Mention suburban Asian American communities and southern California usually comes to mind—the San Gabriel Valley, or nearby Orange County—while the phrase Silicon Valley conjures up images of sprawling tech campuses like Google or Apple headquarters.
Yet Willow Lung-Amam readily debunks this impression with a walk through of Silicon Valley’s Asian American malls, which, starting in 1970, marked “a turning point from Asian Americans’ integration in the area’s rural economy to their embeddedness within its growing high-tech economy.”
As Asian American labor formed the backbone of the early tech industry’s assembly line, these largely Southeast Asian blue-collar workers settled close to their workplaces, in East San Jose. By 1982, they had made their presence felt with the ongoing construction of the 105,000-square-foot Lion Plaza.
“These malls were pan-Asian, ethnically diverse spaces that reflected the character of the Asian American community in San Jose during the period,” says Lung-Amam, pointing to the prevalence of shops and services geared towards both Chinese American and Vietnamese American customers.
But, by the mid-1990s, international students and immigrant professionals from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and India drove demand for a different sort of mall, in nearby Berryessa. Middle-class shopping centers in this area include Pacific Rim Plazas I and II, which Lung-Amam notes “were designed as more contemporary American shopping centers that were nearly indistinguishable from others in the area, except for their Asian-language signage.”
She adds, “These malls helped solidify Silicon Valley’s reputation as an important gateway for Asian immigrants, businesses, and financial capital.”
Higher-end shopping centers continued to flourish in the late 1990s, as cities like Milpitas, Fremont, and Cupertino became home to more middle-class and upper-middle-class populations than before. However, the growth of these malls also reflected “the swelling class and ethnic divide that had deepened among Asian Americans over the years,” especially during nationwide economic troubles in the 2000s.
Lung-Amam highlights the slower increase in Vietnamese American household income compared with the relatively greater prosperity of Chinese Americans and Indian Americans.
“In the face of such shifts, once-shared multi-ethnic spaces became more mono-ethnic, and the social and spatial divide between the haves and have-nots widened,” she writes.
In fact, lower-income Southeast Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinos “were being pushed to the margins of the Valley altogether” in this period, as the cost of living rose. Their exodus can be seen in the “decline and disinvestment” of East San Jose’s Asian malls. Lung-Amam observes that “the poor condition of many aging shopping centers” was a sore spot for local residents and politicians, while Vietnam Town, opened in 2007, proved a business flop within years.
For better or worse, Silicon Valley’s Asian-oriented shopping malls have, in this way, become what Lung-Amam calls “a repository” for “narratives of Asian American suburban community life.”
Editor’s note: This article was amended to delete a reference to the Grand Century shopping mall.