When the Chinese School in Irvine opened in the 1970s as a home for teaching the language and culture, only 30 students filled a handful of rented classrooms.
Now, it has its own campus, bursting with more than 1,200 pupils. It is a reflection of the explosive growth of Orange county’s Asian population, which ranks as the third-largest in the United States, after Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties.
In a sprawling county of three million residents, there are nearly 600,000 Asian Americans, marking a dramatic 41 per cent increase from 2000 to 2010.
Orange county’s Asian communities are also 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 neighbourhoods.
Until recently, the county’s most visible Asian cluster was Little Saigon, a once-sleepy central district which had been transformed by Vietnam war refugees into a bustling shopping and dining destination.
Since then, Asian American populations have spread in all directions.
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 in a surge of Latino and Asian residents.
But these days, signs of the diverse Asian population, which now includes Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan, Japanese and Bangladeshi, is more visible.
Affluent Irvine has the county’s largest Asian population, 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 centres across the city, which boasts ethnic plazas such as the polished Diamond Jamboree, an oasis of Asian-specialty stores.
At the plaza’s most consistently busy spot, a Taiwanese bakery and cafe called 85C, people lined up on a recent morning for fresh-baked brioche, squid-ink bread and pork-topped buns.
Among them was Emma Navarro-Cruz, 55, who said the plaza’s diversity of good quality Asian restaurants drew her to live in the area.
“I love Vietnamese food, and I love Thai, so when we came here I thought, ‘Wow, there are so many Asian restaurants in one place’,” said Navarro-Cruz, who immigrated from the Philippines. Leafy La Palma, in Orange county’s northwest corner, is the county’s first Asian-majority city, boasting 51 per cent of its nearly 16,000 residents.
“They are attracted to areas with good schools, good reputations and safe environments,” said Steve Hwangbo, a Korean-born city councillor who has lived in La Palma since the 1970s. “We’re in Orange county but near the edge of LA county, and it’s so convenient.”
“You know why people are coming to OC? OC is famous,” said Janet Wu, whose son and grandsons moved to La Palma a year ago. “They read about it, they talk about it. You have so much choice for education around here. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place like this?”
As much as any city, La Palma fits the pan-Asian model. Koreans slightly outnumber other Asian groups, but the town is a nearly equal blend of Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese and Japanese.
“It is like a big Asian family,” said Mike Song, owner of a Korean restaurant. But the new demographic report, which relies mainly on data from the US census and other government sources, paints a picture more complex than one of suburban ease and comfort.
Between 2007 and 2012, for instance, the number of unemployed Asian-Americans in the county jumped 123 per cent.
Today, more than 57,000 Orange county Asian Americans are living at the poverty level, according to the study.
“We want policymakers not to look at Asian-Americans as a homogeneous group,” said Kristin Sakaguchi, research analyst with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, one of the groups that produced the report.