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Is San Jose the Asian American Heartland?

he San Jose metro area is only fourth in the size of its Asian population, but it's a place of key firsts for Asian Americans. In 1971 its mostly white citizens elected Norman Mineta the first Asian mayor of a major mainland U.S. city. In 1974 the same voters made Mineta the first AA congressman from a mainland district. Three years later Roy Kusumoto helped kick off Santa Clara County's transformation into Silicon Valley by founding Solectron, a Milpitas company that would go on to become the first AA business to pass the $10 billion annual revenue mark. During the past two decades the Valley's Asian tech entrepreneurs and engineers spearheaded the nation's fastest AA population growth among major metro areas. Today Asians make up over 500,000 of the area's 1.7 million for a 29.4% share, tops among mainland metro areas.
San Jose
Asian American Heartland?

     Santa Clara Valley wasn't always so hospitable to Asians. In 1887 its early Chinatown of about 2,700 was lost to a suspicious fire. Most locals wanted the Chinese out of San Jose, and were angered when John Heinlen built brick structures around Fifth and Jackson and leased the space to Chinese. "Heinlenville" became the city's Chinatown until 1931 when it fell into disuse due to a dwindling Chinese population. The only structure spared the wrecking ball was a quasi-religious hall. Ng Shing Gung was eventually restored in 1991 to serve as a historic landmark.
     Japanese immigrants began settling in San Jose toward the end of the 19th century. They built their wooden shops and boarding houses alongside the Heinlenville Chinatown. Japantown's prospects brightened in 1907 when the bachelor field workers were allowed to bring over wives under the so-called Gentleman's Agreement. The Japanese population quickly surpassed the Chinese. But in 1921 all female Asian immigrants were again banned. The most devastating setback, however, came in 1943 when the area's 3,000 Japanese were evacuated to Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Japantown's 53 business owners lost 97% of their property value. Still, 40 businesses returned to Jackson Street after the evacuation order was rescinded in 1944.
     Santa Clara County's Asian population saw little growth during the first two postwar decades. The big influx began in the 1970s when the nascent tech boom created a demand for math-literate Chinese and Vietnamese engineers as well as unskilled refugees willing to do minimum-wage assembly. Today the area's biggest population boom is among the Vietnamese population. It is now served by four newspapers, three radio stations and a TV station. A vibrant Little Saigon along Tully Road has surpassed the Jackson Street Japantown as San Jose's most visible Asian concentration. But the long history of the area's Chinese and Japanese settlers have left an indelible imprint on the area's culinary scene. The area claims 76 Chinese and 35 Japanese restaurants. But the number of Vietnamese restaurants is already approaching 20. There are also 11 Indian, 7 Thai, 5 Corean and 2 Filipino restaurants.
     Today the most visible role played by the area's Asians is helping to keep Silicon Valley the center of global IT innovation. The likes of Pehong Chen, Bing Yeh and Jerry Yang have sweated through the tech downturn while repositioning companies like Broadvision, Silicon Storage Tech and Yahoo! for the long post-bubble runup into a wireless broadband world. In the process they are moving Asian Americans into a more central role in America's future, possibly in the way immigrant filmmakers ultimately moved Jews into the cozy center of the global mass media.
     One measure of AA success may be the fact that they live in towns like Saratoga, Mountain View, Los Altos Hills where average home values rival Hollywood bedroom communities like Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Malibu. Another may be the fact that in recent years the names of Silicon Valley Asians have been popping up in the serious media as frequently as those of Hollywood Jews. No exact figures are available but inside estimates put Asians at 20% of Silicon Valley's upper management and 40% of its professional and technical work force.
     So is Santa Clara Valley the closest thing we have to an Asian American heartland? Or is it just another fleeting boomtown with too many nouveau riche Asians?

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(Updated Tuesday, Apr 1, 2008, 05:56:48 PM)

San Jose is an extremely Asian friendly city. There are many districts in San JOse that have heavy Asian populations - I mean 30% and higher. Not to mention some of the surrounding towns (Cupertino, Milpitas). There are very few places in the whole county where an Asian restaurant is more than a 5 minute drive away. And frequently a 5 minute drive will take you past your choice of a dozen or more Asian restaurants. And how about all those Asian shopping centers that are springing up in Milpitas and East San Jose.

TSJ, I'm not sure if the "Asian friendly" character is due to numbers, though. I think Silicon Valley just attracts the type of folks who are open to different ideas and different types of people.

In Asian-American Studies at SJSU, Dr. Lou (is he still there?) said that that resentment and racism often starts when the numbers of the minority population grow large (I guess that's when the natives start to feel threatened). And the Asian population of Silicon Valley is quite large!
MTSO (formerly Just Me)
   Friday, April 26, 2002 at 23:56:28 (PDT)