How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Irvine's Asian population booms, boosting the local real estate market

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Construction dust thinly veils one of Irvine's newest neighborhoods, where real estate agent Marian Tsai is showing a Spanish-style model home.

Her Chinese-speaking clients are two sisters, both retirees who've been living in other states but want to relocate their families to this Orange County city.

"They want to live together and take care of each other," Tsai said. And they want to buy now, because "they worry about that in the future, price will go up and up." 

Irvine is one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation, thanks, in no small part, to its appeal to Asian homebuyers attracted to the planned community’s wide boulevards, open space and whirl of new construction.

The last ten years has seen a boom in Irvine's Asian community; it's at 39 percent of the city's population, up 10 percent from a decade ago, according to the 2010 census. Newcomers have helped turn Irvine into the fastest-growing major city in California.

For decades, communities such as Monterey Park and San Gabriel have been gateway cities for Asian immigrants — but increasingly Irvine is a top draw for some affluent members of the community.

"They know the country very well, speak the language and they have become upper-middle class," said Yong Chen, a professor of Asian-American history at the University of California, Irvine.

Maybe Harvard

Inside the Irvine restaurant, Class 302, young women dressed as uniformed schoolgirls serve  Taiwanese street food. Bowei Jiang dines on pork noodle soup with co-workers from a nearby semi-conductor company.

"There's all kinds of Asian restaurants here — like this place," Jiang said. "The other thing is, you can buy all kinds of Asian cooking materials."

The Shanghai native picks up groceries at H-Mart and 99 Ranch Market and can hit the Diamond Jamboree shopping center for freshly baked Taiwanese pastries.

Aside from the convenience, Jiang said he likes Irvine because it's safe: The FBI has ranked Irvine the country's safest city for the ninth year in a row.

But Jiang said the most important thing for him is Irvine's highly regarded public schools

He's hoping his son — just 2 years old right now — can get into an elite college one day.

"Maybe Harvard … Stanford … something," Jiang said.

A post-modern Chinatown

Asian studies experts say Irvine represents the latest phase of Asian migration within the U.S. When Asian laborers arrived in the 19th century, they settled together in "Chinatowns" in cities large and small. 

Then came the 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished immigration quotas that had long discriminated against ethnic groups, including Asians.

"After 1965, [Asian immigrants] did not go to the old Chinatown," said Yong Chen, history professor at UC Irvine. "They created their own communities in suburban America."

Chen said that, by then, economic conditions in some Asian countries had improved, and many immigrants had more money and education than their predecessors.

The newcomers fanned out across the San Gabriel Valley to communities such as San Gabriel and Alhambra. One of the most popular spots, Monterey Park, was dubbed the "Chinese Beverly Hills" and "Little Taipei." It is still a first stop for many new immigrants.

"Basically, you can function there with very limited English language skills," Chen said.

But Chen noted that as some immigrants adapted to the American lifestyle, they started to move to places that had less-established Asian communities but offered newer homes and better-paying jobs.

"Beginning from the end of the 20th century, a newer type of Chinatown started to emerge, which I have tried to characterize as post-modern Chinatown, represented by places like Irvine," Chen said.

Tech hub

In many ways, Irvine resembles the Silicon Valley communities of Cupertino and Sunnyvale.

Like its northern counterparts, Irvine has become a high-tech hub that attracts large numbers of Asian employees.

Automotive companies Hyundai and KIA both have corporate offices in Irvine, as does Vizio, maker of HDTVs.

Thomas Peng works in Irvine as a software design manager, but lives in San Marino, an exclusive enclave in the San Gabriel Valley — a place with a majority Asian population and top-performing schools.

San Marino is a destination community for many, but Peng is considering moving his young family to Irvine, where he feels there is more energy.

Also, "the new houses here have high ceilings and wide open space, and I think it's very appealing to a lot of homeowners," Peng said.

A 32-year-old computer systems planner, Amy Lee doesn't have a family yet. But if she did, Irvine, her home for the past seven years, is the place where she'd raise her kids.

"I like it because it's quiet, and the roads are open," Lee said.

Feng shui sells

Over the last decade, Asian-Americans have become increasingly high-profile in Irvine. A Vietnamese-American woman heads the Chamber of Commerce. Last year, the city elected its second Korean-American mayor.

As Asia's economy expands, more wealthy people from abroad are moving directly to Irvine — cash in hand.

"They're more looking at it as buying a place where the kid moves into it and goes to school over here and goes to college," said Emile Haddad, President and CEO of FivePoint Communities, a developer in Irvine. "Then the parents come and visit, and they have a place in the United States."

Haddad said these international buyers are inspiring new home designs. Open floor plans and large kitchen islands are popular for all kinds of homebuyers — but especially important to the Chinese design philosophy of feng shui.

Builders are also mindful of accommodating elderly parents in multi-generational households — giving them their own living area, kitchenette and entrance.

"We also have — believe it or not — consultants who advise us on even naming of streets where we want to make sure that we are cognizant of whether certain names might have a bad meaning," Haddad said.

Unlucky for some

The number four, for example, is considered no good because in Chinese it sounds similar to the word for "death" — something Irvine resident Julia Garrison learned when she bought her home last year.

Her address contains the number "4," and that, she's been told, may have helped her land a great deal on the house, even though she was up against buyers willing to pay cash.

"People were going to buy it but they dropped out — three times, at the last minute," Garrison said.

Regardless of her address, Garrison's home value is likely to go up. Irvine real estate prices have risen 27 percent from last year, and the median home price is nearly $745,000.

If trends continue, Asian homebuyers will dominate the Irvine market. According to the real estate information firm DataQuick, the 25 most common last names of homebuyers this year  have been Asian in origin. The top three names? Chen, Lee and Wang.

It should be noted that Asians have fewer unique surnames than many other ethnic groups. But even with that caveat, buyers with those names accounted for about 700 sales so far this year - or about 25 percent of total sales in Irvine.

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