Census 2001

Changing Faces
Asian population has significantly grown in past 10 years

by Geoff S. Fein

When Xiao Hong Shen and her husband, Min Wang, moved to Palo Alto in 1990, they noticed few other Asians in their neighborhood.

At the time the couple moved to the Midtown area, Asians made up just over 11 percent of Palo Alto's Asian population. Today, it's a different story.

According to recent Census data, Palo Alto's Asian community increased from 6,611 in 1990 to 10,090 in 2000, a gain of almost 66 percent. In contrast, the Caucasian population in Palo Alto dropped in the last decade by about 6 percent.

The group is no stranger to Santa Clara County. From Milpitas to Gilroy and up to Palo Alto, the Asian community accounts for 26 percent of the county's total population. There are 435,868 Asians in Santa Clara County. Among the 16 cities in the county, Palo Alto ranks eighth in Asian population.

There are several reasons why Asians are settling in Palo Alto, said Kathy Espinoza-Howard, director of Human Services for the city of Palo Alto. Some like Shen -- currently the assistant director for East Asian studies at Stanford -- and Wang -- a graphic artist employed by Adobe -- come for jobs.

Sgt. Scott Wong of the Palo Alto Police Department watches the intersection of Alma and Hamilton. He has been with the department for 19 years.

At Hewlett Packard, for example, the number of Asian employees has grown by 4 percent from July 15 1996 to July 15, 2001. In July 1996, Asians made up 21.73 percent of the computer company's workforce. Today Asians make up 25.29 percent.

Some Asians came to obtain advanced degrees in areas such as engineering and medicine. Still others came for Palo Alto's schools. These families want their children to get a top notch education.

"Chinese people value their children's education," said Liping Ma, principal of the Chinese Language School at Stanford. "(They're) willing to cut off other expenses to move here."

Stephen Levy, director of the California Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, said the immigration to the area probably represents changes in high technology jobs.

"Who is living here is who is working here," he said. "Asians have the same economic and educational profile as Caucasians who are here."

Levy added that it is a testimony to the valley's populace that immigration has gone smoothly.

But Asian families who have settled in Palo Alto differ economically and educationally from many Asians in surrounding areas, said Gloria Hom, head of the economics department at Mission College in Santa Clara.

Many of those who have moved to Palo Alto are venture capitalists or entrepreneurs, she said.

Hom recalled a statistic stating that of all the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, 25 percent are Asian, and predominately Chinese. That roughly translates into about 1,000 Asian entrepreneurs in the valley.

Hom has also noticed a difference between newly arrived Asian immigrants and those who have lived in Palo Alto for many years.

Recent immigrants will assimilate at work, but not socially, Hom added. "That's a shortcoming of ours," she said. "Today we are becoming more isolated than before."

Two women shop at the Stanford mall.

Hom sees the increase in the Asian population as a leading cause of isolation. In the past there were few Asians in the area. That made it harder to stay away from the mainstream, she said.

"I think it is detrimental to our social growth," Hom said.

Asians have also tended to shy away from political involvement, she said. One reason is that politics is considered unseemly. "We never had an Asian in the California State Senate," said Hom, who ran for the office herself last year.

She added there have been a few Asians in the state Assembly.

Political involvement even extends to voting, Hom added. Even in areas with higher Asian populations than Palo Alto, such as Cupertino, voter registration among Asians is low compared to the population.

There are no Asians on the Palo Alto City Council or on 10 of 11 commissions. There are, however, five Asians on the Youth Council.

The Palo Alto Police Department is no more representative of the growth in Asian population. There are five officers and two reservists out of 87 sworn officers.

Sgt. Scott Wong has been on the Palo Alto force for 19 years. He is also the president of the Peace Officers Association. Wong doesn't see himself being in the spotlight as one of the few Asians on the force

He recalled an incident where he was accused of stopping a car because the driver was Asian.

"People don't see the ethnicity, but the uniform first," he said.

Even though Wong is only one of five officers on the force, he doesn't believe the low number of Asian officers has anything to do with a reluctance to pursue a law enforcement career.

"We have recruiting difficulties in general," he said. "To say a specific ethnicity is difficult to recruit ... (I) can't say that."

Shen said many of the new immigrants want to be a part of mainstream American society. That's what brings so many Asians to Palo Alto, she added.

"The new immigrants didn't want to set up a Chinatown (in Palo Alto)," Shen said.

Asian families are moving to Palo Alto because of Silicon Valley's prosperity. According to Shen, they receive good educations from schools in Hong Kong, Taiwan or China, earn advance degrees from American universities and then get job offers in Silicon Valley.

"Palo Alto probably is not their first home," Shen said. "Maybe they had a home in San Jose and then moved to Palo Alto for the schools."

Shen believes many Asian immigrants, like her family and friends, come to Palo Alto for economic rather than political reasons.

Xiao Hong Shen is the assistant director of East Asian studies at Stanford.

"The political reasons are overblown by the media," she said.

Hom said it is cheaper for Asians to buy a home in Palo Alto than Taiwan or Hong Kong.

"Ten years ago a person in Hong Kong would buy a home (in Silicon Valley) with cash," she said. "Housing in Hong Kong is really high and you get almost nothing for your money."

Many Asians came to the area for college before returning to Hong Kong for a few years to make money. Then they come back to America and buy a house, Hom said.

"There are a number (of Asians) that have homes in Palo Alto but don't live here," she said.

Often, families buy a home so their children can attend Palo Alto's schools, said Ying Mitchell, group exercise coordinator at the YMCA of the Mid-Peninsula.

Mitchell has lived in Palo Alto with her husband and two children for seven years. They first moved to the area for jobs; she was a systems engineer with Apple Computers and her husband is a patent attorney. When the couple had their first child, Ying gave up her career and went into health and fitness. The couple settled on Palo Alto for the schools, the parks, and the family oriented community.

When Ying and her husband began looking for a house, they had to rely on the Realtor and friends to find out where things are in Palo Alto.

"You don't see any place to help people," she said. "A lot of information passes by networking."

The city is also trying to address the needs of the Asian community, Espinoza-Howard said. "We are concerned with the barriers to accessing resources," she said. "Services have to be rendered in a culturally sensitive way."

People providing services have to be well versed in the cultural aspects of the ethnicity they are serving, Espinoza-Howard said.

Raymond Leung sits in his office at Virage Logic in Fremont.

"It's a matter of building capacity in agencies, such as language," she said. "We know Asian and Latino seniors don't access Avenidas in the way they should."

Asian seniors are the second largest population of seniors served at Avenidas, according to Lisa Hendrickson, president of the senior service agency. Chinese is the second language one sees and hears at Avenidas.

"Three years ago 13 percent (of the seniors served at Avenidas) were Asian," she said. "If anything, its grown."

The influx of Asians has led to some changes in Palo Alto, although they are not readily noticeable.

"The library facilities have had to adjust to that," Shen said.

Shen said many Asian families go to Mountain View's library which has a better collection of Chinese books, movies and newspapers. "I'd like to see that happen here," she said.

The Palo Alto Public Libraries have begun to increase their collection of Chinese books for both adults and children, said Diane Jennings, manager Main library Services.

In the library's 2000-01 operating budget for purchase of collection items, the library funded $11,000 for 200 juvenile Chinese language books for Children's Library and 200 juvenile Chinese language books for Mitchell Park Library, Jennings said.

"We do plan to purchase more titles this year from the library's budget, but haven't yet decided how much to put towards the purchase," she said.

In addition, Friends of the Library spent $5,000 to purchase 100 adult Chinese language books for Main Library and 100 adult Chinese language books for Mitchell Park Library, Jennings added.

E-mail Geoff S. Fein at gfein@paweekly.com