880 carved out of what is still a working farm, also gives a nod to its past: Borders Bookstore is shaped like a big hay barn. Another store's shape is reminiscent of a corn silo. And the buildings are painted in colors like tomato red, eggplant purple and avocado green.

Both malls, in short, at least hark back to the days when we used to make things the average person could comprehend.

The population of Milpitas is now estimated to be nearly 40 percent Asian, but there is no Chinatown, no ghetto of any sort; middle-class Chinese, Filipinos and Vietnamese moved in to homes right next to their white co-workers at the chip plants. Milpitas Square is the closest thing Milpitas has to a Chinatown.

It is said that many Asians assimilate so adeptly into American culture because they become constructive members of their communities (i.e., they stay off the dole, out of the prisons and in the schools) while retaining values and tastes rooted in the other side of the Pacific Rim. Milpitas Square reflects this tendency perfectly. Outwardly it is indistiguishable from any of the newer strip malls, but it has been designed, Robert Chan of the Taoist temple told me, in accordance with the laws of feng shui. And the bestsellers in the Evergreen Bookstore, are on fortune-telling, alternative medicine, poetry and the like.

Similarly, Ranch 99 Market effortlessly straddles two worlds. To the casual eye it looks like a Safeway--spotless aisles, bold fluorescent lighting, Siberian air conditioning. But the goods it sells remind me, a former San Franciscan, of those Chinatown fish markets where the butchers whack the fish with crowbars before your eyes, the crowded Irving Street firetraps where they sell soursop and bittermelon, the cramped and mysterious apothecaries.

In fact, it's a little like visiting Chinatown, except the parking is easier. Over here are the roasted ducks hanging from a line (except they're behind a clean glass). The fresh fish section, not surprisingly, is the most impressive. Cascading stepped pools harbor live sea snails, mussels and clams with their siphons still sticking out. Aquarium tanks contain dozens of live catfish, trout, talipia with their trumpetlike mouths and "Main" lobster. Next to the squid and octopus is a dry box full of live crabs, known as blue crabs because of their iridescent blue legs. Deprived of water, they spit up little bubbles and flail about helplessly. When you try to pick them up with the tongs, their fire-red claws snap back at you.

The drug counter features Eastern Magic Juice, which cures impotence and "strengthens masculine and feminine qualities"; Double Snake Itch Removing Powder; and Strong Man Bao. But it also has aspirin and Pepto Bismol. The market carries soursop juice and Minute Maid; black jelly desserts and Oreos.

Main St. Mortem

MILPITAS HAS a Main Street that actually used to be the town's main street before the new freeways passed it up. Today it is an alley of auto shops, bars, motels, outdated strip malls and overgrown lots. The Main Street parade was canceled for lack of attendance, was revived in 1993 and is now facing extinction again.

It may be too late to revive Main Street, as City Council folk discuss doing from time to time. Almost everything that most people associate with a downtown is at the malls--the cafe and big bookstore is at McCarthy Ranch; the touring museum exhibit, the Fourth of July celebration and the chili cookoff are at the Great Mall. Not even City Hall is on Main Street anymore; it was relocated on Calaveras Boulevard in 1969. Across from the City Hall, a new development called Town Center has arisen. It is an outdoor mall.

Well, where is the town center except where the commerce is, where the people are? And why, except out of nostalgia, would that town center have to look like the Main Streets of yore?

Clarence Cromwell contributed to this article.

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro.

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