en the Chinese School in Irvine opened in the 1970s as a home for teaching the native language and culture, only 30 students filled a handful of rented classrooms.
Now, it has its own campus — bursting with more than 1,200 students. It’s a reflection of the explosive growth of Orange County’s Asian population, which a new study now ranks as the third-largest in the nation, after Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties.
In a sprawling county of 3 million residents, today there are nearly 600,000 Asian Americans, marking a dramatic 41% increase from 2000 to 2010.
Orange County’s Asian communities also are developing differently from older ethnic enclaves. Rather than being dominated by one immigrant group, some of the area’s communities have a Pan-Asian feel, filled nearly equally with Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese — often sharing shopping districts and neighborhoods.
Until recently, the county’s most visible Asian cluster was Little Saigon, a once-sleepy central district transformed by Vietnam War refugees into a bustling shopping and dining destination.
Since then, Asian American populations have spread north and south.
Orange County’s shift from a mostly white suburb to an ethnic melting pot is far from new. In 2003, whites lost their majority status amid a surge of Latino and Asian residents.
But these days, signs of Orange County’s diverse Asian population — which now includes Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan, Japanese and Bangdaleshi — is more visible than ever.
Affluent, master-planned Irvine has the county’s largest Asian population, at almost 43%, and is among the better-known hubs.
“New immigrants are well educated, they are more wealthy, so they can afford to choose which place is good for their family,” said Yulan Chung, principal of the Chinese School. “Irvine just happens to be the hot spot.”
Multiple languages echo from coffee shops and tutoring centers across the city, which boasts ethnic plazas such as the polished Diamond Jamboree — an oasis of pho shops, Korean barbecues, sushi and Japanese curry restaurants — and other Asian-specialty stores where shoppers can find ancient seaweed facial masks;luobo, a Chinese radish; and kabucha, a squash.
At the plaza’s most consistently busy spot, a Taiwanese bakery and cafe called 85 C, people lined up on a recent morning for fresh-baked brioche, squid-ink bread and shredded pork-topped buns.
Among them was Emma Navarro-Cruz, 55, who said the plaza’s diversity of Asian restaurants drew her to live in neighboring Tustin.