Chinatown (洛杉磯唐人街) is a Los Angeles neighborhood located in Downtown‘s north. To vote for other Los Angeles neighborhoods to be the subject of future episodes of California Fool’s Gold, click here. To vote for Los Angeles County communities, click here.
Chinatown is bordered by the neighborhoods of Victor Heights, Elysian Park and Solano Canyon to the northwest, Angeleno Heights to the west, Dogtown to the northeast, the Civic Support area to the east, and Civic Center and Temple-Beaudry on the south.
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s 1st and 2nd maps of Chinatown — both sold but available as prints
Today, Chinatown is a small, decidedly quaint neighborhood that can be divided into three fairly distinct areas. North of College Street are most of the older businesses and the former heart of the district. The businesses there tend to be run by older Cantonese and Taishanese owners and most of the non-Asian visitors hit the area. South of College Street, most of the businesses were built in the 1980s. About 90% are maintained by first-generation Southeast Asians and most of the Asian shoppers seem to head here.
To the west is Alpine Hill, in which most of the Chinatown’s small population resides. There are far fewer business although it is home to the Chinatown Farmer’s Market every Thursday. Although usually not considered part of Chinatown proper, the North Industrial District that borders the Cornfields is dominated by Chinese industry. It should here be mentioned that North Industrial District is the location of the Flat Iron Building, which (built in 1890) is the second-oldest extant industrial building in LA. The area’s also the location of the Women’s Building, a former storage space that in the 1970s became central to women’s rights movement. Both are located on North Spring Street.
Los Angeles’ Chinatown is the third largest in the US, smaller than both New York City‘s and San Francisco‘s. In part due to this fact, many Los Angeles haters compare it unfavorably to those, which isn’t really fair because unlike those, and most Chinatowns for that matter, Los Angeles’ is a planned community. Designed from the ground up, it even had an opening ceremony. Its creation was largely (like its kitsch counterpart, Olvera Street) the brainchild of one, Anglo socialite Christine Sterling.
Los Angeles’s Chinatown was designed in collaboration with Paramount Studio set designers and, as such, is a bit like a Disneyland version of a Chinatown. That means no hidden doorways, false walls, white slavery, prostitution or gambling. That’s not to suggest that Chinatown is merely a tourist trap. There is a bustling trade in all kinds of products, numerous restaurants, markets and a lot more than just curios, fu dogs, fu dogs and jade trinkets… although there’s a lot of that too.
If you want to compare New York and San Francisco’s Chinese communities to Los Angeles’, you have to look to the San Gabriel Valley, where most of the Chinese live. Only about 5,000 Chinese live in Chinatown. On the other hand, Chan Marino has over 5,000; Cerritos has 8,000; Walnut and Temple City have 9,000; Diamond Bar has 10,000, Hacienda Heights and El Monte have 12,000; Rowland Heights has 14,000; Chan Gabriel has 17,000; Arcasia has 18,000; Rosemead has 17,000; Monterey Park has about 25,000 and Alhambra approximately 30,000. All in all, LA County is home to about 380,000 Chinese-Americans, trouncing the competition – so put that in your opium pipe and smoke it.
So, on behalf of the California Fool’s Gold, I journeyed to the mysterious orient on the day of the Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker 5/10K. Like the Doctor, I prefer the company of a traveling companion. In this adventure, I was accompanied by delightful designer/artist Wendy Chin. Let me begin with a bit of history.
FROM YANGA TO SONORATOWN
The aboriginal inhabitants of the area now Chinatown were the Tongva, who had a village called Yanga situated in the area. The area subsequently passed from them to the Spanish, then the Mexicans and ultimately the US. The settlement that developed around the railroads in the area came to be known as Sonoratown.
A large portion of the immigrant population was comprised of by French and Acadian immigrants. After Jean Louis Vinges established the first vineyards in the area in 1831, many more followed. By 1859, Los Angeles was producing 500,000 gallons of wine a year. One Frankish mayor, Damien Marchessault, was followed by another, Joseph Mascarel and, after Spanish, French was the most spoken language in Los Angeles. Their historical presence is still reflected in area street names including Beaudry, Bernard, Sentous and Vignes.
In 1860, the French Benevolent Society opened the hospital that in 1991 became the Pacific Alliance Medical Center. It was also a Frenchman, Jean-Louis Sainsevain, who erected a waterwheel in the Cornfields in 1861 to provide water for the nearby Los Angeles pueblo. The Castelar School was founded in 1882. Although the original structure burned down – and the current structure, built in 1977, is at a different location – historians nonetheless refer to it as the second oldest school in the district. Alsatian Philipp Fritz and his family settled there in 1886.
The family erected three small Queen Anne style homes on Bernard Street. One was later re-located but the remaining two are today the headquarters of The Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. In the last bit of French news, it was in 1908, when local restaurant Philippe’s claimed to invent the French dip sandwich, although this is disputed by Cole’s, who opened in what’s now Los Angeles’ Historic Core neighborhood the same year.
FROM SONORATOWN TO LITTLE ITALY
The next major influx of immigrants was another wine-loving people, the Italians, who first began showing up in droves beginning in the 1880s. The first Italian winery to be established was Gazzo’s. Although large numbers of Serbs and Croats arrived alongside them, it was the Italians who emerged as the dominant ethnic group in the neighborhood and, in the 20th century, Sonoratown became known as Little Italy. Today there are still several vestiges of Little Italy in the area. There’s the Italian Hall, Casa Italiana, St. Peter’s Italian Church, Alberto Biasi’s sculpture, The Immigrants, and Little Joe’s Restaurant – which began as the Italian-American Grocery Company in 1908.
With Italy insisting on fighting on the wrong side in both world wars, some Italian-American businesses changed their names to obscure their origins — thus Bank of Italy became Bank of America and Italian-American Grocery Company became Little Joe’s. Little Joe’s permanently closed in 1998 and is currently slated for destruction to make way for a brand new parking lot and the construction of yet another shopping area, the Blossom Plaza (despite the fact that plazas like Mandarin Plaza and Dynasty Center are already not even close to capacity).
The Italian population peaked in the 1920s and ‘30s, with Italian businesses along Broadway between Sunset Boulevard (now Cesar E Chavez) and Bishop including Basso Motor Co., Bozzani Motors, Paris Inn, Galco’s Italian Grocery, Giacchino’s Bakery, Pocino & Scavarda, and Dario’s Delicatessen. As the increasingly established and affluent Italian population began to fan out to nearby neighborhoods including Lincoln Heights, Frogtown, Echo Park, El Sereno, Highland Park and others, Chinese immigrants began to move to the neighborhood, spilling over from nearby Chinatown, which was located less than a mile away. Reflecting the changing character of the neighborhood, in 1923 Castelar School was expanded to accommodate the growing number of Chinese students and it became the first LA school with a Chinese principal. (Click here for Exploring The Remains of L.A.’s Little Italy)
FROM LITTLE ITALY TO NEW CHINATOWN
In 1871, nineteen Chinese were murdered by a mob in what was known as the Chinese Massacre of 1871. This was just one of many extreme instances of racism inflicted on the Asian-American populace. Afterward, many Chinese banded together, settling in Los Angeles’ first Chinatown, centered on Calle de los Negros between El Pueblo Plaza and Old Arcadia Street around 1880. With laws preventing Asians from obtaining citizenship or owning property, by the 1910s Old Chinatown was in rapid decline, plagued by tong warfare, opium dens and gambling houses. After decades of decline, the Supreme Court condemned the whole neighborhood and in 1933 the Chinese residents were forcibly relocated. Chinese-American civil rights activist Peter Soo Hoo campaigned for the creation of a new Chinatown.
Peter Soo Hoo Sr Ruby Ling Louie
CHINA CITY AND CHINESE MOVIE LAND
The timing couldn’t have been better as far as Hollywood was concerned – in the 1930s and ‘40s American filmmakers frequently depicted the exotic, ancient and mysterious culture. Not surprisingly, Hollywood played a significant role in the creation of what came to be known as Chinese Movie Land. The facades of 1937’s yellowface epic, The Good Earth, were incorporated into the China City’s design and other props were donated by Cecile B. DeMille.
The neighborhood, opened on June 25th, 1938, with considerable pomp and circumstance, including Governor Frank Merriam and Anna May Wong presiding over festivities. Among the many kitschy touches was China City, a section of the neighborhood hemmed in by a “great wall,” within which visitors were ferried by rickshaw through the “Passage of 100 Surprises.” They also enjoyed Chinaburgers at the Court of Confucius as well as guide girls wearing cheongsam. Street names included Bamboo Lane, Gin Ling Way and Chung King Road. Today there’s also now known as Mei Ling Way, named after 宋美龄 (Soong May-ling) — the wife of 蔣中正 (Chang Kai-shek); Sun Mun Way, a reference to Yat-Sens’ 三民主義 (Three Principles of the People), and Jung Jing Way.
There was art exhibited by the likes of 黃齊耀 (Tyrus Wong), 陸錫麟 (Keye Luke), Gilbert Leong, Jade Fon and George Chinn. Less than a year after the ride-like neighborhood opened, the firecrackers used in 1939’s Lunar New Year celebration caused a conflagration and China City was closed until August. Meanwhile, with Chinese still unable to become citizens, residents of the neighborhood were regarded by some more as theme park mascots than real Angelenos.
In 1943, the Chinese fight for the right to citizenship succeeded and the neighborhood began to change. With World War II effectively closing the Pacific, local business owners had to make do, relying more and more on Mexico and local products. The improvisations contributed to the creation of a uniquely Chinese-American cuisine, which still tends to dominate the neighborhood to the bane of authenticity hounds and foodies, and presumably to the delight of American Chinese fans. When the Western Plaza opened in 1948, it represented a break from the past because it included residences, not just commercial space. That same year, in a poetic omen of changing times, another fire struck in China City and by 1955, most of the former main attraction was an abandoned section. In the late ‘50s, rules and regulations concerning Chinese-Americans were relaxed, allowing them to move to other neighborhoods, but many remained.
THE VIETNAMESE INFLUX
In the 1960s, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association erected a statue of 孫文 (Sun Yat-Sen). After immigration laws regarding Asians were finally relaxed in 1965, many more Cambodians, mainland Chinese, Lao, Taiwanese and Vietnamese moved to the area, although Taishanese remained the dominant language until the ‘70s. By then there were almost as many Spanish-speaking Latinos in the neighborhood as Asians of any ethnic background.
In 1975, after the Vietnam War, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association headed efforts to resettle Vietnamese refugees in Camp Pendleton, including Ngoc khung. Though most of the Vietnamese who settled LA and Orange Counties ultimately ended up in areas like Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Irvine, Garbage Grove, Chan Gabriel, El Monte, Monterey Park, Stanton and Westminster, a large percentage of residents in Chinatown are still Vietnamese and Hoa.
SOUTHEAST ASIANS, ARISTS AND NIGHTOWLS
During the 1980s, more immigrants from Cambodia, Guangdong, Thailand and Vietnam continued to alter the ethnic make-up of Chinatown. It was Teochew immigrants who paid for the widely-recognized Chinese gateway at the intersection Broadway and what’s now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. It was also during this decade that the Vietnamese and Cambodian-dominated Asian Center, Saigon Plaza and Dynasty Center opened.
The newly Southeast Asian-dominated neighborhood saw a spike in crime during this era. In 1994, famed Cambodian refugee actor Dr. Haing Somnang Ngor was murdered in a botched robbery by Asian gang members. Much of the remaining, aging Chinese population moved to the San Gabriel Valley in large numbers and most new Chinese immigrants followed their people’s footsteps, forgoing Chinatown altogether. As a result, Chinatown’s economy once again shifted more toward toward tourists and those who live outside the neighborhood although there are still shops serving the local population. Currently, the residents of Chinatown are 71% Asian (mostly Chinese) and 24% Latino of any race (mostly Mexicans).
The most recent significant changes, even as many businesses remain empty, include the arrival of the Gold Line and a burgeoning art scene. Both have helped revitalize the neighborhood, changing the character of a neighborhood that, though known as Chinatown for over seventy years, has always been more than just that.
Credit to preserving much of Chinatown’s character has to be given to the many Chinese-American organizations, lodges, guilds and associations. Although some of the oldest ones (I’m looking at you, Ying On) began as tongs, their efforts can be credited with many of the positive developments in the neighborhood and for Chinese-Americans. There’s the Camau Association of America, the Cambodia Ethnic Chinese Association, the Foo Chow Natives Benevolent Association, the Gee How Oak Tin Association, the Hai Nam Association of Southern California, the Hop Sing Tong Society, the Soo Yuen Fraternal Association, the Southern California Teochew Association,the Southern California Fukienese Association, the aforementioned Ying On Association and I’m sure others that I’m missing.
RESTAURANTS OF CHINATOWN
Although most Chinese food fans in SoCal understandably eschew Chinatown in favor of San Gabriel Valley joints, many people come to Chinatown restaurants for the kitschy atmosphere, history or (presumably) because they don’t know any better. I suppose a lot of people prefer the Americanized fare pioneered in Chinatown, exposed by the many Chinese chains that in many cases started in the neighborhood. For whatever reason, if you choose to seek Chinese food in Chinatown, the options are numerous, including Chinatown Deli, Dynasty Express, Phoenix Inn, Regent China Inn, Empress Pavilion, Golden Dragon, Grandstar, Hop Louie, JR Bistro, Mien Nghia, Plum Tree Inn, Sum Woo, Tai Wong, Via Café, Won Kok and Yang Chow.
Though not all Chinese, there are also numerous bakeries (including Amy Bakery, Long’sFamily Pastry and Queen’s Bakery), BBQs (including Hop Woo, Sam Woo, Soon Peace BBQ and Spring Street Smokehouse), and Seafood places (including ABC, CBS, Hop Li, Mayflower, New Dragon, Ocean and Ocean Pacific).
Reflecting the subsequent waves of non-Chinese Asian immigrants to the neighborhood and Los Angeles’ variety in general, there are also Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese and Asian Fusion places including the Viet (Buu Dien, LA Pho 97, My Dung, Pho Hoa, Pho Pagolac, Pho 79, Than Huu and Thanh Vi) and the non-Viet (including Authentic Thai, Batavia Café, HawaiianChicken.com, New Battambang and Salathai).
I already mentioned some of the numerous bazaars, plazas, shopping centers and stores in the neighborhood. The largest store in Chinatown is The Wing Hop Fung Ginseng and China Products Center, where I was first mesmerized by 英雄 (Hero) playing on a large TV years ago. The plazas are home to loads of the aforementioned restaurants as well as clothes, curio shops, dishware, herbalists, household items, jewelers, mogwais, monkey paws, movie and music stores, pets, sots, and so many flashing, blinking, beeping shiny objects that, to paraphrase Miss Chin, you perhaps wouldn’t want to experience whilst tripping.
For starters there’s the aforementioned largely Cambodian Asian Center, home of Linda’s Video & Gift Shop which carries a wide selection of Asian DVDs, VCDs and CDs…
There’s also the stark, bleak Bamboo Plaza (home of Chinatown’s largest parking structure and the well-known Empress Pavillion…).
…the BC Plaza (not pictured); the proto-Grove/Americana outdoor shopping village that is Central Plaza; the Chinatown Phuoc Loc Tho Center (not pictured), the aforementioned Chungking Plaza; the Dragon Plaza…
… the cramped, subterranean psychedelic labyrinth that is the Dynasty Center…
…the Far East Plaza (originally designed just for restaurants and home to well-known eatery, Sam Woo (and the less well-known Sum Woo) and Dat Music Center, another source for numerous obscure Asian CDs, DVDs and VCDs…
the hungry-ghost-haunted Mandarin Plaza…
the New Chinatown Plaza (not pictured); the bustling Saigon Plaza (with another CD, DVD, VCD place — Wendy’s peeping the Viet section); the South Plaza (with its Yong Bell replica, based on a 2000 year old instrument discovered in Guangzhou in 1983); the relatively quiet, peaceful, and also aforementioned Western Plaza (home of the Chunking Road art galleries).
CULTURAL EVENTS & HAPPENINGS
Ever since it opened with a bang in 1938, Chinatown has always known how to party, and there are many festivals, observances and events in the neighborhood, including the Anniversary of New Chinatown; the Golden Dragon Parade and Chinese Lunar New Year Festival; the Lantern Festival; the aforementioned Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker 5k/10k Run, Kiddie Run, Fun Walk; The Lunar New Year Imperial Banquet; the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and the Miss Los Angeles Chinatown Pageant.
NIGHTLIFE AND MUSIC IN CHINATOWN
Madame Wong‘s began as a Chinese restaurant that featured a Polynesian floorshow. Decades later, co-owner Esther Wong began booking rock bands. The Police, Black Flag, The Ramones, The Knack, The Motels, The Go-Go’s, Naughty Sweeties, Oingo Boingo, Los Illegals, The WILD, The Kats/The Nu Kats, The Wigs, Daniel Amos, The Kempsters, Guns N’ Roses, Fear, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Glass Target, The Twisters and more all played there before the restaurant closed in 1985 from a fire. The “Godmother of Punk” died in 2005.
Today Chinatown is home to a thriving art scene, the nightlife tends to lean slightly left-of-center. There are numerous club nights at venues like the Club Eternal, the Grand Star Jazz Club, Mai Tai, Mountain Bar, Roberto’s, 2nd Street Jazz, Traxx and elsewhere in the neighborhood. If any musicians or bands have formed in Chinatown, I’m unaware of them and I apologize. On my excursion, I did see an old man playing the erhu. And, back in the day (the ‘40s and ‘50s) husband and wife duo Larry and Trudi Long rose from Chinatown to the Ed Sullivan Show, as told in documentary Long Story Short.
As hinted at numerous times in the blog entry, there’s a pretty hefty art scene in Chinatown, centered on Chunking Road. Currently there are more than twenty galleries, including Acuna-Hansen Gallery, Betalevel, Black Dragon Society, Bow & Sparrow, Cause Art Gallery, China Art Objects, David Solow Gallery, the Chung King Project, the Gallery at General Lee’s, The Happy Lion, the Mary Goldman Gallery, the Peres Project, POV Evolving, the Sam Lee Gallery, Sister, Telic Arts Exchange and I’m sure more. Around the corner is Human Resources.
CHINATOWN IN TELEVISION & FILM
Since Chinatown has its roots as much in Hollywood as China, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s been the filming locating many, many times; whether playing itself, other Chinatowns or China. Films include Aftershock – Earthquake in New York, Chinatown (the final scene is shot on Spring Street), City of Industry (which curiously seems to have nothing to do with the City of Industry), Dragon Seed, 8 Millimeter, Eraser, 15 Minutes (filmed in part at Little Joe’s), The Green Hornet, Jade, Key to the City, The Lady from Shanghai, Lethal Weapon 4, The Letter, Milk, Made of Honor, Monster in the Closet, Nancy Drew, New Chinatown, Pacific Heights, Possessed by the Night, Rush Hour (the scene filmed in and around Foo Chow), Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, The Shanghai Gesture, Sibling Rivalry (the scene at Hop Louie), Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home, True Lies, Undercover X and many more.
Chinatown has also been a filming location of many TV episodes, including top series like Beverly Hills, 90210, Hart To Hart, Hunter, Melrose Place and The Rockford Files. Of course, given the rich history that I’ve barely scratched the surface of, Chinatown has been featured in several documentaries including I Was Born, Kung Pao Chicken, Long Story Short, Los Angeles Chinatown Remebered, One Night at the Grandstar, But…, Sex – The Annabel Chong Story, Super Size Me and The Two Deaths of Los Angeles Chinatown.
FURTHER READING: Elisabeth Uyeda’s Sonoratown, Little Italy, China City, Chinatown, Los Angeles, Cal., KCET Departures’ series on Chinatown, Scott Zesch’s The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871, Jenny Cho’s Chinatown and China City in Los Angeles and Chinatown in Los Angeles, Thomas A. McDannold’s Development of the Los Angeles Chinatown, 1850-1970, Ko-lin Chin’s Chinatown Gangs: Extortion, Enterprise, and Ethnicity, and Bonnie Tsui’s American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods.
Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities; however, job offers must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles County Store, and 1650 Gallery. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.