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NY Times Raises Eyebrows, Says El Cerrito Nicknamed "Little Taipei" by Residents

Many residents are puzzled by an article published in the New York Times saying the residents' nickname for El Cerrito is "Little Taipei."

A ripple of surprise has spread around El Cerrito in response to a New York Times feature saying the city is nicknamed "Little Taipei" by residents.

The article, titled "99 Ranch Market," was about the Asian foods market at Pacific East Mall in Richmond near El Cerrito. It was published Sunday in the Bay Area section of the paper, which appears in the Times' Bay Area edition.

Under a sub-headline saying, "Local Capital," the article said, "El Cerrito is nicknamed Little Taipei by its residents because of its large Taiwanese-American population."

The claim comes as news to many El Cerrito residents, who told me they've never heard that nickname before.

I hadn't opened the Times yet on Sunday morning when I received an email from Tom Goldstein, asking if I’d ever heard of the “Little Taipei” nickname. He said he and his wife have lived in El Cerrito 18 years and never heard it. (Goldstein is a journalism professor at UC Berkeley, a former journalism school dean at both Berkeley and Columbia, and a former reporter for several news organizations, including the New York Times; his wife Leslie Goldstein is a member of the city’s Park and Recreation Commission.)

I’ve never heard it either and decided to ask our mayor, , the city’s first Asian-American mayor. She said it was news to her. (Cheng first moved to El Cerrito at age 5 with her parents, who were raised in Taiwan before coming to the U.S. for college.)

I asked three of the most active leaders of the El Cerrito Historical Society.

“I’ve never heard that,” said the society’s president, Rich Bartke.

“That one is new to me,” said Tom Panas, a director of the society.

“Never heard that,” said Dave Weinstein, vice president of the society and writer of a about El Cerrito’s former Chung Mei Home for Chinese Boys, said to be the only such orphanage in America.

Perhaps, I thought, the nickname may be used in an area where Chinese-American businesses and services are concentrated, so I sought information from the block of San Pablo Avenue north of Central Avenue where buildings have signs in both English and Chinese and where proprietors and professionals have ties to Taiwan.

“I’m Taiwanese — I’ve never heard of that and I’ve been here 34 years,” said Dr. Alan Liu, a dentist on the block. “I guess that’s not too accurate because it says ‘nicknamed by residents,’ and we’re residents and we never heard of it."

Next door at the office of another dentist, Dr. Linh Cao-chan, the receptionist said, “I’ve never of that, and I’ve lived here my whole life.”

Dr. Erlene Chiang, who practices at the nearby Chung Hua Clinic of Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, said the term is new to her too. “We moved here from Taipei in 1976, but this is the first time I heard it is called Little Taipei,” she said.

Chiang said such a nickname wouldn’t be surprising since many people have immigrated here from Taiwan. At the same time, she said, she also heard that El Cerrito was called "Little Hong Kong" in the early 1980s when many immigrants from Hong Kong settled in the city.

About 27 percent of El Cerrito’s population is classified as Asian in the 2010 Census, with the largest Asian group being Chinese, comprising about 13 percent of the total population. In Albany next door, about 31 percent are listed as Asian, with about 16 percent of city residents classified as Chinese.

 Maybe, I thought, I should ask a Chinese-American of a younger generation about the “Little Taipei” nickname, so I asked Lisa Yip, an El Cerrito High School senior who was just named in West Contra Costa County of the Ed Fund college scholarships.

She never heard of it.

In fact, none of the residents I’ve asked so far had ever heard of it.

So I contacted the person who wrote the article, Hank Pellissier, to ask where he got his information. Pellissier is a contributor to The Bay Citizen, a San Francisco-based nonprofit news organization that produces coverage for the New York Times’ Bay Area section.

Pellissier initially sent me two links in response to my query.

One is the Wikipedia page for El Cerrito, which to my surprise includes this sentence: “The town is nicknamed ‘Little Taipei’ by the Asian Community, particularly for the Pacific East Mall.” Luckily, that sentence is linked to a source in the footnotes.

The source happened to be the other link that Pellissier sent me as one of his sources: the English language homepage of the Pacific East Mall. It says, “Shopping, Dining, Wonderful life; Pacific East Mall in the east bay area, is located between three cities of El Cerrito (also known as the "Little Taipei"), Albany, and Richmond.”

At the bottom of the mall’s homepage is a phone number, so I called it to ask where the mall got that information. I got an answering machine. I left a message. It has not been returned.

I told Pellissier what I had found. He sent me several more links that show up on a Google search for El Cerrito and Little Taipei. I checked several of the links. They quoted Pellissier’s article or the mall’s English homepage, either directly or indirectly through the Wikipedia article.

One of the links, for example, is a Facebook page for El Cerrito, which cites the Wikipedia article as its source.

I asked Pellissier if he had talked to any residents who said their nickname for El Cerrito is “Little Taipei.” He said he had not.

He added, “I apologize for any misrepresentation on my part.”

A little more digging turned up another surprise: a different New York Times article, from 2003, saying “Little Taipei” is the long-standing nickname for El Cerrito.

The article said, "Shoppers come from as far as Sacramento, 72 miles away, to the five-year-old Pacific East mall here, just north of Oakland and on the border of El Cerrito, long nicknamed ‘little Taipei,’ with a population that is 24 percent Asian."

The article was written by Patricia Leigh Brown. I’ve been trying to contact her to ask where she got the information but haven’t succeeded in getting a response yet.

Update, May 25: I received a response from Brown. She said it was a long time ago and she doesn't remember where the information came from. Perhaps it came from the then-manager of the 99 Ranch market, whom she interviewed, she said.

Maybe it’s not the end of the story . . .

Doug Millison May 25, 2011 at 03:46 PM
Absolutely, "Little Taipei" has been a nickname as long as we've lived in El Cerrito -- since 1989. We moved here because my wife's Chinese aunt and uncle lived here, along with many other Chinese immigrants.
George McRae May 25, 2011 at 04:20 PM
Hell Cerrito it is. Also "oh, no, now what are those morons at city hall doing cerrito" Names like that. Plus the fact that the 99 is in Richmond, and the fact that the journalist uses Wiki as a reliable source???? Last night while on the road I heard Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" for the first time in a long time. Today if written he would probably put in a verse about the cut and paste generation. The NYT like most papers stopped doing any fact checking long ago it seems.
John Stashik May 25, 2011 at 04:21 PM
Wikipedia is a great reference source as long as you don't believe everything in it.
George McRae May 25, 2011 at 04:24 PM
Wiki is fun, but so is believing in the easter bunny.
Alain henon May 25, 2011 at 04:40 PM
The NY times travel Section is always a hoot, especially on anything West of the Hudson. What can you expect from a paper from Little Puerto Rico? A. Henon
Wendy May 25, 2011 at 06:57 PM
My friends and family have referred to the city as "Swingin' El Cerrito" for the last 10 or 15 years in hopes that it would raise our profile with younger people. (We were actually young when we started using the nickname.) I'm pretty sure that hasn't caught on outside our little group though....
Evelyn Ruth Cecil Ortman May 25, 2011 at 07:21 PM
I've lived here my entire life of almost 45 years. My parents lived in El Cerrito since 1952. And in the Annex since 1941. I've never heard of El Cerrito refered to as "Little Taipei". Seriously? "Little Hill" of course.
Zach Copley May 25, 2011 at 09:48 PM
The Gray Lady uses Wikipedia as a source. Fascinating.
Catherine (Kate) Rauch May 25, 2011 at 11:52 PM
Great story Charles! Talk about urban fables and checking sources and Wiki-run-wild. Way back, some of my Adams/Portola/Kennedy/El Cerrito High buddies used to call it Ulceritto. Fun to say. Never heard Little Taipei.
Charles Burress (Editor) May 26, 2011 at 02:05 AM
Sherry, thanks for posting this link from the San Francisco Examiner, which I hadn't seen. I note that it doesn't say exactly what the New York Times reported. The Examiner story says, "The developers (of the Pacific East mall) say nearby El Cerrito, with a Chinese population of 11 percent, is known in the Chinese community as 'Little Taipei.' " The Examiner did not report use of the term as a fact but merely as a statement by the mall developers, and the developers identified the users of the term as "the Chinese community," not El Cerrito's residents. There's obviously some overlap between the two groups, but I think the focus is quite different.
Kyrsten Bean May 26, 2011 at 03:48 AM
I love all the comments. Just another example of how journalists need to check, check and double check our sources, and also the danger of quoting anything on the net without getting to the bottom of the source and even then confirming it is valid on top of backing it up with an additional valid source. I am the third generation to live in El Cerrito and I've never heard of that either. Interviewing people from all over El Cerrito has made me aware that even people who lived here during the exact same time period in a similar neighborhood can have wildly contrasting memories of what El Cerrito is or was. And there are many socioeconomic and age variances from neighborhood to neighborhood.
kim May 26, 2011 at 03:56 AM
Maybe the people who do refer to it as "Little Taipei" are the residents who don't read the Patch? I get the sense that some people don't like the nickname. What's wrong with it? There are a lot of Taiwanese immigrants here. Journalists do what research they can and there were articles cited. The wikipedia entry cites an article, too. I don't see this as a big deal at all either way you look at it. I am sure there are tons of nicknames for El Cerrito that have waxed and waned in popularity among various groups/residents in the city.
WCCUSD parent May 26, 2011 at 05:28 AM
Lol, the press is had by the mall developers. And, oh yeah, Pacific East Mall ain't even in EC. We have always referred to it as 'El Cer-Rockin-Rito', in the 18 years we've been here.
Dorothy Coakley May 26, 2011 at 06:24 AM
And in my family we say "El Cerrito, the jewel of the Bay" ...this in reference to a vaudeville routine circa 1930 (when EC was truly a swinging place.) We picked it up from an elderly profession (Theatre Arts) at SF State. As for "Little Taipei" as a nickname, I must confess that I haven't heard it used in the 66 plus years that my family has been associated with the city. Don't have anything against it, per se. It isn't derogatory or slanderous. But it isn't terribly inclusive. And we (the denizens of EC) are very inclusive.
Dorothy Coakley May 26, 2011 at 06:25 AM
BTW, I love "El Cer-Rockin-Rito! I'm casting my vote for that designation!
Jeff Lichtman May 26, 2011 at 08:21 AM
I checked the Wikipedia history of the "Little Taipei" reference. It was introduced on January 23, 2011 by a user named "Thisbites". This user has made a huge number of edits to Wikipedia - for example, on February 21 alone this user made 25 changes. Many of the articles this user edits have to do with things around El Cerrito and Richmond. I don't know of any way to figure out who Thisbites really is.
Charles Burress (Editor) May 26, 2011 at 05:39 PM
Jeff, thanks for letting us know. Perhaps someone can tell us who "Thisbites" is, or even possibly "Thisbites" might read this and let us know?
Zach Copley May 26, 2011 at 07:33 PM
It's really not fair to castigate the veracity of Wikipedia in this case. The El Cerrito Wikipedia page does have the "cleanup template" (since February of 2008) that states: "This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards." That indicates the article needs review and should be taken with an extra pinch of salt. Wikipedia's standards for citations(1) and sources(2) are actually very high. Using the web page of the Pacific East Mall as a source for the "Little Taipei" nickname is not up to Wikipedia standards. That being said, Wikipedia has a general disclaimer that it makes absolutely no guarantee the information it provides is valid(3). It's the New York Times and author of the article who were being sloppy, not Wikipedia. So while it is fair to say you shouldn't believe everything you read in Wikipedia, that clearly also applies to The New York Times. Note: I have removed the Pacific East Mall citation from the Wikipedia article about El Cerrito. 1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Citing_sources 2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Reliable_sources 3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:General_disclaimer
Doug Millison May 26, 2011 at 07:47 PM
I agree with what Kim says up there. It's not at all inaccurate to say that some residents call El Cerrito "Little Taipei" -- that's what my wife's aunt (moved to El Cerrito in 1960) called it when we moved here in '89, because she and many other Chinese immigrants had settled here. It is correct to note that Wikipedia may not be accurate, since it is open to editing by so many people.
Dorothy Coakley May 26, 2011 at 08:11 PM
I agree with Zach. In this case (as in many others) it isn't Wikipedia being sloppy, its the reporter from the Bay Citizen. We can't even really fault the New York Times, in this case.(Mind you, I *love* the Bay Citizen and its various affiliates. But this article is sloppy research, IMHO.) As I've mentioned before, the Wikipedia "El Cerrito" entry needs a major overhaul as it really doesn't chronicle the history of our city accurately. Perhaps someone from the EC Historical Society could revamp the entry? As for me, ah ain't "Thisbites" nor do I know the person. I'm an early believer in the utilitarian power of Wikipedia but use the name "UCBerkeleyMLIS" and confine my efforts to minor corrections and the occasional citation. "Little Taipei", "Little Italy", "Little Hill"...whatever. I guess "Little Saigon" has now been taken although we do have some fine Vietnamese restaurants. But then, of course there are some mighty fine Japanese restaurants here too. Could we just call the place Little Hill? In Spanish, of course. A nod to our early settlers.
pete May 26, 2011 at 08:24 PM
I bet that"Little Taipei" is basically nothing more than a marketing tool for the Pacfic Mall and Ranch 99 Market to attract customers. The fact that no one has corrected the Wikipedia info until now means it isn't too important.
pete May 26, 2011 at 08:25 PM
"Hell Cerrito" I'll drink to that!
Monica Lam May 27, 2011 at 05:40 AM
I've never heard it called "Little Taipei" ... For what it's worth, lots of the folks at Ranch 99 speak Cantonese (as do I), so I know there's at least a big portion of people who are not from Taiwan.
Michele Mantynen May 27, 2011 at 06:45 PM
My husband and I affectionately refer to it as "El Chorizo." No particular reason why, it's just fun to say. When my brother-in-law leaves us phone messages he addresses us as "The Little Hill People."
Michele Mantynen May 27, 2011 at 06:48 PM
I vote that we annex the Pacific East Mall. Seriously, look at how much revenue it takes in. We can just move some of the city signs over a few feet, can't we? ;)
Charles Burress (Editor) May 28, 2011 at 06:25 AM
I've attached to the article a screen shot from May 22 showing what the Wikipedia entry on El Cerrito looked like when it still had the "Little Taipei" reference, in case anyone wants to see it.
Jeff Lichtman May 28, 2011 at 07:44 AM
The reference to "Little Taipei" has been removed from Wikipedia.
Charles Burress (Editor) May 28, 2011 at 08:00 AM
Jeff, that's correct. In a comment on this article on Thursday (May 26), Zach Copley said he removed it. So I attached to the article a screen shot of the Wikipedia page as it looked on May 22 when it still had the "Little Taipei" reference, for anyone who would like to see it.
Dorothy Coakley June 09, 2011 at 07:20 PM
Hear, hear! While we are in the process of annexing PE Mall, could we also grab a bit of the waterfront and maybe consider patching Golden Gate Fields onto the El Cerrito map. (Its not about the money, folks...but the dachshund races *need* to be a part of our local lore.) Just a few newly minted city signs should do it!
Doug Millison June 10, 2011 at 02:03 PM
If the reference to "Little Taipei" has been removed from Wikipedia, then the Wikipedia entry is inaccurate -- because, in fact, El Cerrito has been known as Little Taipei, for some residents if not for all.

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