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Though it lacks the scale and deep historical roots of the famous Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York, the compact Chinatown in Downtown Los Angeles offers a wealth of exotic sights and bright colors for a morning or afternoon of leisurely exploration.
For historical reasons, the district is confusingly called both “New Chinatown” and “Old Chinatown.” The original Los Angeles Chinatown, where Chinese immigrants began settling in the 1870s, was demolished in 1931 to build Union Station. The displaced Chinese community relocated to the “new” Chinatown in 1938.
Chinese immigrants were (grudgingly) welcomed in the nineteenth century, to meet an urgent demand for cheap laborers who could do the dirty backbreaking work of mining gold and building railroads. Because of the trumped-up fear of the “ yellow peril”— a phrase that frequently appeared in the widely-read newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst— white citizens and their elected representatives refused to allow Chinese immigrants to assimilate into American society.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 closed the United States to Chinese immigrants, and prevented those already in the United States from becoming citizens. It also kept the many male Chinese workers from bringing in their families from China. California laws also prohibited Chinese men from marrying white women or owning real estate. This discrimination led to Chinese immigrants congregating in Chinatown ghettos in major American cities, and later contributed to the decay of the original Los Angeles Chinatown into a slum infested with gambling, opium dens, and gang wars by the early twentieth century.
(The United States Supreme Court upheld the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1889. The original act expired after ten years, but Congress renewed it in 1892, expanded it in 1888, made it permanent in 1902, and extended it to other East Asian nationalities in 1924. Although Congress repealed the law in 1943, discrimination persisted. Immigration quotas for Chinese remained severely limited until 1965. And the California law prohibiting Chinese men from marrying white women remained on the books until the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967.)
When the three passenger railroad companies operating in Los Angeles wanted to build a large new station in the 1920s, Chinatown was the obvious place for it. The land was cheap, and its occupants were powerless to fight their eviction. Building the station would also provide a welcome opportunity to clear away what had become festering urban blight. That proposal went on the ballot in 1926. Voters narrowly approved it, with of course no participation from the affected residents. Litigation over ownership and land value delayed the project until 1931, when the California Supreme Court finally cleared the way for the condemnations and evictions to begin.
As lessees and tenants prohibited from owning real estate, the evicted residents of Chinatown received no compensation or relocation assistance from the railroads or the government. Peter Soo Hoo, a bilingual engineer born in Chinatown, came forward to organize a community-based relocation plan. After spending years securing the necessary non-Chinese support and funding assistance, his group created the country’s first planned Chinatown in a neighborhood originally settled by Italian and Croatian immigrants.
The core of the new Chinatown is Central Plaza, a mall meant to invoke an idealized Hollywood version of Shanghai or Beijing. Working with a limited Depression-era budget, Los Angeles architects Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson designed modern buildings that included enough traditional Asian elements to create an “exotic” attraction for tourists. But the real intent was to provide employment and self-sufficiency for the relocated Chinese community. Themed outdoor malls are now commonplace, but the new Chinatown was a revolutionary and unique concept when it opened for business in 1938.
Chinatown remained the center of the Los Angeles Chinese community until the 1950s. With the end of the odious laws prohibiting citizenship and land ownership, many of Los Angeles’ Chinese-Americans found their piece of the American dream in the San Gabriel Valley, northeast of Downtown. The “New Chinatown” became “Old Chinatown,” as Monterey Park and adjacent suburban cities developed into what might be called “Newer Chinatown.” (Nobody actually calls it that, as those communities long ago transcended the “Chinatown” label.) But Chinese-Americans from all over Southern California still throng the Downtown enclave for the winter Lunar New Year celebration and the autumn Moon Festival.
In the 1970s, ethnic Chinese displaced from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos moved in
and took over some of Chinatown’s shops. And more recently, non-Chinese artists have
set up studios and galleries in various abandoned buildings. But plenty of “exotic”
flavor still remains, particularly in the numerous shops selling Chinese foods,
herbal medicines, clothing, and colorful decorative tchotchkes. There is also an
extensive collection of restaurants, varying in price, quality, and authenticity. A
helpful clue is an establishment crowded with Chinese-speaking customers.
Travel Note: Traffic congestion and costly parking make public transit the cheapest and most pleasant way to visit Downtown Los Angeles. The Chinatown station on the Metro Rail Gold Line is worth a look, no matter how you get to Chinatown. Designer Chusien Chang incorporated familiar features and colors of Chinese architecture, as well as elements of I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination system also known as “The Book of Changes.” The station’s street level has a granite mosaic five meters across with a working magnetic compass, called The Wheels of Change. It incorporates the 64 hexagrams of I Ching, which represent the states of human transformation.