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Asian Influx Suburb Trnsfrmd

May 26, 2001

With an Asian Influx, a Suburb Finds Itself Transformed


FREMONT, Calif. -- It is hard to pin down the elusive tipping point when the old Fremont gave way to the new one.

Maybe it was when Hillside Drive was renamed Gurdwara Road, for the Gurdwara Sahib Temple, which Sikh residents built there. Mayor Gus Morrison recalled the discussion: "At a public meeting, someone got up and said, ĀI can't pronounce Gurdwara.' Then a Sikh stands up and says, ĀI can't pronounce Paseo Padre,' " referring to a major thoroughfare.

Or perhaps it was during the spate of burglaries of upper-end Asian homes when the city, on the advice of a Chinese-American citizens' group, placed advertisements in local Asian newspapers suggesting that families leave shoes on the porch when going out.

"We finally figured out the crooks knew if they didn't see shoes on the front porch, no one was home," said Chief Craig Steckler of the Police Department.

Whenever it was, there is little doubt that over the last 10 years, a blue-collar, lily-white, somewhat anonymous bedroom community, once best known for churning out Chevys and Toyotas, has essentially disappeared. In its place has arisen something dazzlingly different: a magnet for immigrants.

The city is a vivid example of a shift in the landscape as Asian immigrants, particularly new arrivals with professional degrees and entrepreneurial ambitions, forsake urban enclaves and move to the suburbs in such numbers that they transform them.

The new Fremonters include Silicon Valley engineers, entrepreneurs of every persuasion -- from Sikhs owning 7-Eleven stores to Chinese chief executives living in Mediterranean palazzos -- as well as Fijian Indians, Filipinos and one of the country's largest concentrations of Afghan refugees. The latest census figures disclose that the Asian population doubled since 1990 in this city of 206,000 people, to 37 percent from 19 percent.

And as change has come to Fremont, where orchards and cauliflower fields have been replaced by boulevards and 5,000-square-foot homes, an intense learning curve has followed, one likely to be replicated in many corners of America.

Nationally, the percentage of growth of the Asian population was 58 percent from 1990 to 2000, and Asians now account for 4 percent of the population. Among cities of more than 100,000 people, Fremont is one of five with the highest percentage of Asian residents.

The city, incorporated in 1956 from five towns, is trying to adapt to the multitude of cultures in its midst, people with widely differing circumstances, customs and worldviews.

At the elite Mission San Jose High School, whose students are 61 percent Asian, and where the senior class has 17 students tied for valedictorian, signs for the school election -- "Amanda Chan for Class Treasurer," "Sadaf Gowani for Secretary" -- reflect the transformed city.

So did last summer's Fourth of July parade, when a Sikh float decorated with a model of the Golden Temple in India took its place alongside those of the Furry Friends animal rescue group and the All Stars Cheerleading Squad.

But it has not gone off without a hitch. Two years ago, three white teenagers sprayed swastikas and white-pride slogans on a synagogue and a high school. Last year, county school officials rejected a move by some parents in the affluent Mission Peak neighborhood to create their own school district, which would have been over 60 percent Asian, partly because it would have created "an enclave of privilege."

Like much of the Bay Area, Fremont, where the mean household income has risen to $93,000 from $71,000 a decade ago, is short on moderately priced housing. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,400. This has profoundly affected Fremont's 20,000 Afghan refugees, among them an increasing number of professional women who have fled the country's ruling Taliban and relocated here through a United Nations program.

In one of many new rituals here, Afghan women meet at a community center on Wednesdays, after exercise class in their high heels and chador, or head-to-toe cloaks, and support one another over chapli kebab and coffee cake.

The city's newness and lack of physical cohesiveness -- there is no downtown -- may have served it well.

"There weren't that many old places to undo, and there's been a dedication to fitting everybody in," said John Landis, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California. "Fremont is not afraid of growth and not afraid of change. That makes it unusual in California."

The complex dance of cultures has changed here in hundreds of tiny ways. On a typical morning, Sikhs recite the morning prayers, or nitnem, on a live radio broadcast from the temple, while a few miles away, Thai Buddhist monks in saffron robes chant in another new temple.

But tensions percolate amid resplendent architecture. Every year, at the "Festival of India," which has become a mainstream event in the city, Sikhs demonstrate for Khalistan, an independent nation they hope to carve out of India's Punjab State.

Another highly emotional issue flared up in Fremont schools over kirpans, the sacred ceremonial swords signifying baptism, which are worn by Sikhs from childhood on. When some parents challenged a school district policy permitting the wearing of kirpans under certain conditions, Sikhs and the Fremont police worked out an agreement. Now they can be worn on a chain if concealed beneath an outer garment and wired into a scabbard. The blade must be blunted and be no longer than three and a half inches.

"It's a compromise we're doing for now," said Jagmeet Kaur, who is active in the Sikh community. "But it's not acceptable, really."

Chief Steckler finds himself embroiled in issues he never imagined.

Three years ago, the department broke up a melee in a parking lot after representatives of the Taliban spoke at a local mosque.

The police have also worked with the local Afghan Coalition and Afghan Women's Association to educate newcomers on child abuse, spousal abuse and other family and social issues.

Corporal punishment of children, widely accepted in Afghanistan, "can be a violation of law in California," Chief Steckler said. The city has sponsored community meetings about where corporal punishment ends and child abuse begins.

Many old-time Fremonters speak of how their lives have been broadened by the town's transformation. Yet some find it bewildering.

"You get to learn a lot about different nations," said Lindsey Johnson, a freshman at Mission San Jose High School. "But then it gets frustrating when you're in the minority. My best friend and I are blonde, light-eyed and in honors' classes.

"When we walk into the room you can tell from the body language they're thinking, ĀWhy are you in this class?' "

John Sullivan, who was recently laid off from his job at a biomedical company, reflected on his city of 40 years, saying:

"A lot has been gained. But when jobs are displaced and people see immigrants living in the hills and young people leaving because they can't afford to live here, it has to cause resentment. It's human nature."

Fremont, where more than 1,200 new high-tech businesses flourished over the past decade, has been buffeted by the recent economic downturns. Some start-ups have shut down; others have laid off workers. The layoffs are affecting skilled engineers and programmers from India and elsewhere who flocked here on work visas, an unknown number of whom are leaving the Bay Area or returning home.

Politics have yet to mirror the changed city. The five-member City Council has one Chinese-American.

"Very rarely do immigrant populations get integrated into the political system," said Richard Orsi, a history professor at California State University in nearby Hayward. "In Fremont, many of them are accomplished professionals leading busy lives. But it will come."

Jagmeet Kaur has lived in England and Canada but says she feels most at home in Fremont. "I see history," she said, standing outside the Gurdwara Sahib Temple. "I see my culture. It's all here."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information

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