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 . . .