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Asians of Change
[whitespace] Iris Wang Asia Minor: Iris Wang, 4, learns Chinese characters at the privately-operated Great Success School in Cupertino, since Chinese isn't offered in public schools.

Skye Dunlap


In Cupertino, the number of residents with ancestral ties to China has exploded. Some longtime locals view this wave of immigration as a threat, while others see it as an opportunity.

By Michelle Ku and Pam Marino

WENDY WONG, who emigrated to Cupertino from Taiwan in the early 1970s, returned in 1995 after a three-year absence. She says she noticed that a dramatic change had taken place while she was gone. "Even I'm overwhelmed," Wong says. "Everyone understands Mandarin now."

In recent years, the landscape of the city of Cupertino has shifted on its axis. Mailboxes, Etc. sits next to Andrew Wu's Acupuncture and Herbs, and California Surfer is flanked by a floral shop and a hairstylist that announce their names in Chinese characters. Duke of Edinburgh shares a shopping center with Ranch 99 Market. Even the investment firm of Charles Schwab, on Stevens Creek Boulevard, acknowledged the city's transforming population by installing a Chinese sign to attract more customers.

Back when it was incorporated in 1955, Cupertino was a boomtown where orchards fell as contractors built ranch-style homes for a flood of eager buyers--almost all of whom were white. Over the past 15 years, the city has become a boomtown once again--but this time the influx of home-buyers is made up of mostly Asian immigrants.

This quickly shifting population has deeply affected the city's neighborhoods, schools, businesses and politics. Though many have embraced the changes, Cupertino's newfound multiculturalism has not been easy for everyone to understand and accept.

"On my whole block, 90 percent are Asian. I can't talk to them," one Caucasian man said at a public forum last year. He decried the use of Chinese languages in schools and other public places by immigrants and wanted to know why "they" were not making more of an effort to learn English.

Barry Chang, vice president of the Cupertino Union School District board, received hate mail and threatening phone calls after trustees considered implementing a Mandarin-immersion kindergarten class six months ago. "I was at the point of thinking of buying a gun and carrying a gun," Chang said.

Paul Fong, a Cupertino resident and a member of the Foothill/De Anza College District board of trustees, concurred: "As the [Asian] population is increasing, I hear more bigoted remarks, and the backlash increases."

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychology professor at Cal State-Hayward, isn't surprised by the tensions in Cupertino. Sue has studied multicultural psychology for 25 years and worked on President Clinton's initiative on race relations. He attributes the area's tensions to sheer numbers.

"Communities that reach a critical mass--and that critical mass is 20 to 25 percent racial ethnic minorities--when you reach that critical mass, the community and the schools are likely to have an increase of extreme tension, conflict and hostility," he says.

Sue believes that American society is still a "monoculture" at heart. "To be ethnic is to be deviant," he says. Minorities feel pressured to assimilate rather than maintain their own culture and customs, and that can lead to a sense of shame, or to a shift away from the predominant culture.

"People will cling onto their cultural values more when they feel a sense of invalidation," Sue says. "When you remove those invalidations, people will reach out more."

Duane Kubo, dean of the intercultural/international studies department at De Anza College, says it is not unusual for communities to feel threatened by immigrants. "The history of the United States is one of resentment and racism toward newcomers," Kubo says. "It's not just Asian groups, but every group--anti-Irish, anti-Italian, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish. We have a low tolerance for newcomers."

Sue says stereotyping and bias are born not from national values, but from human nature. "We're all in the same boat," he says.

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Integration anxiety is troubling local school districts.

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A Racist Tradition

CUPERTINO'S cultural transformation has occurred silently, at least in the public sphere. During the past two years, however, the city and school districts have tried to break through this silence by hosting forums to discuss the topic.

"If we walk away completely and stay out of it, something's going to happen," says city manager Don Brown. "Let's set it up so what happens is positive. If we do nothing, that's not guaranteed."

The events were well attended, but some residents, who've asked that their names not be published, now say they did not express their true opinions at the forums--for fear of being labeled racists. One resident said he was worried that Cupertino would become another "Chinatown."

This is not the first time Cupertino has experienced a quick influx of Chinese immigrants--and the resulting tension. During the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, Chinese miners came from across the Pacific Ocean in search of Gam Saan Haak--or Gold Mountain. These sojourners intended to make money quickly, then send it back to their families in China. Chinese workers made up the bulk of the labor force that built the railroads, dams, levees--the very infrastructure needed for the growing state.

Eventually the gold-seekers trickled down from the mountains and ended up in the Santa Clara Valley to find their fortunes in farming. In Cupertino, immigrants came from Italy, Yugoslavia, France, Germany, England and other parts of Europe, buying the Spanish ranchos one by one to plant wine grapes, prunes and apricots. Included in this early multicultural deluge were Chinese settlers, who leased land to grow and sell produce to local residents.

Michael Chang, a De Anza College instructor and the mayor of Cupertino, wrote an article for the Cupertino Historical Society last year stating that, "shocking as it might seem," the presence of early Chinese immigrants in the Old West was similar in scope to the presence of Asians in California today. Census figures show that Chinese people made up roughly 9 percent of the state's population from 1852 to 1880, as they do today. But in between, the numbers declined dramatically.

After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, mainly with Chinese labor, the West experienced another flood of migrants from the East Coast. With the increased population and the downturn of the economy, Chinese workers were scapegoated for taking away jobs that "belonged" to whites.

During the 1870s, many cities and counties along with state and national governments passed anti-Chinese legislation. California's revised constitution defined Chinese immigrants as "foreigners ineligible to become citizens," and prohibited employers from hiring Chinese laborers. Then, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited immigration from China. From 1880 to 1900, the Chinese population declined about 40 percent in California.

It wasn't until 1965 that Chinese nationals were once again allowed en masse into the United States, under the "family unification" clause of an immigration law passed that year. But the American government did not anticipate the flood of Asian immigrants.

Between 1965 and 1996, approximately 6.5 million Asians entered the country.

Of that number, more than one-third came to California.

Hopeful Business

A CENTURY AFTER the Gold Rush, California is experiencing another run for the riches--but this time to mine the silicon vein. And just as mining companies recruited labor power 100 years ago, technology companies have sought out intellectual muscle from every corner of the world. And Cupertino, located in the heart of Silicon Valley and boasting a worldwide reputation for having excellent schools, has become a magnet for immigrants from all over Asia.

In one decade, the Asian population in Cupertino nearly quadrupled--from 2,284 in 1980 to 9,046 in 1990. In those 10 years, the percentage of Asian residents in the city rose from 3 percent to 13 percent. The majority of the new residents were Chinese. The Asian population, and in particular the Chinese population, has continued to grow--according to some estimates almost doubling in the eight years since the last census.

The high-tech firms that employ many of these folks need a trained workforce, and, according to one city official, "they don't care what color it comes in."

According to most of the residents who were interviewed over the past few weeks for this article, that colorblind attitude is predominant in Cupertino, despite some stories of underlying tension.

Both Caucasian and Asian residents insisted time and again that Cupertino is an accepting community.

De Anza's Fong says that though he sees an increasing backlash against Asians, he views it as coming from a tiny portion of the community. "The bigoted feelings are pretty well confined to a small minority," he says.

Greg Jow, whose grandfather was born in California during the Gold Rush, and whose family raised chrysanthemums while he was growing up in Cupertino, agrees. Sitting in his neatly decorated Stevens Creek Boulevard office, Jow says he has hopes that the city's newest citizens will eventually blend into the community at large.

Jow now oversees five branch offices of AIG Insurance, including one in Cupertino. A past president of Rotary and the current board president of both Cupertino Community Services and Northwest YMCA, Jow says that by being active in the mainstream Silicon Valley community, he feels "more American." He says he hopes the more recent immigrants will one day become more active in the community as well.

"Asians tend to be on their own a lot of times; they're not joiners," Jow says. But he said he thinks eventually, as new immigrants assimilate, they will change. He believes that Cupertino has a good balance of people from around the world and that the different cultural groups can live in harmony here.

"The bottom line is we're all people, right?" he says.


Maggie Bensen contributed to this story, which is part of a three-part series running in the Cupertino Courier.

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From the October 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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