Asian Immigrants Changing The Character Of California's Cities

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 10—Bright-eyed Nhan Dung is fascinated by the words com ing out of the earphones he is wearing, even though he does not know what they mean.

”He hugged the bug,” says the machine, and Dung repeats it, finding the whole business very funny. He laughs and the whole room seems to light up. For reasons of his own, perhaps to determine if there is a small man inside who is doing the talking, he lays his head on the machine, listens closely, and laughs again.

Nhan Dung is 5 years old, a Vietnamese refugee who, along with thousands of others, is being evaluated for bilingual classes in California’s increasingly polyglot educational system.

Engaging, penny-bright and quick as a squirrel, Dung is something of a symbol of the ethnically changing character of San Francisco and of urban California as a whole. It is a character that is increasingly Asian as, over the past decade, California has become a magnet for a rising tide of immigrants from all over the world, legal and illegal: the ”Ellis Island” of the 1980’s, as a Rand Corporation researcher put it.

More Growth Since Census

According to the most recent census data, 1.5 million Asians were legally admitted to the United States in the decade ended Sept. 30, 1980, almost doubling their number in this country. Their impact has been felt to some degree around the country, but nowhere so intensely as in California, where the Asian population stood at 1,253,987 in the 1980 census and has grown rapidly since then.

It is a palpable presence. In San Francisco, the population is now 21.7 percent Asian, up sharply from the 13.3 percent in 1970. For example, in the city’s Sunset District, a middle-class community of 25-year-old tract homes, a quiet pair of Buddhist monks, shavenheaded and gray-robed, stroll along streets where 15 years ago Mr. O’Malley might have tipped his hat to Mrs . Schwartz.

Along Irving Street, the district’s major shopping area, what once was the Russian Bakery is now Sheng Kee Chinese Bakery. The building of the Calvary Methodist Church is also home for the Chinese Gospel Church, and there are two pastors, the Rev. Wendy Pomery and Lan Nochi Huang. Services in Chinese are at 9:30 o’clock each Sunday morning, in English at 11 o’clock. Christ United Presbyterian has a service in Japanese and Korean United Presbyterian has services in Korean.

Along Noriega Street in the Sunset District, or along Clement in the Richmond District north across Golden Gate Park, a venturesome diner can sample Korean braised chicken, Filipino stuffed grape leaves, Thai lemon grass beef salad, Vietnamese Imperial Roll, Japanese sashimi, Szechuan Chinese prawns and Indian curried lamb.

Problems With Jobs and Housing

But along with the stir-fry of ethnic diversity, pungent as Asian spice, there are problems. The sharp rise in the number of Asians, their often deep cultural differences, their high visibility and their language difficulties have strained social services and created tensions over jobs and housing.

Nhan Dung and his family are one example. Neither he nor any of his seven brothers and sisters speak more than a word or two of English. Neither do their parents. In Saigon, which the family fled 15 months ago, the father ran a clothing store. Here neither he nor anyone else in the family is employed.

At the beginning of April, when Federal support for the special welfare programs for destitute Indochinese refugees was cut back, 96,000 people in California were getting such assistance.

California’s Secretary of Health, Marios Obledo, said the change meant that refugees like the Nanhs were ”virtually dumped into” the state’s hands. The state expects to have to spend $10 million more on welfare this year, $25 million more next year and $51 million the third year as a result of Federal cutbacks.

Bilingual Education Programs

The state school system now operates bilingual programs in Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Indochinese languages. ”We have about 30,000 youngsters who speak another language at home,” said Dr. Ana Horta, manager of the bilingual program. ”Of those, 15,000 have limited English capacity, and of that 15,000 about 30 percent are Chinese, 25 percent Hispanic, and now another 30 percent are Indochinese, the majority Vietnamese.” Ten percent more are Filipinos and a small number are Japanese.

The San Francisco Police Department is actively recruiting Chinesespeaking officers, and there are about 30 on the 1,200-member force. Nelson Lum, the department’s training officer in Chinese and English, said that bilingualism was probably less important than giving the Chinese community ”a sense of belonging.”

”When I was growing up cops were al ways white,” he said. Gloria Loui e, a staff member of a citizens’ group called Chinese for Affirmati ve Action, said the Chinese community wanted more bilingual off icers.

She complained that the department had been ”very resistant” to employing Chinese-speaking officers and observed that 1979 litigation mandated the current hiring program.

Although there have been some complaints about the influx of industrious, property-oriented Chinese who seem ready to pay any price for real estate in California’s superheated market, the more apparent strains have emerged around the Southeast Asian refugees, particularly those from the countryside, where traditional ways of life stand in sharp relief to those of urban California.

In San Francisco, for example, there was consternation when the authorities learned that the mysterious disappearance of ducks that had paddled the pond waters in Golden Gate Park was traceable to the conviction of some hill-country Asians that ducks were to eat, not to watch.

The health authorities are concerned about a rise in the tuberculosis rate in California over the past decade, a period in which the disease was declining elsewhere. Gloria Wall, chairman of the environmental health committee of the American Lung Association of Santa Clara-Benito Counties, said the increase was largely a result of the influx of legal and illegal immigrants from countries where the disease was still common.

Lois Wax, refugee coordinator for Orange County, which has attracted many Asians, said the refugees were a strain on the county’s resources.

”We already have a shortage of low-income housing,” she said. ”We’re concerned about developing community tension. There haven’t been any incidents but the atmosphere is there.”

Fred Ko ch, deputy superintendent of Los Ang eles County Schools, said: ”The Asian population is almost equal with the Hispanic population. How well they assimilate depends on the age group -K-3 make a very good transition, junior high, goo d, but by the time they get to high school, well, they never really m ake the transition.”

Two Programs to Aid Assimilation

As a result, the state has set up two programs to aid assimilation, one in Westminster, where 6,000 of the 71,000 residents are Vietnamese, and another in Santa Ana, where there are tensions between Asian and Hispanic residents.

”It’s like a keg of dynamite with a one-inch fuse,” Mr. Koch said. ”And I’m not just hollering fire.” While there have been no major incidents, he said tensions were building.

In Westminster, Asians slowly took over a failing shopping center on Bolsa Avenue, and have since developed a mile-long stretch of commercial enterprise dotted with Asian-owned retail and professional shops.

Clark Trainer of the Westminster Chamber of Commerce said, ”We have a joint committee with the mayor’s office with some of the prominent Vietnamese businessmen who are bilingual and we’re attempting to assimilate the Vietnamese business community into the Westminster community.”

Nonetheless, 150 signatures have been gathered on a petition asking the city not to grant any more business licenses to Asians. ”We did admit the petition,” said Mayor Kathy Buchoz, ”but in my own personal judgment, I determined that it was unconstitutional, un-American, illegal and a lot of other things besides.”

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