How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Alhambra police use Chinese microblogging site Weibo for outreach (photos)

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Alhambra Police Chief Mark Yokoyama pulls up a page on his computer screen — his department's latest foray into social media. 

The design of the page resembles the department's Facebook page and posts are limited to 140-characters like on Twitter. But virtually everything is written in Chinese.

"This is the homepage of the Weibo page for the police department," Yokoyama said. "Obviously I can't read this myself."

But many of the city's roughly 30,000 Chinese residents can. Weibo is the most popular microblogging website in China, owed in part to the government's ban on Twitter and Facebook. After moving to the U.S., many immigrants still visit Weibo to stay in touch with friends and relatives in China.

Yokoyama's hope is that immigrants who may not be proficient in English go on Weibo to get everything from updates on crime trends to tips on crime prevention. 

"The more people have an element of trust and engagement with the police department, they're more likely to pick up the phone and get on the Weibo account and give us tips that have occurred," Yokoyama said. 

But many new Chinese immigrants have a hard time trusting the police, said Walter Yu. He emigrated from China when he was 18 and said in his home country, police are viewed as "not trustworthy, more thuggish."

"So people will say: Stay away from police as much as possible," Yu said.
A court interpreter for Chinese immigrants, Yu said he sees how miscommunication and cynicism about the police has created problems for some of his clients.

He wrote a column for the Alhambra Source several months ago under his pen name Walter Ma, encouraging city officials to use Weibo as a form of outreach with immigrants.

The police chief phoned him, and Yu volunteered his language skills. His task is to translate whatever is written on the Facebook page into Chinese for the Weibo page - which could mean several posts a day.

Yu said he's already seeing an impact. Just the other night, some Weibo users went online trying to learn out why a police chopper was flying around town.

"There was an auto-burglary suspect in the area," Yu said. "So they were very relieved to find out that the police were using the chopper to prevent crime instead of just creating noise."
There are more than 2,000 Weibo users following the police department's page as of Thursday. Yokoyama said at least half are people in China, who may have friends, relatives or business associates in Alhambra.

Nearby communities in the San Gabriel Valley are starting to take note. Yokoyama said he's been contacted by police in Monterey Park, where about 70 percent of the population is Asian, mostly of Chinese descent.
At the rate the Weibo page is growing in popularity -  the Facebook page, by comparison, has 1,600 "likes" about a year after its launch -  Yokoyama said he would like to develop a cadre of volunteer translators.

That'd be a relief for Yu, who said he refreshes the department's Facebook page "every 10 to 15 minutes" looking for the next post to translate.

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