Urban Studies Asian and Asian American Suburbs in the United States
James Zarsadiaz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0043


Asians and Asian Americans are the most suburbanized people of color in the United States. While Asians and Asian Americans have been moving to the metropolitan fringe since the 1940s, their settlement accelerated in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. This was partly the result of relaxed US immigration policies following the 1965 Hart-Celler Act. Globalization and burgeoning transnational economies across the so-called Pacific Rim also encouraged outmigration. Whether it is Korean or Indian immigrants in northern New Jersey or Vietnamese refugees in suburban Houston, Asians and Asian Americans have shifted Americans’ understandings of “typical” suburbia. In the late 1980s, academic researchers and policymakers started paying closer attention to this phenomenon, especially in Southern California, where Asians and Asian Americans often clustered together in select suburbs. Sociologists, in particular, observed how greater Los Angeles’s economic, political, and built landscapes changed as immigrants and refugees—predominantly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, India, and Vietnam—established roots throughout the region, including Orange County. Since then, other studies of heavily populated Asian and Asian American ethnic suburbs—or “ethnoburbs”—have emerged, including research on New York City, Boston, and Washington, DC. Nonetheless, scholarship remains focused on Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, and other hubs of the metropolitan West Coast. Research and scholarship on Asians and Asian Americans living in the suburbs has grown over the last decade. This is partly a response to demographic shifts occurring beyond the coasts. Moreover, geographers, historians, and urban planners have joined the discussion, producing critical studies on race, class, architecture, and political economy. Despite the breadth and depth of recent research, literature on Asian and Asian American suburbanization remains limited. There is thus much room for additional research on this subject, given a majority of Asians and Asian Americans in the United States live outside city limits.

The Origins and Experiences of Southern California’s “Suburban Chinatowns” and Asian “Ethnoburbs”

The impact of Asians and Asian Americans in US suburbia begins during the Cold War. Middle-class Chinese and Japanese Americans settled in the suburbs as early as the 1940s, particularly around Los Angeles and San Francisco. Many moved from Los Angeles’s Chinatown and Little Tokyo as well as San Francisco’s Chinatown and Japantown. After the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act—which lifted racial quotas that had restricted Asian and Latinx immigrants for decades—Asian and Asian American suburbanization expanded during the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, middle-class and affluent Asian immigrants generally bypassed the city and urban Chinatowns altogether and settled directly into the suburbs. Works by social scientists, such as Fong 1994, Horton 1995, and Saito 1998, suggest that the LA suburb of Monterey Park (also known as the “first suburban Chinatown”) was a microcosm of what was to become a trend across metropolitan America: Asians and Asian Americans exerting their influence and creating ethnic enclaves beyond the city. Fong, Horton, and Saito describe, respectively, how Monterey Park diversified; how white and Latinx residents coped with ethnic change and Asians’ overt presence in the cultural, political, and built landscape; and how race functioned in the age of multiculturalism. Building off this body of literature, Li 1999 and Li 2012 argue that structural changes in the international marketplace transformed greater Los Angeles, Monterey Park, and neighboring towns in the San Gabriel Valley. Rather than focusing on politics and white resistance to Asian and Asian American suburbanization, like Fong, Horton, and Saito, Li illustrates the Chinese diaspora’s influence over the regional economy (e.g., the rise of transnational businesses, import-export firms, and Chinese banks). Beyond the financial impact, Nicolaides and Zarsadiaz 2017 demonstrates how Asians and Asian Americans played a role in preserving the San Gabriel Valley’s local design cultures and codes during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in upscale suburbs. The authors believe Fong, Horton, and Saito’s example of middle-class Monterey Park and Li’s mostly working- and middle-class “ethnoburbs” contrasted with what they call “design assimilation” suburbs. In these affluent communities, Asian and Asian American homeowners intentionally masked their ethnic heritage to bring minimal attention to their racial “otherness.” By embracing the mores of “typical” Euro-American suburban aesthetics, Asians and Asian Americans were able to claim degrees of assimilation in the San Gabriel Valley’s more prosperous suburbs like San Marino or Walnut. While much of the existing literature focuses on the impact of diasporic Chinese families, Filipino, Indian, and Korean immigrants, as well as Vietnamese refugees, have also suburbanized at notable rates over the last half century. Vo and Danico 2004 and Vo 2008 claim that Korean and Vietnamese Americans forged distinct suburban enclaves and cultural districts partly because of their unique patterns of migration. Research on Asian suburban experiences and “ethnoburbs” remains skewed toward Southern California. There is plenty of room for additional research and scholarship about these phenomena beyond the West Coast.

  • Fong, Timothy. The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

    This is among the first full-length studies illustrating the impact of Asians and Asian Americans living in a suburban community. This should be read alongside Horton 1995 and Saito 1998.

  • Horton, John. The Politics of Diversity: Immigration, Resistance, and Change in Monterey Park, California. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

    Horton details residents’ reactions to multiculturalism and Asian and Asian American settlement in the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park. This should be read alongside Fong 1994 and Saito 1998.

  • Li, Wei. “Building Ethnoburbia: The Emergence and Manifestation of the Chinese Ethnoburb in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley.” Journal of Asian American Studies 2.1 (1999): 1–28.

    DOI: 10.1353/jaas.1999.0009

    Li coins the term “ethnoburb” to describe an area with a high concentration of a particular ethnic group. Focusing on LA’s San Gabriel Valley, Li explains how immigrants built a transnational commercial and residential hub for Southern California’s Chinese diaspora. This should be read alongside Li 2012 and Vo 2008.

  • Li, Wei. Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012.

    Li argues that economic and political conditions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China encouraged outmigration to California during the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike previous waves of poorer Chinese immigrants, this cohort also comprised wealthier professionals, many of whom sought suburban homeownership. Together, both working-class and affluent immigrants created ethnoburban economies across Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley. This should be read alongside Li 1999.

  • Nicolaides, Becky, and James Zarsadiaz. “Design Assimilation in Suburbia: Asian Americans, Built Landscapes, and Suburban Advantage in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley since 1970.” Journal of Urban History 43.2 (2017): 332–371.

    DOI: 10.1177/0096144215610773

    Nicolaides and Zarsadiaz argue that class and the international legibility of Euro-American suburban design informed how “ethnic” Asian-majority suburbs looked or felt in LA’s San Gabriel Valley. Rather than embracing Asian architecture or aesthetics, wealthier Asian immigrants oftentimes preferred and rallied behind traditional suburban design codes to demonstrate their assimilation. This should be read alongside Li 2012 and Lung-Amam 2017 (cited under Culture and Community-Building in Asian and Asian American Suburbs).

  • Saito, Leland. Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

    Saito examines how residents, politicians, and other local actors coped with racial and ethnic change—particularly regarding Asian Americans—in the multiracial LA suburb of Monterey Park. This should be read alongside Fong 1994 and Horton 1995.

  • Vo, Linda Trinh. “Constructing a Vietnamese American Community: Economic and Political Transformation in Little Saigon, Orange County.” Amerasia 34.3 (2008): 84–109.

    DOI: 10.17953/amer.34.3.82340l2rmn866108

    Vo focuses on how Vietnamese refugees forged a sense of place in the Orange County suburbs of Westminster, Garden Grove, and Santa Ana. Numerous resources and networks in the region facilitated what would become the highest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the United States. This should be read alongside Aguilar-San Juan 2009 and Meyers 2006 (both under Culture and Community-Building in Asian and Asian American Suburbs), Li 2012, and Vo and Danico 2004.

  • Vo, Linda Trinh, and Mary Yu Danico. “The Formation of Post-Suburban Communities: Koreatown and Little Saigon, Orange County.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 24.7–8 (2004): 15–45.

    DOI: 10.1108/01443330410791000

    Vo and Danico illustrate the emergence of Korean and Vietnamese enclaves in Orange County. Through a sociological lens, the authors describe the economic, political, social, and cultural impact of both populations, as well as their respective struggles for inclusion in what were generally conservative white suburbs. This should be read alongside Aguilar-San Juan 2009 and Meyers 2006 (both cited under Culture and Community-Building in Asian and Asian American Suburbs), Li 2012, and Vo 2008.

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