In the summer of 1965, when a group of students at UC Berkeley met in a hillside home to talk about founding the first local Sikh temple, it was hard to imagine the East Bay’s Indian-American population would someday expand to nearly 100,000.
It seemed to J.P. Singh, who was at the meeting, that every Indian he knew was in the room with him. Now, he sees evidence of Indian-American culture everywhere in the Bay Area.
Among Asian groups, none grew more rapidly than Indian-Americans in the last decade, according to 2010 census figures released. They have surpassed Filipinos as the second-largest Asian group in the nation after the Chinese, and in the Bay Area they are expanding far beyond the established immigrant gateways of the Silicon Valley.
The numbers of Indian-Americans in the East Bay counties of Alameda and Contra Costa jumped from about 55,000 to 95,000 in a mere decade, a growth of 74 percent. Their numbers in Santa Clara County, which remains one of the nation’s Indian hubs, jumped from about 67,000 to nearly 118,000.
In California, the number of Indian-Americans grew by 68 percent to 528,176 over the decade, and in the nine-county Bay Area the number grew by 53 percent to 244,493, which is 3.4 percent of the region’s total population.
Singh can remember the days in the mid-1960s when such a population was hard to imagine. Sure, there were some Indian immigrants who worked at a sugar plant in Crockett, and many others were farmers in the Central Valley or, like him, students at UC Berkeley, which had attracted young scholars from India since the early 20th century. But no Indian restaurants existed in most Bay Area cities, and one that eventually opened — a place called Maharaja in Berkeley — closed down several months later, Singh said. The first clothing store in West Berkeley’s now-thriving South Asian district of sari shops and chaat houses had yet to open.
But four months after his meeting in the Berkeley hills, the trajectory of America’s tiny Indian-American population changed dramatically when President Lyndon Johnson signed an immigration law that opened the door to many non-European immigrants, ending previous restrictions on immigration from Asia and other parts of the world.
Sikhs, who are a religious minority in India, were the pioneers in the early days of Northern California’s burgeoning Indo-American population.
“When we were first looking for a place to put the temple, the center of Sikh population was pretty close to Berkeley,” said Singh, a founder and former president of the Sikh temple in El Sobrante. “A lot of us white-collared guys worked in San Francisco. Then, Fremont started to grow. Union City started to grow. The Fremont temple and the El Sobrante temples were built simultaneously — within a week of each other in 1980.”
Alameda County had about 4,900 people who identified as Asian Indian in the 1980 census form, and about a fifth of them lived in Fremont. An additional 2,000 Indian-Americans lived in Contra Costa County.
The local Indian population grew bigger and more diverse linguistically, culturally and religiously as Silicon Valley attracted ambitious and highly educated professionals from across the subcontinent, adding Hindus, Muslims, Jains and other groups to the mix of Indians and other South Asians who called this region home.
The census ethnicity figures are based on self-identification, so people who trace their origins to India usually check a box identifying themselves as “Asian Indian.”
The Indian population does not include other South Asians whose cultures sometimes overlap, such as Pakistanis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, Bhutanese and Afghans. All of these groups also have a higher-than-average presence in the East Bay, but had to write their identity in an “other” category on the form.
Cupertino and Fremont are now tops in the nation for cities with the highest proportion of Indians, at least among the half of U.S. states for which such census information has been released. And Fremont now has the second-highest Indian population in California after San Jose, surpassing the much-larger city of Los Angeles in the last decade. Both cities also have a large Chinese population that was surpassed by the Indian population since 2000.
Indian-Americans are also moving within the region, venturing outside of the established immigrant gateways. They first bypassed traditional urban neighborhoods for suburbs like Hayward, Fremont, Union City and Milpitas, and now many are moving on to more affluent towns like Saratoga, Palo Alto, Blackhawk and Pleasanton.