In the world of highly manicured Orange County communities, few are polished to the luster of Irvine. The master-planned, upscale city of cookie-cutter homes and broad boulevards looks every inch the stereotype of suburban living—orderly, safe and homogenous.
Yet just beneath the surface lies another Irvine, one of Buddhist temples and teahouses, a city with bustling Chinese markets and a university where nearly half the students are Asian. Once the epitome of conservative, white suburbia, Irvine is now a place where a person can spend a lifetime never having to speak English.
“I used to think I would retire someday and move to Chinatown,” said Yvonne Wang, who moved to Irvine from New Jersey in 1994. “Now Irvine is like Chinatown.”
Attracted by good schools, low crime and well-paying jobs, Irvine has become a destination for Asian American professionals, especially Chinese Americans. It’s home to one of the country’s biggest Chinese language schools, the largest Buddhist temple and monastery in Orange County, a Chinese orchestra and clubs for artists, students and senior citizens. More Chinese Americans live in Irvine than any other city in the county.
“A lot came in the last decade. The education system has clearly been a magnet; people don’t end up living here by accident,” said Irvine Mayor Beth Krom. “We are a Pacific Rim community, so it’s natural to see more Asian people.”
According to U.S. census estimates, 36.7% of Irvine’s 185,000 residents are Asian American. Of that, 21,757 are Chinese, up from 14,973 in 2000. Koreans, Vietnamese and Japanese constitute most of the remaining Asian Americans. Irvine schools, where classrooms are often heavily Chinese American, have become among the most competitive in the region.
Yet despite the heavy influx of Chinese, there is no Chinatown or strictly Chinese neighborhoods. Such enclaves are more often found in lower-income immigrant areas, places that don’t exist in Irvine. New arrivals here tend to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and academics with the language skills and money that many traditional immigrants don’t have.
And they are catered to in typical Orange County fashion, with neatly kept shopping centers and strip malls. The largest is Culver Plaza, home to Chinese banks, restaurants, tea shops and the sprawling 99 Ranch Market, which carries pickled lettuce, quail eggs, live catfish and moon cakes.
For culture, Chinese plays and operas are performed at the Irvine Barclay Theater.
Nancy Cheng, 75, a teacher and nurse, came to Irvine from Villa Park because she was constantly attending Chinese functions here.
“I never spoke so much Chinese in my life until I moved to Irvine,” she said.
The rapid transformation of the town from a predominantly white enclave to an increasingly Asian one can startle even the Chinese Americans.
“I came from San Bernardino, where I was the only Chinese girl in my school,” said Belinda Vong, a member of UC Irvine’s Chinese Assn. “I felt special. Not anymore.”
Kevin Lee is president of the association. He said UCI, which is 40% Asian, is often referred to as University of Chinese Immigrants.
“When you leave Irvine, it hits you that this is really a bubble,” he said. “A lot of Asians here take their culture for granted.”
Not those who came first. They remember when there were only a handful of Chinese Americans, when there were no clubs, when buying ingredients for dinner meant driving to Los Angeles and the idea of staging a Chinese opera was simply unthinkable.
“Ten years ago there was not one Chinese store. When I first came there were a few, mostly Taiwanese, residents. China had not opened up yet,” said Jimmy Ma, a leader in the Chinese American community. “The big reason people came was because of the schools. Chinese stress education. That’s how we compete.”
Ma and others rented high school classrooms for a Chinese language school. When the rent was raised, they decided to build their own facility. After years of planning, the $12-million, 44,000-square-foot South Coast Chinese Cultural Center opened in April.
The center’s Chinese school now has more than 1,000 students. It also offers Japanese and Korean language classes, along with Chinese dance, art, basketball and badminton courts. Students can also get academic tutoring and SAT preparation.
“We want our children to combine the good part of both cultures—Chinese and American,” said Joy Chao, who runs after-school programs at the center.
The school system has had to adapt to Asian immigrants. They have hired Chinese, Korean and Japanese-speaking staff. They hold regular meetings with parents to explain how the schools operate. Often, educators say, parents are keenly interested in what sort of academic performance is required to get their students into Harvard, Yale or Stanford.
“People talk about culture and they focus on the exterior, superficial things like food and festivals, but it’s really about a person’s worldview,” said Melodee Zamudio, who coordinates language programs for the Irvine school district. “Many of these kids come from a culture where education is such a precious gift, and you bring honor to the family by studying hard.”
At University High, 41% of the students are Asian American, the vast majority Chinese Americans, said assistant principal Chuck Keith. The Academic Performance Index is 891, putting it among the top 2% in the state.
As Chinese influence grows, local political leaders are learning that international disputes can now erupt at home.
That’s what happened in June when Mayor Krom went to China to establish a sister city arrangement with Xuhui, a region of Shanghai. She said a city staffer signed the agreement before she saw it. The deal required Irvine to recognize the One China Policy—meaning China and Taiwan were one, not two, countries. It also demanded that Irvine officials not travel to Taiwan where they have a sister-city relationship with Taoyuan.
Shortly after, nearly 200 protesters, originally from Taiwan, showed up at a City Council meeting, angry at what they saw as Irvine’s kowtowing to China.
The council quickly rescinded the sister-city deal and said it would renegotiate another only if it was strictly nonpolitical.
“We treat the Taiwan-China debate like religion—you don’t talk about it,” said Rose Cheung.
Her friend Susie Chu said, “It’s a fact, there are differences between the two.”
Chu and Cheung belong to the Irvine Evergreen Chinese Senior Assn., a group of about 400 senior citizens engaged in a wide array of cultural activities.
“My mom is 86 and never thought she could live in a place like Irvine and not have to speak English,” Chu said.
When she finished, Ying Chow, 62, stepped into the library. She revels in time spent at the temple, remembering when she had to drive to Hacienda Heights to attend services.
“Most of my friends are in Irvine now. It has become a real community for the Chinese. But it’s still surprising to see this temple here,” she said, folding her hands and smiling. “Orange County has really changed. I feel good about it, I feel very special.”
A multitude of Asian groups
Asian Americans account for almost 37% of Irvine’s population, and people of Chinese ancestry account for more than a third of the city’s Asian Americans. Irvine estimates the city’s total population at 185,000, while the 2005 census data estimate is 172,182.
In Irvine, the percentage of the population that is Asian American is 36.7%,
in Orange County 16%, and in the state 12.4%
Chinese in Irvine
Irvine’s residents of Chinese ancestry make up a higher proportion of the city’s Asian population than in either the county or the state.
Chinese as a percentage of all Asians, by region
Of California’s Asians – 25.5%
Of Orange County’s Asians – 15.8%
Of Irvine’s Asians – 34.5%
Sources: U.S. census data; 2005 American Community Survey