How Los Angeles County became home to the biggest AAPI communities in the country

Abstract photo illustration.
(Los Angeles Times / Getty Images)

Los Angeles County is home to more Asian Americans than any other county in the United States. California is home to roughly 6 million Asians and Pacific Islanders, the most in the country, with the seven Southern California counties accounting for half of the state’s AAPI population. And Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in the nation. To understand the Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora in Southern California, the Los Angeles Times analyzed 40 years of data from the Census Bureau.

For decades, census forms treated Asians as a monolith and did not include categories for each race group. Coming from dozens of communities, most of them associated with the largest continent in the world, nearly a million Asians and Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles County in 1980 were recorded only as “Other." More than a quarter of the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population in Los Angeles still report belonging to a group not listed on the latest census forms. The allocation of federal resources and funding depends on a complete enumeration of AAPI communities. There are more than 25 Asian countries and five countries in the Pacific Islander community acknowledged by federal statistics.

First imagined as a political identity, the term "Asian American" was coined in the late 1960s by Chinese, Japanese and Filipino American activists in California. Today it refers to ethnic groups who trace their origins to East, Southeast, South and Central Asia. Asian & Pacific American Heritage Month, celebrated in May, also commemorates Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders from Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.

Read more: Why having accessible data is important. Here’s how we dived into statistics to understand AAPI communities in Southern California

AAPI communities have existed in Southern California since the 1800s, with ethnic enclaves such as Old Chinatown and Little Tokyo established by some of the region’s first Asian settlers. Neighborhoods such as Koreatown, Historic Filipinotown and Thai Town formed from a later influx of immigration after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened the door to widespread migration from Asia. The AAPI population in Los Angeles grew from 198,000 in 1970 to almost a million in 1990, according to researchers at UCLA.

There are 14 Asian-majority suburbs in Los Angeles County, and all but one, Cerritos, are in the San Gabriel Valley. L.A. County has gained 2 million people since 1980, with the Asian population more than tripling from 417,000 to over 1.4 million today. Areas such as Monterey Park, Koreatown, Long Beach, Torrance and Cerritos each became home to between 10,000 and 18,000 Asians in the 1980s. Forty years later, these communities have tripled in size. Santa Clarita is home to the fastest-growing Asian population, from less than 600 to nearly 19,000 today.

The data on immigration to Los Angeles from Asia and the Pacific tell a story older than the city itself: Antonio Miranda Rodriguez, a Filipino recorded in the census in 1783, was part of a group of settlers credited with founding the pueblo that became Los Angeles.

Other groups trace similarly long lineages. Chinese workers were recorded in the census in 1850, the first year it included California, which became a state that year. Japanese immigrants first appeared in the census for the state in 1870, when two Japanese-born men were recorded as servants to a judge in San Marino.

The earliest Asian communities were often shaped as a result of restrictive laws and geopolitics. Chinese settlers congregated around Los Angeles Plaza, the original settlement of the city of Los Angeles, not only to find a shared sense of community among shared language and culture, but to protect themselves from rising anti-Chinese movements in the 1870s and '80s.

The 1910 census recorded Korean, Filipino and Indian as part of the “Other” category. By 1920, these immigrant Asian groups grew, warranting separate categories for the survey.

After the Spanish-American War, the United States colonized the Philippines until 1946, opening up migration to the country until quotas limited the number of Filipinos allowed to immigrate. Increased immigration from Korea prompted the census to add Koreans back to the form in 1970, after dropping the category in 1950. Similarly, in 1980, the Indian category was added back onto the form to reflect the increased immigration of Indians.

Asian immigrants, like other nonwhite residents in the city, often had their mobility limited by racist laws. Housing covenants limited Japanese, Chinese and other nonwhite residents from moving into certain neighborhoods. Exclusion from federal housing assistance also affected early homeownership rates.

Some of Los Angeles’ earliest ethnic enclaves were designated historic neighborhoods to preserve some of the histories of early immigration to the area — though little remains of most of the original settlements.

A view of the red brick facade of the Garnier Building
The Garnier Building on North Los Angeles Street is the oldest surviving building associated with L.A.'s original Chinatown. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Much of Old Chinatown was demolished for the construction of Union Station and the Hollywood Freeway. A newer Chinatown north of downtown began development in the 1930s. Today, the neighborhood has become a focus of community struggles over gentrification.

After the war, however, Chinese populations in Los Angeles County set their sights on the suburbs, building a suburban Chinatown in Monterey Park.

The San Gabriel Valley’s story of growth mirrors that of Southern California. In the 1980s, there were 76,000 Asians in the San Gabriel Valley. Today there are roughly 455,000. A third of Asians in L.A. County live there.

Los Angeles was economically booming after World War II and presenting an American dream for Asian immigrants rooted in Southern California suburbanization. Mass migration to the area from other Asian countries began in the 1970s. Migrants were attracted to Monterey Park, which developers characterized as a “Chinese Beverly Hills” in advertisements throughout Asia. By the 1980s, Asian immigrants moved to the “first Asian suburb” rather than settling in a more urban ethnic enclave.

Of the 10 Los Angeles County neighborhoods with the highest Asian populations in 1980, two were in the San Gabriel Valley (Alhambra and Monterey Park). By 2022, the number of San Gabriel Valley places in the top-ranking Asian neighborhoods had tripled.

Other cities throughout the area rapidly grew as well, becoming home to Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese and Korean immigrants. The area is home to almost half the county’s Vietnamese population.

While San Gabriel Valley may have been among the first and fastest-growing Asian suburbs in the country, other areas followed suit, including many others throughout L.A. County. Orange County is home to the world's largest community of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. More than 50,000 Chinese people each can be found in San Diego and Irvine. Chino Hills and Rancho Cucamonga are each home to more than 10,000 Chinese. Buena Park, Fullerton, San Diego and Irvine are each home to more than 10,000 Korean people.

Koreatown, originating in 1904, saw a massive uptick in immigration from Korea in the 1970s when many came to establish homes and businesses in and around the neighborhood. Central Los Angeles was home to the most Asians in 1980, with 88,000.

The 1992 riots in Los Angeles hit Koreatown hard, destroying more than 2,300 businesses and straining relations within the neighborhood’s multiethnic community. But in the 32 years since, Koreatown has resumed its status as one of the city’s main drivers of economic activity and is still home to the highest number of Koreans in Los Angeles, close to 23,000.

Little Bangladesh is a four-block area near Koreatown in central Los Angeles that has the highest concentration of Bangladeshi people in Southern California, just shy of 1,300 people. From 2000 to 2022, the population tripled.

Southern California is home to the largest number of Thai people outside of Thailand and contains the only officially recognized Thai Town established in the United States. Exposure to American culture through military bases drew immigrants to East Hollywood, where they established homes and businesses. Bangkok Market, opened in 1972, was the first Thai and Southeast Asian market in the United States. About 1,040 people who identify as Thai live in Thai Town, second only to Long Beach, where there are more than 1,100.

There are only three remaining Japantowns in the United States, all of which are in California. Little Tokyo is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, celebrating its 140th anniversary this year.

World War II-era incarceration interrupted the development of Japanese communities. When released from imprisonment, many Japanese Americans never returned to what they had left behind — their assets or business properties stolen or vandalized, their storefronts occupied by new tenants. Few local businesses were able to reestablish themselves after the war, and Japantowns never reached the density levels of their prewar periods.

Koreatown was also home to a sizable Japanese community in the early 20th century until forced incarceration during World War II tore many Japanese Americans from their homes.

Little Tokyo, in downtown Los Angeles, was the largest Japanese community in the country before World War II. After the war, it transformed from a residential and commercial center to primarily a place for business, and its footprint shrunk by more than a quarter. Preservationists recently labeled the neighborhood, which faces similar gentrification as in Chinatown, an endangered historic place.

The second Japantown, located in Sawtelle and formerly called Little Osaka, was originally home to a large community of Japanese agricultural workers who farmed fields in West Los Angeles in the early 20th century.

Today Sawtelle, Westwood, Palms, Santa Monica and Culver City have the highest number of Asian people in West Los Angeles.

The Westside is home to a large population of East and South Asians, many of whom study at UCLA and work in media and tech companies headquartered nearby. Venice Boulevard has become home to dozens of South Asian stores and restaurants. On the Westside, the Indian population in Palms grew by six times, from just under 350 people in 1980 to more than 2,200 in 2022.

The highest number of South Asian people live in the South Bay, in Torrance. It’s also home to the most East Asian people in the county.

In the South Bay, Asian communities are concentrated in Torrance, Gardena, Rancho Palos Verdes and Redondo Beach. Torrance alone is home to more than 15,000 Japanese and 11,000 Koreans. More than 13,000 Indian people live in the area, mostly in Torrance and Redondo Beach. Indians make up the majority of the South Asian population in Los Angeles overall, followed by Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan people.

The San Fernando Valley is home to a quarter of the South Asian population with about 125 people per square mile. Beyond Los Angeles County, San Diego is home to more than 34,000 Indians and Irvine is home to more than 22,000.

Little India is in Artesia, a 1.63-square-mile city neighboring Cerritos in Southeast L.A.. In the late 1970s, Indian businessmen started setting up shops along Pioneer Boulevard. The commercial stretch includes Chinese supermarkets, Korean barbecue restaurants, Indian sari and jewelry shops and other establishments.

Today, however, most of Artesia’s 6,500 Asians are Filipino, not Indian.

Other Southeast L.A. cities, such as Cerritos, Norwalk, Bellflower and Montebello, are home to multiple AAPI communities. In 40 years, the roughly eight-square-mile Cerritos has doubled its Asian population, from 11,000 to 28,000 residents today.

An early Filipino community in downtown Los Angeles that eventually became known as Little Manila was established in the 1920s. The area was a thriving center of Filipino commercial and cultural life, with dozens of businesses, entertainment centers and several newspapers. Much of Little Manila was destroyed a few decades later, during downtown redevelopment in the 1950s.

Today Filipinos live throughout Southern California, with approximately 321,000 in Los Angeles County and nearly 400,000 in the Southern California counties outside of L.A.. San Diego is home to more than 147,000 Filipinos, accounting for 36% of the population of Asians in the county. Within Los Angeles County, Long Beach and Carson are home to more than 40,000 Filipinos. Many Filipinos served in the U.S. military and settled in areas with bases, including Long Beach, the site of a former naval complex. Cambodians and Filipinos make up nearly two-thirds of Long Beach’s Asian population.

Long Beach is home to one of the oldest Cambodian populations in the U.S. and remains the largest such community outside of Cambodia, with 15,000 Cambodians, according to the latest data.

A mural in the Cambodia Town
A mural in Long Beach's Cambodia Town is pictured in 2023. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

In the 1950s and '60s, many Cambodian college students immigrated to study in L.A.-area universities. Those students, who had organized Cambodian associations in the region, helped resettle refugees as hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were forced to flee the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1975. Many settled in Long Beach near the headquarters of the Cambodian American Assn. Cambodia Town was officially designated in 2007.

Cities south of Los Angeles, including Carson, Long Beach and Lakewood, have large communities of Polynesian people, including Native Hawaiian and Samoan groups. Nearly a quarter of all Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles County — the biggest ethnic group besides the 26% of the population who select “Other” — are people with Native Hawaiian ancestry. People with Samoan ancestry followed at 22%.

Hawaiian immigration to Southern California traces back before the annexation of Hawaii in 1898. William Heath Davis, a Hawaii-born merchant and trader, has been credited as one of the founders of “New Town” San Diego.

A huge surge in interest in Hawaiian culture after World War II brought many Hawaiians to the continental United States, many of whom were musicians who moved to areas with strong music industry ties, including Los Angeles. Many immigrants settled south of the city for its cheaper cost of living.

Economic conditions in Hawaii, such as a high cost of living and scarcity of jobs, keep many Hawaiians on the mainland. Census data from 2020 revealed for the first time that more Hawaiians were recorded as living on the continent than back on the islands.

Musicians perform outdoors
Musicians with the Hwarang Youth Foundation participate in a rally against anti-AAPI sentiment and hate in Koreatown in 2021. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Melanesia, which includes Chamorro people, Indigenous inhabitants of Guam, is one of the recently disaggregated categories in the census. Long Beach is home to a small population reporting Chamarro ancestry, while the biggest Chamorro community in the U.S. lives in San Diego County, where over 9,000 people reported Chamorro ancestry. San Diego is also home to a sizable Hawaiian population that has long ties to the city.

More than 30 Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities have been added to census records since 1980, but advocates argue there are still communities being underrepresented in official counts. Matters including the languages on voting materials and the allocation of federal resources in certain neighborhoods depend on detailed demographic information from the census and similar counts.

“We know, without data, [the AAPI population doesn’t] exist in the eyes of policymakers,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.