Entrance to Los Angeles' Chinatown
Map of the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, as delineated by the Los Angeles Times
Chinatown is a neighborhood in Downtown Los Angeles, California that became a commercial center for Chinese and other Asian businesses in Central Los Angeles in 1938. The area includes restaurants, shops and art galleries but also has a residential neighborhood with a low-income, aging population of about 20,000 residents.
The original Chinatown developed in the late 19th century, but it was demolished to make room for Union Station, the city's major ground-transportation center. A separate commercial center, known as "New Chinatown," opened for business in 1938.
Street and natural limits of the Chinatown neighborhood are: north, Beaudry Avenue, Stadium Way, North Broadway; east, the Los Angeles River; and southwest, Cesar Chavez Avenue. Chinatown beyond the concentrated business center is flanked by the Elysian Park to the north, Lincoln Heights to the east, Downtown to the south and southwest and Echo Park to the west and northwest.
There are two schools and a branch library in Chinatown, as well as a city park and a state park. Many motion pictures have been filmed in the area.
In the early 1860s, thousands of Chinese men, most of them originating from Guangdong province in southern China, were hired by Central Pacific Railroad Co. to work on the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad. Many of them settled in Los Angeles.
In 1871, 19 Chinese men and boys were killed by a mob of about 500 men in an area of Los Angeles known as Negro Alley which had been known as a dangerous area for two decades. It was one of the most serious incidents of racial violence that has ever occurred in the American West. This incident became known as "Massacre of 1871".
The first Chinatown, centered on Alameda and Macy Streets (now Cesar Chavez Avenue), was established in 1880. Reaching its heyday from 1890 to 1910, Chinatown grew to approximately fifteen streets and alleys containing some two hundred buildings. It boasted a Chinese Opera theater, three temples, a newspaper and a telephone exchange. But laws prohibiting most Chinese from citizenship and property ownership, as well as legislation curtailing immigration, inhibited future growth.
From the early 1910s, Chinatown began to decline. Symptoms of a corrupt Los Angeles discolored the public's view of Chinatown; gambling houses, opium dens and a fierce tong warfare severely reduced business in the area. As tenants and lessees rather than outright owners, the residents of Old Chinatown were threatened with impending redevelopment, and as a result the owners neglected upkeep of their buildings. Eventually, the entire area was sold and then resold, as entrepreneurs and developers fought the area. After thirty years of decay, a Supreme Court ruling approved condemnation of the area to allow for construction of a major rail terminal, Union Station. Residents were evicted to make room for Union Station without a plan for the relocation of the Chinatown community.
Chinatown was gradually demolished, leaving many businesses without a place to do business and forcing some to close. A remnant of Old Chinatown persisted into the early 1950s, situated between Union Station and the Old Plaza. Several businesses and a Buddhist temple lined Ferguson Alley, a narrow one-block street running between the Plaza and Alameda. The most notable of the surviving buildings was the old Lugo house, having been built in 1838 by the prominent Californio family. Some decades later, the Lugo house became the original home of Loyola Marymount University, and later, it was rented to Chinese-Americans who ran shops on the ground floor and a lodging house upstairs. Christine Sterling, who had brought to fruition the Olvera Street and China City projects, argued that remaining buildings of Old Chinatown were an eyesore and advocated successfully for the razing of all the remaining structures between the Plaza and Union Station.
"The original Chinatown's only remaining edifice is the two-story Garnier Building, once a residence and meeting place for immigrant Chinese," according to Angels Walk - Union Station/El Pueblo/Little Tokyo/Civic Center guide book. The Chinese American Museum is now situated in Garnier Building.
Seven years passed before an acceptable relocation proposal was put into place, situating a new Chinatown in its present location.
Christine Sterling, who worked on the conversion of a neglected street into the Mexican-themed Olvera Street, conceived of a similar plan for the displaced Chinese American population. In 1938, she opened China City, a walled enclave featuring Chinese-style architecture, restaurants, shops, rickshaw rides, a lotus pond, and a temple. Costumed workers greeted tourists, and a Chinese opera troupe performed live shows in front of the shops. Some replica buildings in China City came from the set of the 1937 Hollywood blockbuster, The Good Earth. China City received mixed support from Chinese American residents and businessmen. Many welcomed the economic opportunity the project provided. Others preferred the New Chinatown project, considered less distorted by the stereotyping lens of Hollywood. During its eleven-year existence, China City was destroyed by fire and rebuilt numerous times. In 1949, an act of arson destroyed China City.
The neighborhood that has become Chinatown was formerly Little Italy. In the early 20th century, Italian immigrants settled in the area north of the Old Plaza. Many built businesses, including wineries (San Antonio Winery is still in existence). The Italian American Museum of Los Angeles in the El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument opened in 2016.
In the 1930s, under the efforts of Chinese-American community leader Peter Soo Hoo Sr., the design and operational concepts for a New Chinatown evolved through a collective community process, resulting in a blend of Chinese and American architecture. The Los Angeles Chinatown saw major development, especially as a tourist attraction, throughout the 1930s, with the development of the "Central Plaza," a Hollywoodized version of Shanghai, containing names such as Bamboo Lane, Gin Ling Way and Chung King Road (named after the city of Chongqing in mainland China). Chinatown was designed by Hollywood film set designers, and a "Chinese" movie prop was subsequently donated by film director Cecil B. DeMille to give Chinatown an exotic atmosphere.
The Hop Sing Tong Society is situated in Central Plaza, as are several other Chinatown lodges and guilds. Near Broadway, Central Plaza contains a statue honoring Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary leader who is considered the "founder of modern China". It was erected in the 1960s by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. A 7-foot tall statue of martial artist Bruce Lee was unveiled at Central Plaza on June 15, 2013.
During the 1980s, many buildings were constructed for new shopping centers and mini-malls, especially along Broadway. Metro Plaza Hotel was opened in the southwest corner of Chinatown in the early 1990s. A large Chinese gateway is found at the intersection of Broadway and Cesar Chavez Avenue, funded by the local Teochew-speaking population.
New Chinatown is served by the Gold Line of the city's Metro Rail; parts of Old Chinatown were uncovered during excavation for another portion of the L.A. subway (the Red Line connection to Union Station). The Metro Rail station in Chinatown has been described as a spectacular pagoda-themed facility and as a cliché of neo-pagoda architecture by Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic.
In 1996, Academy Award-winning (for the Killing Fields in 1985) Cambodian refugee, physician and actor, Haing S. Ngor, was killed in the Chinatown residential area in a bungled robbery attempt by members of an Asian gang. It had been speculated that he was assassinated for his activism against the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia, but this idea was later proved unfounded.
By 2000 many people had left the Chinatown for the City of Monterey Park, which has a Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley. In 2000 AsianWeek said that the Los Angeles Chinatown was "troubled."
On June 28, 2008, a celebration of the 1938 founding of New Chinatown was held with the L.A. Chinatown 70th Anniversary Party. "Though lacking the hustle and bustle of San Francisco's Chinatown, Los Angeles' version has charms of its own." As new developments are approved, city officials and housing activists debate how much affordable housing should be included amidst the market rate apartments and condominiums.
The 2010 U.S. census counted 20,913 residents in the 0.91-square-mile Chinatown neighborhood, excluding the population of the Los Angeles County Jail complex. That made an average of 9,650 people per square mile, which included the empty Cornfield area.
The median household income in 2010 dollars ($29,000), was the third-lowest in Los Angeles County, preceded by Watts ($28,200) and Downtown ($24,300). The percentage of households earning $20,000 or less (53.6%) was the third-largest in Los Angeles County, preceded by Downtown (57.4%) and University Park (56.6%). The average household size of 2.8 people was just about the city norm. Renters occupied 91% of the housing units, and home- or apartment owners the rest.
Just 11.7% of Chinatown residents aged 25 and older possessed a four-year degree in 2010, the sixth-least in Los Angeles County.
There are three schools operating within Chinatown. They are:
Los Angeles Public Library operates the Chinatown Branch.
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There are numerous small, specialized grocery stores in Chinatown. The Chinese Vietnamese own many bazaars. The stores sell products such as soap, toys, clothes, music CDs at low prices. Several restaurants in Chinatown serve mainly Cantonese cuisine but there are also various Asian cuisine restaurants such as Teochew Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Thai, which reflects the diverse character of Chinatown. Few boba cafes have opened in Chinatown, but a large number are to be found in the Chinese enclaves in the San Gabriel Valley.
TS Emporium and Tin Bo are stores selling ginseng and herbs as well as other household merchandises are operated within the confinement of this particular Chinatown.
Dynasty Center, Saigon Plaza, and the Chinatown Phuoc Loc Tho Center feature many Vietnamese-style bazaars with people engaged in bargain shopping for items such as clothing, toys, Chinese-language CDs, pets, household items, funerary products, and so on. Its entrepreneurs are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam.
There are over 20 art galleries to see, mostly featuring non-Chinese modern art, with works from up and coming artists in all types of media. Popular galleries include Acuna-Hansen Gallery, Black Dragon Society, China Art Objects, and The Gallery at General Lee's. Spaces such as Telic Art Exchange, Betalevel and The Mountain Bar often have readings, performances and lectures.
Chinatown is in the process of becoming an entirely new place. Chinatown at the height of popularity was filled with bustling Chinese restaurants that included barbecue delicatessens with glass displays of roast duck and suckling pig and Cantonese seafood restaurants with dim sum. As the action in Chinese cuisine became centered in the San Gabriel Valley, southeast Asian eating places filled some of the empty spaces and offered Vietnamese pho noodle soup and submarine sandwiches called banh mi. As downtown revives, Chinatown has been sparked into life by cheap rents, the gallery boom in the 2000s and deep-rooted sense of community. Chinese bakeries and other shops continue to serve the area. Traditional Chinese restaurants that have remained are being joined by a variety of new restaurants as the opportunities Chinatown offers is recognized by additional restaurateurs. The area is better served by transit than many areas with Union Station so close by. Even though low-income seniors remain, college graduates can find their first apartment here and condos are becoming available for the affluent. This economic diversity encourages a diversity of places to serve the area.
Three of Chinatown's restaurants highlight the history and diversity of this neighborhood.
The words Los Angeles Chinatown are written and pronounced as follows as (traditional Chinese: ; simplified Chinese: ; pinyin: ; Cantonese Yale: Loks?amg?i Tòhngyàhng?ai) in Cantonese, (traditional Chinese: ; simplified Chinese: ; pinyin: ; Cantonese Yale: Loks?amg?i J?nggwoksìhng) in Mandarin Chinese or officially known as (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: ; Cantonese Yale: Loks?amg?i Wàhfauh).
Events that have been held or are planned in Los Angeles's Chinatown include:
o The Firecracker Run and Fun Walk
o Mid-autumn Moon Festival
A midnight firecracker display occurs every Chinese New Year's Eve at Thien Hau Temple and Xuan Wu San Buddhist Association.
Chinatown has served as the setting for many Hollywood films. The conclusion of the film Chinatown was filmed on Spring Street. The movie Rush Hour was filmed on location in Chinatown. It is said that a stroll down Old Chinatown Plaza has many rewards, including recognizing many other locations that are used in filmmaking and television production.