Postcard from the End of America: Silicon Valley

Decades ago, I’d show up weekly to clean the Philadelphia apartment of a California transplant.  Daughter of a Hollywood executive, Jacqueline confessed she had to escape California because “California women are too beautiful.”  To save her self esteem, she had to flee to Philadelphia.

Ah, California as the perfect state with the most beautiful people!  In spite of mud slides, wild fires and many blase places like Bakersfield and Fresno, California still captures the imagination of not just Americans, but foreigners.  With its elaborate landscaping, it imitates Hawaii, even as Hawaii mimics California by laying on strip malls and freeways.  Much of California, though, is no tropical paradise but a desert that’s running out of water, and its fresh water crisis has become so severe, it has made salient a hushed up concept, namely the fact that there are limits to growth, and that all resources can become scarce if not run out completely.

Newly condemned and mocked for their swimming pools and golf courses, Californians are lashing back by charging, rightly, that other Americans are no less profligate.  Though less than 5% of the world’s population, Americans burn up 26% of its oil and 27% of its natural gas.  Our houses are larger than anyone’s and still expanding.  We have more cumbersome cars than fat drivers.  So what, I can hear some of you saying.  If we can afford it, then it’s no one’s business, but the problem is we haven’t been able to afford any of this for a while now.  We are the world’s biggest debtor nation, lest you forget.

Coming into the Bay Area this month, I saw mostly prosperity, however.  From San Francisco down into San Jose, there is one affluent city after another, while on the East Bay, there are a few pockets of destitution and squalor, but nothing compared to the hundreds of miles of decay that mark the Rust Belt, for example. E ven Oakland is rapidly gentrifying, and becoming very expensive, with the average rent for a one bedroom going for an astounding $3,078!  That’s more than three times what I must cough up, with much anxiety and bile, in Philadelphia, and I get two rooms.  In this sinking economy, how does the Bay Area become ever more spiffy?

Two years ago, I talked to Hung, a Vietnam-born Chinese living in Milpitas, and he dismissed my grim assessment of the US economy as nonsense, “The Chinese and Indians are coming over.  They have money and skills.  They will keep this economy going.”

“What about the locals?” I asked.  “Won’t an influx of rich foreigners hurt the poor here?”

“No, these Chinese and Indians will create jobs.”

“But they will also jack up real estate prices!”

“Which is good!”

“Not for a renter, though.  It’s already too expensive to live here.  I mean, look at all the homeless in the Tenderloin.”

“You will always have bums.  In every society, there are winners and losers.  Those bums should be put in work camps and made to be productive.”

We were standing in a two-story extension Hung was adding to his home.  In the main house, Hung’s aging parents sat mostly in silence on matching recliners.  The Mexican construction crew was out to lunch.

It is estimated that nearly 20% of the homes being sold in the Bay Area are being snatched up by foreign buyers, paying cash, with about half of them Chinese.  In Palo Alto, one of the toniest Bay Area cities, Chinese alone are responsible for more than a quarter of real estate sales.  In adjacent Los Altos, the most expensive housing market in the entire country, Chinese buyers don’t shy away from mansions that cost several million dollars, and instead of haggling down, they often pay more than the list price, sometimes six-figure more, just to get what they want.  Sometimes a Chinese buyer would buy without having seen the property in person, and he might leave his new home empty for months after purchase.  In China, the land under each house cannot be owned outright but only leased from the government for 70 years, with terms for renewal uncertain, and it wasn’t so long ago that private property was seen as the ultimate evil.  To protect their wealth, then, the richest Chinese are buying in California.  Ken DeLeon advertises in China, then guides visiting Chinese on a tour to inspect palatial homes.  To move them around, he has bought not just a Mercedes van but a plane, on which two number 8’s in Chinese have been affixed for luck.  To appeal to Chinese buyers, realtors have also asked municipalities to remove the number four from certain addresses.  In Chinese, four sounds like death.

When the Chinese first came to California in the mid 19th century, they weren’t so feted.  Though welcomed by white bosses for their cheap labor, they were despised by the white working class for taking away jobs.  Groups such as the Anti-Coolie Association and the Supreme Order of the Caucasians sprung up to oppose the Chinese presence.  Organized labor was their sworn enemy.  In 1887, Denis Kearney of the California’s Workingmen’s Party gave this address:

“Our moneyed men have ruled us for the past thirty years.  Under the flag of the slaveholder they hoped to destroy our liberty.  Failing in that, they have rallied under the banner of the millionaire, the banker and the land monopolist, the railroad king and the false politician, to effect their purpose.

[…] They have seized upon the government by bribery and corruption.  They have made speculation and public robbery a science.  The have loaded the nation, the state, the county, and the city with debt.  They have stolen the public lands.  They have grasped all to themselves, and by their unprincipled greed brought a crisis of unparalleled distress […]

[…] Land monopoly has seized upon all the best soil in this fair land.  A few men own from ten thousand to two hundred thousand acres each.  The poor Laborer can find no resting place, save on the barren mountain, or in the trackless desert.  Money monopoly has reached its grandest proportions.  Here, in San Francisco, the palace of the millionaire looms up above the hovel of the starving poor with as wide a contrast as anywhere on earth.”

Sounds like, well, today, so the playbook hasn’t changed, but whereas the American working man now rails against illegal immigrants from Latin America and cheap “slave labor” in Asia, poor white Americans back then felt threatened by the Chinese that were employed all over the West in every sector, mining, railroad, construction, agricultural and domestic help. Kearney:

“To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China—the greatest and oldest despotism in the world—for a cheap working slave.  It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor.

These cheap slaves fill every place.  Their dress is scant and cheap.  Their food is rice from China.  They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten.  They are wipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things.  They have no wives, children or dependents.

They are imported by companies, controlled as serfs, worked like slaves, and at last go back to China with all their earnings.  They are in every place, they seem to have no sex.  Boys work, girls work; it is all alike to them.

The father of a family is met by them at every turn.  Would he get work for himself?  Ah! A stout Chinaman does it cheaper.  Will he get a place for his oldest boy?  He can not. His girl?  Why, the Chinaman is in her place too!  Every door is closed […]  We are men, and propose to live like men in this free land, without the contamination of slave labor, or die like men, if need be, in asserting the rights of our race, our country, and our families.

California must be all American or all Chinese.  We are resolved that it shall be American, and are prepared to make it so. May we not rely upon your sympathy and assistance?”

Fueled by such sentiments, a host of laws were passed against the Chinese that forbade them to become citizens, testify against whites, bring their wives over, marry white women, carry goods using a shoulder pole, live in a crowded room or even dig up the bones of their dead to send back to China.  Chinatowns were burnt down and Chinese killed.  In 1877, the Chico Enterprise, a newspaper still publishing, warned that eaters of produce picked by Chinese might contract leprosy or diphtheria since these fruit and vegetables had been fertilized by Chinese excrement.

The Grass Valley Union, also still extant, warned against hiring Chinese domestic helps, “After establishing himself, the China boy goes to making up his wages.  He steals a little every day, and packs his plunder off to his bosses or his cousins.  The sugar does not last as it used to, and the tea disappears rapidly.  Pies and chops and pieces of steaks have the same course; yet that young heathen looks so innocent and is so saving when he is watched that he is never suspected.”  How unfair that white girls had been bumped out by these devious aliens!  “He underbids the girls, ruins their reputations as workers, robs his employers to make up his wages and is a cheat and a fraud from top to bottom.”

One of the Chinatowns that were burnt down by white arsonists was in Pacific Grove, just over an hour from San Jose.  In 1978, I saw a spectacle there that was so strange, I’d keep doubting myself with each remembrance.  As the entire town of 15,000 people, nearly all of them white, sat on a beach after dusk, half a dozen white girls dressed as Chinese fairies danced on a barge.  All around them, Chinese lanterns bobbled on the darkened sea.  Dance over, there was a fireworks show.  Writing this Postcard, I researched and found out, finally, that it’s called the Feast of the Lanterns, and this festival was started at exactly the same time Pacific Grove chased out, very violently, all of its Chinese more than a century ago.  Whites got rid of the Chinese so some of them could become somewhat Chinese once a year.

In the Bay Area, many whites are becoming Chinese in earnest.  In San Francisco, there are no less than five Chinese immersion pre-kindergartens, with most of their pupils non-Chinese speakers at home.  At Presidio Knolls, for example, only 25% of the students are Chinese-Americans.  Paying a dizzying $23,150 annually, students start as young as 2.4 years old, and for those enrolled in kindergarten to second grade, it’s $23,500.  At the Chinese American International School, tuition is $25,800 for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.  There, half the school day is taught in Mandarin, the other half in English.  Nineteen percent of its students are Caucasians, with 41% more multiethnic.  Hispanics and Blacks make up 1% each.  At the Chinese Immersion School at De Avila, the aim is to have its students become fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.  To compete in the Pacific Century, it’s best to speak two Chinese languages, ni ting dong ma?  If you can only tweet in withered English, ur fck.

California’s orientation towards the East has its basis in trades.  If China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are counted as one unit, then greater China is California’s biggest customer, to be followed by Mexico, Canada, Japan and South Korea.  Each year, the Chinese increase their purchase of California computers, electronics and agricultural products, but it’s not all good thanks to the crippling drought that may only get worse.  You see, it takes a gallon of water to produce a single California almond, and 25 gallons to make a bottle of Napa Valley wine.  The Chinese are in love with both.  CNN quotes Linsey Gallagher of the Wine Institute, “Even in remote parts of China, people know about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Baywatch, the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s always a positive association.”

The Chinese aren’t just guzzling California wines, they’re buying California wineries.  Yao Ming leads the way.  From his company’s website, “In November 2011, Yao Ming, global humanitarian and recently retired NBA star, announced the establishment of his new Napa Valley wine company: Yao Family Wines.”  Forced to take brief showers, leave their cars unwashed or even swapping their beloved lawns for cacti, tumbleweeds, snakes and scorpions, many locals are grumbling about depleting the state’s precious water so Chinese can munch on roasted almonds and sip an aromatically oaky cabernet sauvignon from the golden state.  In a recent article, the Anderson Valley Advertiser points out that 70,000 acres in Sonoma County are allotted to wine grapes, with only 12,000 for all other food crops.  Such a mono culture is a disaster, it warns, “If California’s drought continues, famine may follow.”

For some, California’s water crisis would be instantly solved if the state curbed or even banned such water intensive crops as almonds, alfalfa or tomatoes, etc.  All over the Central Valley, millions of acres already lay fallow, however, with thousands of workers idle.  Unless heavens’ floodgates were to swing wide open really soon, then, a mass exodus will certainly commence.  Will Californians be the first American climate change refugees?  Anticipating an influx into the Pacific Northwest, a University of Washington professor of atmospheric science, Cliff Mass, jokingly suggests that a fence be built around Oregon and Washington.  This will also keep out other Americans fleeing intensified hurricanes, hellish heat waves and sea water flooding into their living room.  Speaking of fences, commentator Fred Reed has also predicted that as Hispanics become ever more dominant in California politics, its southern border will be patrolled even more laxly, resulting in a de facto merger with Mexico.

On my recent California trip, I had neither the time nor money to stray beyond the Bay Area, and so I encountered mostly happy, confident people.  A friend in Fremont even insisted that this whole drought business is but a scare tactic to jack up his water bills.  “See those hills,” Giang pointed to Pleasanton Ridge.  “Are they green?”


“Did anyone water them?”


Giang laughed with deep satisfaction.  The fact that it rained hard during two of my five-day stay further proved, in his mind, that this drought brouhaha is nothing but a Jerry Brown con game.

“I should have taken a photo of you all dripping wet from walking in the rain!” Giang added, still laughing.  In his defense, I can only speculate that my friend’s not all there thanks to a recent, drawn out divorce, loss of home, suicide attempt and a three year spell of unemployment that, mercifully, has just ended.

It is all too easy to be upbeat in the Bay Area, however, especially if you’re in the Silicon Valley.  Trekking through Santa Clara, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Fremont and San Jose, I saw mostly neat, beautiful homes with well-kept landscaping.  Cheery Cupertino High School contrasted so sharply with the grate windowed, prison-like complexes common to Philly, I had to stop and stare.  With an average SAT score of 1832, it’s not even the best public high school in town.  By comparison, the average score for South Philadelphia High, the one closest to me, is 1045.  Cupertino is 63.3% Asian, and the star of Cupertino High’s basketball team is 6’4” junior Ajaypal Singh.  He’s averaging 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.

At the East West Bookshop in Mountain View, there are notices for lectures with names like “I’m Not Dead, I’m Different” and “My View From Heaven: Life After Death.”  Like California itself, some Californians are smirking at physical limits.  We’re not dying of thirst, we’re different.  With its posh restaurants and cafes, downtown Mountain View exudes wealth.  At Scratch, which advertises “comfort food,” a “Midwestern meatloaf” goes for a mere $19.  Outside Xanh, an upscale Vietnamese joint, I spotted a notice in Spanish offering a kitchen job.

Help wanted signs are all over the South Bay, in fact, especially at fast food outlets.  At Ike’s Love and Sandwiches in Santa Clara, the large “NOW HIRING” poster features a vaguely Asiatic Uncle Sam, with “WE WORK FOR TIPS, AND PHONE NUMBERS!”  Plus “Medical/Dental Benefits.”  The California minimum wage is $9 an hour, and since most of these jobs only start out at that or a tad more, they have a hard time attracting workers.  With competition for diners so fierce, however, bosses can’t offer better.  Immigrants tend to open restaurants, and the South Bay is carpeted with reasonably priced Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and Mexican eateries.

Coming from a city that’s 44% black, I also noticed the scarcity of blacks in the Silicon Valley.  The largest ethnic group in Santa Clara County is Asian, at 34.1%, to be followed by white at 33.9% and Hispanic at 26.8%.  Blacks make up only 2.9%.  As in every other place across this entire country, Hispanics claim the more physical jobs that once went to blacks, just as Chinese used to bump out the lowlier whites.  As for the tech jobs, they are dominated by Asians and whites, which makes perfect sense, since these are also the best engineering students anywhere.  At super competitive Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in suburban Washington, 70% of the class of 2019 are Asians.  In a mixed-race society, the vocational aptitudes of each ethnic group become sharply contested, then delineated against each other.  Of course, individuals should always be judged singly, and these larger patterns are not etched in stone.  In San Francisco, Tibetans and Central Americans are said to make the best nannies.

Americans remember well that nightmarish time when just about every American company outsourced its customer service to India, which gave rise to the term “cyber coolies.”  If one had to ask one’s bank or cable company a question, one would be routed to a “Stephanie” or a “Beth” who was actually a Nisha or a Jyotsna in Bangalore.  Though Jyotsna was trying her best to sound Midwestern, the conversation would quickly turn awkward, if not aggravating for both sides.  “Excuse me, but can you repeat that?”  Less conspicuous was the hiring of Indian engineers, and that too ran into problems.  The challenge of having Americans and Indians working together in different time zones proved too much of a hassle, thus many outfits tried to send American managers overseas, but since few were willing to go, it was decided that Indians IT workers would be brought here.

Ultimately, the reason why so many Indians are thriving in the Silicon Valley is because of their unmatched computer prowess.  The CEO of Adobe and co-founder of Hotmail are Indians, as is the Google executive overseeing Android, Chrome and Google Apps.  Outside California, the top man at Microsoft is also Indian.  One morning I went to Fischer Park in Fremont and saw that nearly all of the tennis, basketball and volleyball players were Indians.  At the jungle gym, all the kids were Indians.  Mostly draped in saris, their grandmoms and moms stood nearby.  A couple blocks away, there’s Bombay Pizza House, “Home Of The Curry Pizza.”

With no college degree, no science, no math, no coordination, no rah-rah team spirit, no charm, no looks, no nothing, I wouldn’t last half a second in the Silicon Valley, and hiking all over, I also spotted quite a few souls who had been spat out by this sunny, mild yet merciless environment.  The Jungle, a massive tent city in San Jose, has been cleared, but each night, there are around 5,000 San Joseans sleeping outside, though they are scattered at roughly 200 spots and less visible.  California itself has more homeless people than any other state, and 4.3% of its school children, incredibly, don’t have stable or adequate housing.  These kids must sleep in a shelter, a single room with their parents and siblings, a garage, a car or a tent.  Fully 10 percent of school kids in Sunnyvale, in the heart of Silicon Valley, fall into this miserable category.  Needless to say, they aren’t likely to be immersed in any subject, much less Chinese.

Meanwhile, luxury condos and homes keep springing up, for besides the infusion of Chinese money, our inflated stock market is benefiting, especially, the many high profile, sexy companies that dot the Bay Area such as Apple, Adobe, Google, Yahoo!, FaceBook, PayPal, Yelp, Netflix and Twitter, etc.  Outside of Manhattan, no other region has gained so much from the banksters’ quantitative easing.  When this stock mania crashes and burns, the Bay Area will also be charred.

Meanwhile, everything seems to be improving, and Twitter has even moved its headquarters into the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s most wretched neighborhood.  Located right downtown, in the shadow of City Hall, it’s inevitable that this pocket of transient hotels, urine reeking sidewalks, thousands of homeless, bodegas and cheap Vietnamese eateries would be gentrified.  One night, I found myself in The Basement, a hip, happening new bar at Taylor and Turk.  It’s co-owned by Lieu, someone from my same high school in East San Jose, although we didn’t know each other then.  Though roughly my age, 51, Lieu looks so young, he’s probably carded at every bar not his own, and with my white hair, I’m like his granddad.

The Basement used to be occupied by Club 222, with the legendary Black Hawk right next door.  (It’s now a parking lot.) Musicians from Miles to Dizzy used Club 222 as a green room before they exited it through the back to enter the jazz club.  At The Basement, all the beers are microbrews, with nothing under $5.  Lieu doesn’t want the Tenderloin’s riffraff to wander in to order a can of Bud or Miller.  “This neighborhood is moving up,” he said.

“Ah, man, won’t you miss people defecating on the sidewalks?”

“Get that shit out of here!”

This night, there was a comedy open mike.  I asked Lieu if the poetry slam crowd had approached him.

“Yes, but I turned them down.”


“Poets don’t drink enough.”

That’s a sure sign of a collapsing society!  The two bartenders were young, pretty women, with one white, one Chinese.  The Basement also has a hunky Swedish guy to attract the ladies.  Leaving The Basement, I reentered the Tenderloin proper and promptly saw a young yet haggard white woman, in tight jeans and no shoes, just socks, flashing for a black man leaning against a frail, half dead tree.  Seeing me, she smiled most crookedly, ran up, turned around, pulled down and leaned over to display her cheeks.  Trying to panhandle from me, an older black woman screamed at this exhibitionist to shoo her away.  With yuppies and hipsters invading the Tenderloin, it’s hoped that scenes like this will gradually disappear from San Francisco, but if the economy collapses, and it will soon enough, you will see this spread all over.

Ah, California, you will turn bone dry and shirk off your weeping children by the millions!  Announcing the state’s first ever mandatory restrictions on water usage, Governor Brown reminded us, “For over ten thousand years, some people say twenty thousand years, people lived in California, but the number of those people were never more than 300,000 or 400,000, as far as we know, and they lived much simpler, and they were able to move when a drought occurred, or fires occurred.  They could cope.  Now, we’re embarked upon an experiment that no one has ever tried, ever, in the history of mankind, and that’s 38 million people, with 32 million vehicles, living at a level of comfort that we all strive to attain.”  Weaned from abundant resources, we will have to strive to attain less.

In a country where political speeches, elections and even terrorist attacks are but elaborate theatrical productions, California is the longest show running, designed to convince everyone everywhere, and even Californians themselves, that here is the epitome of the American Dream, and that it’s surfing along just fine.  Just outside the spotlight, however, are all sorts of frightful omens.  The next act will be a scream.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on April 24, 2015, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.

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