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  • Building Ethnoburbia: The Emergence and Manifestation of the Chinese Ethnoburb in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley*
  • Wei Li (bio)

The emergence of a suburban Chinese community in Los Angeles’ Monterey Park over the past decades has attracted attention from scholars 1 and the media. 2 Joe Chung Fong’s 1996 article states that globalized-localized ethnic enclave economy perspectives “do not concretely address the fundamental question of how transnational migrants and their businesses developed ties with other transnational migrants within an evolving local community” in the San Gabriel valley area, where Monterey Park is located. 3 Other studies provide valuable information about and insights into San Gabriel valley’s Chinese communities, but they focus on either certain aspects like the ethnic economy 4 or politics 5 or a single city like Monterey Park, 6 with the exception of the studies by Joe Chung Fong, Leland Saito, and Yen Fen Zseng which discuss the situation in the San Gabriel valley as a whole. No study, however, has dealt comprehensively with the phenomenon of new suburban ethnic concentrations or on the new geographic parameters of ethnic settlement.

Some analysts have, in fact, referred to this type of new ethnic concentrations in suburbs as “suburban Chinatowns,” 7 implying the continuation of the traditional ethnic enclave in a different geographical location. Although embraced by some academics and the popular [End Page 1] media, that characterization appears to be quite inaccurate and indicates the need for more concerted research on the nature of new suburban ethnic settlements and their development contexts and trajectories. This conviction is shared by many community leaders in the San Gabriel valley, who consider such labels as “suburban Chinatown” to be inappropriate and misleading. 8

After moving to Los Angeles in 1991 and witnessing what had happened in the San Gabriel valley over a period of six years, I wondered why minority groups formed suburban clusters. Why have the Chinese clustered in the San Gabriel valley centered around Monterey Park? And why has that new suburban concentration formed in recent decades? Has another like community existed in another place or time? What are the underlying forces behind this community’s formation?

As I learned more about economic restructuring and globalization on the one hand and about Los Angeles’ regional circumstances on the other, I was able to piece together the information I gathered and link my findings to broader socio-economic and geopolitical contexts. I became convinced that the suburban ethnic concentration in the San Gabriel valley is not just another Chinatown, but is instead different from previously identified ethnic settlements. I have called this new form an ethnoburb (ethnic suburb). 9 I also realized that the processes driving ethnoburb formation may not be unique to the Chinese in Los Angeles, but may affect other ethnic minority groups in other localities. The phenomenon of ethnic communities emerging “from suburban main thoroughfares, criss-crossing, breaking down the borders between” communities is not unique to the San Gabriel valley, as some scholars have claimed. 10 Therefore, by studying the dynamics underlying the development of the San Gabriel valley Chinese community we can lay the foundation for future comparative studies of different ethnic groups and test the ethnoburb phenomenon in other places in urban America.

Ethnoburb formation is a complex process. Structural factors, institutional conditions, and agents’ activities all play important roles in the process. These factors include, but are not limited to, global geopolitical and economic structurings, U.S. national immigration and trade policies, [End Page 2] regulations and policies of local governments and institutions, and the practices of key individuals, organizations, and/or initiatives. Using contextual analyses, surveys, interviews, and participant-observation techniques, this study illuminates the complex coalescence of global and local, economic and political, individual and institutional, urban and suburban forces that led to an ethnoburb formation. In addition, the portrayal of current conditions in the ethnoburb suggests the intricacies of negotiating life and future prospects for this multiethnic suburban place.

Drawing on the above sources and analyses, this article will first delineate the stages of ethnoburb formation, and then discuss the following two questions: (1) How was the ethnoburb, as a particular ethnic place, created? What kinds of urban...

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