8Books Review: “Trespassers?: Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia”

Because I had grown up in neighboring Newark and then lived in Fremont California for many years before moving to San Jose, I was intensely curious to read what Trespassers? Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia by Willow S. Lung-Amam had to say about Asian Americans life in suburban Fremont.  Would it present anything that I didn’t know already? After reading the book, I was surprised at how much was new to me – primarily the amount of resistance Fremont’s Asian American community encountered when it starting asserting itself in areas ranging from education to shopping centers to housing.

Lung-Amam starts off her book describing how well-educated and well-off Asians working in Silicon Valley began to settle in Fremont. The suburban city became known as a comfortable and affordable place for Asian immigrants with the bonus of good schools, in particular, Mission San Jose High School. Fremont began transforming from a White working class town to wealthy majority Asian city with Asian cultural amenities, Asian shopping malls and top rated schools. When I was growing up in the 1970s, our family had to go to Oakland Chinatown to get Asian vegetables and other groceries. Back then, Mission San Jose was a sports powerhouse that generated football players like Gary Plummer, who won a Superbowl with the San Francisco 49ers. These days, grocery trips to Oakland Chinatown, which is struggling to survive, are totally unnecessary as you can buy almost anything Asian you want in Fremont. Mission San Jose High School’s football team is now dead, while the school’s debate, chess, and badminton teams are highly ranked.

Those changes didn’t go unnoticed and unopposed. Some Mission San Jose parents resented the academic bent of Asian American students and parents. A white flight from the school, similar to what happened in Cupertino, began. When Asian Americans began tearing down older single level homes and building large two story homes, some established residents pushed for zoning law changes to maintain neighborhood characteristics. Even the construction of Asian themed shopping centers met with resistance from city officials, particularly over the practice of creating retail condos, a common Asian practice where retailers own the site of their shop within a shopping center. Far from being stereotypically passive, Asian Americans aggressively fought changes in educational boundaries and housing rules, and the conflicts got quite nasty by some accounts. As Anjali Enjeti says in“Ghosts of White People Past: Witnessing White Flight From an Asian Ethnoburb,” Asian Americans cease being a model minority when they are a majority and as their community influence increases substantially. You can take a look at how strongly on issues residents there feel when you take a look at the comments of some of our own articles on Fremont, such as problems caused by Mission Peak hikers.

Lung-Amam does an excellent job of dealing with both sides of issues. She talked to people on both sides of issues and makes some excellent observation.  For example, it’s not only white parents who tired of the hypercompetitive academics of Mission San Jose, many Asian American parents felt the same (and I know some of those). Some of the resentments of established residents came from the feeling that Asian American residents didn’t value community, with practices like moving into an area while children attended Mission San Jose High School and then moving out after they graduate being perceived as negative for community cohesiveness.

The book left me with a few areas I wanted to read more about. One area that I would have been interested in knowing more about is the contrasts with nearby less wealthy Asian suburban areas. For example, neighboring Union City and Newark have large Asian populations, but those cities don’t have the same kind of reputation as Fremont and in particular, the Mission San Jose area.  Another impact of large wealthy Asian American populations is that they are targeted for crimes, in ways such as Indian Americans being robbed for their gold. Burglary has been a problem in the Asian ethnoburbs near me and in my own neighborhood, with some neighborhoods planning to gate their communities, and it would have been interesting to hear more about that. Finally, as Fremont has become a global destination, it would have been interesting to read how Fremont has had world-wide influence. A friend of mine went home to Bangalore and saw a housing subdivision that he described as “taking a piece of Fremont and dropping it into India.” Perhaps these can be subjects for her next book or research papers.

Overall, I thought it was an excellent book – thoroughly documented and fair, taking a look at both sides of many conflicts. I have only touched on the subjects that Lung-Amam covers in much more detail. She points out that many of the same struggles have taken place in other suburbs all over the US, and not just in the Bay Area but other places like Research Triangle Park in North Carolina or along Route 1 in New Jersey. We have discussed similar areas like Johns Creek, Georgia. One of the scenes she describes, such as the large groups of Tai Chi practitioners in Fremont’s Central park, is a favorite scene that I have taken out of town visitors to see. I recommend the book as a detailed look at how Asian Americans and suburbs have interacted in the recent past and what will be coming for more and more suburbs in the future.

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Author: Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.