Diversity has long been part of the fabric of Los Angeles and Southern California. Humans first arrived here at least 13,000 years ago and more than twenty Native American nations made their home here before the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish pueblo of Los Angeles was itself founded by people of Native, African, European, and mixed ancestries and in its early years as an American city it attracted substantial numbers of Armenians, Basques, Canadians, Chinese, Dutch, French, Germans, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, Russians, Serbians, Sicilians, and others. For some, ethnic enclaves came into existence (and often vanished). Other people have tended to spread out across the region rather than cluster together — which makes exploring their presence in Southern California more difficult but no less rewarding.
As of the 2010 census there were 196,691 Americans who identified themselves as being of Taiwanese origin. Although suburbs like Monterey Park and Rowland Heights have been nicknamed “Little Taipei,” there’s never been an official Taiwanese enclave in Los Angeles or, as far as I know, in any other American city. Actual numbers of Taiwanese-Americans are probably larger too than the census reflects, since self identifying as Taiwanese requires first checkin “other Asian” and then writing in Taiwanese. Despite this, Taiwanese-Americans are highly visible in California, where about 49% live, and in particular in Los Angeles and Orange counties. (Here’s a link to Taiwanese places in the Southland).
Los Angeles’s original Chinatown arose around 1880 and was centered around the intersection of Alameda and Macy (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). Most of the Chinese living there had come from Guangdong in southeast China to work on the construction of railroads.
In 1931, Old Chinatown was chosen as the site for Union Station and a new Chinatown arose nearby around New Chinatown and the walled China City (built partially from set pieces of 1937’s The Good Earth), which opened in 1938. In the decades that followed, Chinatown additionally attracted populations of overseas ethnic Chinese, especially from Vietnam, but less often from Taiwan. Most American Chinatowns are still dominated by Cantonese whereas Mandarin and Taiwanese, the main languages spoken and understood by Taiwanese, are less common.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the island of Taiwan was first settled between 20,000 to 30,000 years ago by a people who left little evidence of themselves but may’ve been the ancestors of modern Melanesians and indigenous Australians. Some 8,000 years ago the people known to us as Austronesians settled the island.
The Austronesians, ancestors of Taiwan’s so-called aborigines, colonized a vast network of islands across the Indian and Pacific oceans, from Madagascar to Rapa Nui and including Hawai’i, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. Efforts by the Han to settle the island were finally successful in the 16th century. They were soon joined in Taiwan in the 17th century by the Dutch and Spanish. The Portuguese called it “Ilha Formosa,” meaning “beautiful island” but no, The Formosa Café in West Hollywood is not a Taiwanese joint.
TAIWAN UNDER JAPANESE RULE
The Democratic State of Taiwan formally ceded from China in May of 1898. However, the new republic was conquered by Japan in October and Taiwan remained under Japanese rule from 1898 until 1945. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the US handed temporary administrative control of Taiwan to the Kuomintang (KMT)-administered Republic of China. The KMT were unpopular and corrupt. In 1947, a dispute between a cigarette vendor and a KMT official erupted into anti-government demonstrations which were brutally crushed and left 10,000 to 30,000 dead. It came to be known as the 228 Incident, after the date on which it began. After the uprising was crushed, martial law was instituted and a long period known as the White Terror began. In 1949, after the KMT were defeated in China’s Civil War, two million mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan in refuge and the KMT continued to rule Taiwan as a brutal dictatorship.
IMMIGRATION AND NATIONALITY ACT
It was only in 1968, after the enacting of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that the first substantial numbers of Taiwanese began to arrive in the US. The act abolished the National Origins Formula which had been in place since 1921 and had excluded most African and Asian immigrants from immigrating to the US. Most of the new non-European immigrants were graduate students or professionals and most of the Taiwanese forsook Chinatowns for suburbs like Flushing in New York and in California, the suburbs of San Jose, Monterey Park and others.
THE SAN GABRIEL VALLEY
Realtor Frederic Hsieh began promoting Monterey Park, located in the wester San Gabriel Valley, as the “Chinese Beverly Hills” in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 1970, when Hsieh bought his first property, Monterey Park was 15% Asian but almost entirely Japanese. In 1983, Lily Lee Chen became the first Asian female mayor of an American city but Taiwanese immigrants found that they weren’t always welcomed. In 1985, efforts were made to require English signage in Monterey Park and many Taiwanese moved to nearby Alhambra, Arcadia, North El Monte, San Marino, and Temple City. Additionally, with conditions significantly improved in Taiwan, there was less incentive to leave that country and immigration from Taiwan decreased although the slack was largely picked up by Hoa, Hongkongers, and Mainlanders.
At the other end of the valley, Taiwanese settled in Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights, Ramona, Rowland Heights, and Walnut. When plans were announced in 1981 to build Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple (佛光山西來寺) in Hacienda Heights, some residents expressed concern over the possibility of pre-dawn gongs, loud chanting, conversion of Christian children, and most amusingly, animal sacrifices. Despite hostility, the temple was completed in 1988 and, not surprisingly to anyone moderately educated about major religions, there was vegetarian food, not blood sports.
OPENING OF TAIWAN
The KMT’s leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, died in 1975. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo, assumed power in 1978 (after his father’s vice premier had served the rest of the elder Chiang’s term). In December of that year, the US normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China, a move which was welcomed by some Taiwanese-Americans even as many rejected the PROC’s claims that Taiwan is part of China. Chiang Ching-kuo relaxed some of the KMT’s harsh authoritarian rules but, although he assumed the title of Chairman rather than Director General, the junior dictator remained in power until his death in 1988. Martial Law ended the following year and Taiwan opened finally opened its doors to the world.
NEW TAIWAN CINEMA
Taiwan’s cinema had first gained international attention with Beijing-born Hu Jinquan (胡金銓) — better known as King Hu, who pioneered the wuxia subgenre of martial arts films first at Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio before moving to Taiwan in the late 1960s where he made classics like Dragon Gate Inn (龍門客棧) and A Touch of Zen (俠女).
Taiwan’s cinemas suffered from as VHS became more popular and Hong Kong films flooded theaters. Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Corporation responded by promoting Taiwanese directors like Chen Kun Hao, Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ko I-Chen, Sylvia Chang, Tao Te-Chen, and Ang Lee.
After making Pushing Hands (1992) and The Wedding Banquet (1993) in the US, Ang Lee returned to Taiwan to make 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman and again for 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. On television, the modern era of Taiwanese drama kicked off with Big Hospital, Little Doctor (2000). Although nowhere near as well-known internationally as Korean dramas, since 2006 Taiwan has produced about a dozen or so of the series a year.
Better known in the US than any Taiwanese television program are the CGI news videos produced by Next Media Animation (蘋果動新聞), which became widely viewed in America after their 2010 video about Tiger Woods‘s off-course antics. They entered the America television landscape when they engaged in a mock feud with Conan O’Brien.
FOUR ASIAN DRAGONS
Chiang Ching-kuo’s successor, Lee Teng-hui, was unlike the Chiangs, born in Taiwan. During his rule he introduced more democratic reforms and was ultimately expelled by the KMT for his support of Taiwanese independence from China (the KMT view the Republic of China as the legitimate ruler of mainland China and Taiwan). Taiwan’s economy developed rapidly in the 1990s and, along with Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore, it came to be known as one of Asia’s Four Little Dragons (or sometimes the Four Asian Tigers). When I was a child, a sticker stating “Made in Taiwan” or “Made in R.O.C.” was usually affixed to a cheap toy or low-tech appliance such as an alarm clock. When I visited my sister in Taipei in 2010, many of my friends still thought of Taiwan in that light; most of the rest got it confused with Thailand.
Nowadays Taiwan as a highly developed country which and that label, when seen, is more likely to be found on a bicycle or piece of sophisticated electronic equipment. Today (not counting very small sovereignties like Monaco, Singapore, and Vatican City), only Bangladesh is more densely populated than Taiwan. Taiwan implemented a modern health care system, the National Health Insurance (NHI) in 1995. Taipei 101, built in 2004, was the world’s tallest building until 2010. Taiwan High Speed Rail opened 2007.
SECOND NEW WAVE
A second new wave of Taiwanese Cinema introduced Chen Kuo-fu, Huang Ming-chuan, Jay Chou, Leste Chen, Stan Lai, Tsai Ming-liang, Tsui Siu Ming, Tom Lin, Yi Chih-yen, Yonfan Manshih, and Wu Nien-jen. In the US, there is a surprisingly long history of Chinese-American film, mainly produced in San Francisco’s Chinatown (birthplace of Bruce Lee) but it likely wasn’t until Peter Wang’s A Great Wall (1986) that a Taiwanese-American directed a feature film.
Taiwanese-American filmmakers whose careers followed include Arvin Chen, John M. Chu, Buena Park-raised Justin Lin (Shopping for Fangs, Better Luck Tomorrow, The Fast and the Furious 3–6), Melissa Yu, Ted Fu (of Wong Fu), Tiffany Frances, and Timothy Tau. Television writer and producer Alan Yang‘s parents are from Taiwan and film producer Dan Lin was born in Taipei and was raised in the Los Angeles area.
Well known Taiwanese-American actors include Jimmy Tsai, Lucy Liu, Michelle Krusciec, and Roger Fan. Taiwanese-American actress Elaine Kao was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley and actress Jessika Van is also from Los Angeles. Fernando Chien was born in Taipei, grew up in Canada, and now lives in Los Angeles. Ivan Shaw grew up in Upland. Kelvin Yu grew up in the Los Angeles area.
Newscaster Connie Chung, restaurateur/writer Eddie Huang (upon whose life the television series Fresh Off the Boat is based), and basketball player Jeremy Lin are all Taiwanese-Americans. Taiwanese-Angelenos include YouTube personality KevJumba, San Gabriel-raised singer Joanna Wang, talented dancer Sandra Chiu, and my occasional California Fool’s Gold companion Bruce Chan are also all Taiwanese-American.
Although there is no official Little Taipei, most Taiwanese-Americans in Southern California live in the San Gabriel Valley. Eight of the US’s ten most ethnic Chinese-dominated cities are in that valley and many if not most of them have roots in Taiwan. The San Gabriel Valley is also home to substantial numbers of Burmese, Filipino, Hmong, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese and its uniquely Pan-Asian-American culture is to me one of the most interesting aspects of Los Angeles’s diversity.
After Monterey Park, the city with the second largest percentage of Asian inhabitants is Cerritos, located not in the San Gabriel Valley but Southeast Los Angeles, a region with it’s own largely Asian suburbs like Artesia and La Mirada — although their populations more often come from the Philippines and Korea, respectively. More than 58% of Cerritos’s residents are Asian and ethnic Chinese comprise more than 11% of the population (Koreans comprise the largest ethnic group, at more than 17%). In Orange County, which is home to about 9,500 Taiwanese, Irvine has emerged as the undisputed epicenter of Taiwanese culture. The city’s Irvine Chinese School was founded in the late 1970s and it’s home to the county’s largest concentration of Taiwanese residents and restaurants.
There are several culinary contributions associated with Taiwan. Mongolian Barbecue is neither Mongolian nor barbecue. First appearing in the 1950s in Taipei, it’s actually derived from Japanese teppanyaki, but the Japanese being unpopular for their decades of occupation were replaced with the suitably exotic Mongolians. Not surprisingly, nomadic Mongolians traditionally rely on their herd animals for their nutritional needs and have no tradition of lugging around gargantuan iron griddles across the steppes. General Tso’s Chicken was created by Taiwan-based Hunanese chef Peng Chang-kuei (彭長貴) in 1955.
Bubble tea (aka boba) — invented in Taichung in the 1980s and now Instagram fodder for millions of teenage girls and other fans of tapioca balls in their drinks. Much older popular Taiwanese dishes include snow ice (aka baobing), and stinky tofu. There are also all kinds of vegetables consumed in Taiwan uncommon elsewhere and probably in some cases unique: Fiddlehead fern and water asparagus are just a couple that come to mind, but that’s partly because I don’t know the names of many. Monika Treut‘s documentary The Raw and the Cooked is an entertaining place to start (or revisit). Clarissa Wei is a Taiwanese-American food writer, much of whose work focuses on the Chinese and Taiwanese food scene in Los Angeles County. Check out her piece, 10 Best Taiwanese Restaurants in Los Angeles.
Taiwanese chains represented in the Southland include A & J Restaurant, Boiling Point, Din Tai Fung, 85C Bakery Café (in 2008, the first American franchise of the so-called “Taiwanese Starbucks” opened in Irvine), Four Sea Restaurant, The Guppy House, Meet Fresh, 101 Noodle Express, Quickly, Ten Ren Tea, and Tapioca Express. Taiwanese grocery chain 99 Ranch Market was founded in Little Saigon in 1984 by Taiwanese-American Roger H. Chen. In 2013, the Overseas Community Affairs Council instituted the Overseas Quality Restaurant program which awards outstanding Taiwanese restaurants with a OQR emblem, several of which can be found in Southern California.
Although night markets exist in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, they are perhaps popular nowhere more than in Taiwan, where they flourish within every reasonably large city. In 2012, Taiwanese-American couple Janet and Jonny Hwang launched the 626 Night Market, which after beginning in Pasadena moved to Arcadia. It’s now joined by the KTown Night Market in Koreatown, the Little Saigon Night Market in Little Saigon, the MPK Night Market in Monterey Park, and the OC Night Market in Costa Mesa.
Popular Taiwanese restaurants (or at least restaurants serving Taiwanese dishes) in Los Angeles County include A Plus Tea House, Au79 Tea Express, Bean Sprouts, Blockheads Shavery, Bull Demon King Cafe, Canaan Restaurant, Class 302, Copycat Café, Dolphin Bay Café, Earthen Restaurant, Good Shine Kitchen, Hot Spot, Huge Tree Pastry, Jazz Cat Restaurant, Ju Ju Shine, Kang Kang Food Court, Lee’s Garden, Mama Lu’s Dumpling House, Mandarin Noodle House, Mighty Boba Truck, MJ Café Express, Monja Taiker, Nice Time Café, Noodle King, Old Country Café, Pine & Crane, Pingtung, Remy’s Noodle Palace, ROC Kitchen, SinBala Restaurant, Taipei Bistro, Tasty Noodle House, Tbay, Tofu King, Vege Paradise, Volcano Tea House, Why Thirsty, Wonderful Restaurant (likely the oldest Taiwanese restaurant in Los Angeles County), and Yi Mei.
At pijiu wu, beer is the main attraction and its consumption is encouraged by hot, salty, and often fried snack. Local pijiu wu include B20 Bar & Grill, Jurassic Restaurant, Uncle Yu’s Indian Theme Restaurant, and Wala Wala Restaurant. The pijiu wu are often themed, something I first encountered at the Bavarian themed Der Löwe in Taipei. Sadly, the lavatory-themed Magic Restroom Café closed before I had a chance to experience it.
Taiwanese restaurants and those serving Taiwanese dishes in Orange County include Ah-Lien Hot Pot, The Balcony Grill & Bar, Capital Express Drink, Cha for Tea, Champion Food, Chef Chen, Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle, Class 302 Café, Diho Bakery, First Sandwich, Formosa Chinese Restaurant, Four Sea Restaurant, Guppy House, Han Taiwanese Restaurant, Home Town Deli, I-Tea Café, J.J. Bakery, Kingchops, Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, MJ Cafe Express, Nice Food Restaurant, O’Shine Taiwanese Kitchen, Popcorn Chicken, 17 Cafe Ramen, Tasty Noodle House, Tea Station, Tofu King, and Yu’s Garden.
Aspects of Taiwanese culture that are popular in the US include the food, night markets, boba, wuxia, and pijiu wu whilst others, such as betel nut kiosks and graveside erotic dancers remain unknown here. Only able to understand about five words of Mandarin, I can’t comment on the subject matter of most local Chinese media. There are, however, radio stations and several Chinese television stations.
AM 1300 KAZN launched in 1993. Originally broadcasting programs in sixteen different languages, today it is in Mandarin. For people with broadcast televisions, 18.8, 31.7, 31.8, 44.3, 44.6, 44.7, 44.8, 44.9, 57.9, 62.2, and 62.6 all broadcast in Chinese — although I’m not sure which are in Cantonese, which are in Mandarin, and which are in Taiwanese or some other language. Let me know if any show glove puppetry program Pili.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, as part of their mission to promote Taiwanese culture overseas, oversees the Taiwan Academy which operates branches in numerous countries. The Los Angeles branch, Taiwan Academy in Los Angeles, opened in Westwood (at 1137 Westwood Blvd.) in 2014 and is open from 9 am to 6 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Their programing includes free music, dance, lectures, food in Westwood and occasionally, the Diamond Bar Public Library. I was told, too, that there are free Taiwanese films every Thursday and that if one shows up early enough, usually free pizza! (The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles has Korean movie nights on the same night which have been known to offer pastries and coffee beforehand — you decide). On 1 May 2015 the Taiwan Academy in Los Angeles is organizing the Taiwan Films in Retrospect. The academy is served by Big Blue Bus‘s 1, 2, 3M, 8, 12, and Rapid 12 lines; Culver City Bus‘s Route 6 and Rapid Route 6; Metro‘s 2/302, 305, 734, and Valley/Westside Express lines; and LA DOT‘s 431, 534, and 573 Commuter Express lines. For the incredibly patient, 2035 is the unlikely date that the Purple Line Subway to the Sea (or at least toward the sea) is scheduled to arrive.
The 16th annual Taiwanese American Heritage Week celebration will take place at the Cal State L.A. Student Union in University Hills on 17 and 18 May, from 10:00 am – 7:00 pm. It is scheduled to include seminars, art exhibits, glove puppetry, karaoke, live entertainment, and food. Entry is free. Cal State LA Station is served by Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line, Alhambra Community Transit, East LA Sol, Foothill Transit, Monterey Park Spirit Bus, and Metro‘s 71, 76, 256, and 487/489 lines.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing,Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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