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Community with an ever-growing Asian feel

By Belinda Robinson in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-20 09:41

In a small New Jersey community, the old meets the new. Different generations live side by side in an area surrounded by lush green farmland, old farmhouses from the 1700s, 19th century bridges and modern housing.

Belle Mead, an affluent suburb near Princeton University and about 90 kilometers south of New York, is home to the fastest-growing Asian population in the United States.

Most of the new residents are Chinese, Indian or Korean, nearly half are foreign-born, and longtime residents embrace the shift in demographics.

Jessie Haven, the 95-year-old "unofficial historian of Somerset County", has lived in her house for 50 years. The former Somerset Messenger-Gazette newspaper columnist and author of several history books on the area moved to Belle Mead with her family in 1975. She has seen many changes including the wave of new immigrants.

"I'm told that the new (people who move here) think they're going to get a high-class education. It's cheaper than sending your kids to prep school especially if you have more than one child," she said. "This part of New Jersey was really not caught up in the suburban sprawl until 50 years ago. We had calves and chickens and, you know, it was still rural."

The people who first arrived were mostly from New York and were "astonished" at how many "beautiful, marvelous" affordable old farmhouses it still had, she said. A now-defunct train station could be used to commute to the city.

Belle Mead is an unincorporated community in the northern part of Montgomery Township in Somerset County. The average home price is about $673,300 and can cost more than $2.2 million, according to the 2020 Census.

The Asian population was 63 percent of the 5,569 residents. More than half the residents speak an Asian language, and the median age is 35.

The average family income is $206,839, double that of the majority of the Asian American population nationwide.

Large-scale housing developments have enticed new people, local realtors said.

George Lei, 56, said he moved to the area 15 years ago with his family to ensure that his children had access to a good education.

Lei is also principal of Huaxia Chinese School in Montgomery, a nonprofit that offers Chinese language and culture classes for students aged 4 and up. At least 95 percent of his students are Chinese.

Quiet, peaceful place

"When people migrate to Montgomery Township, they find that there is a large Asian population here," Lei said. "Chinese parents pay much attention to the education of their children. They want somewhere that there are very few distractions, and this is a quiet and peaceful place, good for children."

Montgomery High School ranks 25th in the state, the US News & World Report said. The township's school district runs five schools from prekindergarten to high school.

Belle Mead's history dates back to 1875 when William Van Aken, a wealthy real estate developer from New York, purchased more than 300 hectares of farmland after learning that a local railway was planned.

But his town dubbed Vanaken failed to materialize when it did not get as much traffic and business as expected. Then US senator John McPherson bought the land at a low price. His daughter was named Edna Belle Mead McPherson, which some believe had an influence on the town being renamed.

Haven said the original architects realized that at some point it may be "smothered with suburbanization" so they ensured that plenty of green space was preserved, as it does today.

In the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, the Woods Tavern and hotel were at the heart of the community and served rail travelers who stopped at the Belle Mead depot.

Today, shoppers head to The Grove at Montgomery shopping mall, which has several Asian-owned stores.

For Lei, it is important for Chinese culture to continue wherever residents live.

"A lot of people send their children to our school to do Chinese language classes because it's a way to make sure that our culture does not die out."

Remembering the past, Haven was honored by Bridgewater Township Council in 2022 for her work in preserving local history.

Haven describes how some longtime residents had their "great grandparents and grandparents also living here". "There was a strong community feeling 50 years ago. And there's a new layer over the top of that," she said.

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