How The Destruction Of LA's Original Chinatown Led To The One We Have Today
Stroll through Chinatown, and if you're not trapped in line at Howlin' Rays or munching on a slice of Phoenix Bakery's famous strawberry cake, you can discover local history through small signs on buildings and historical markers that dot the sidewalks. Today, the area faces more change, thanks to a new wave of gentrification. Nouveau foodie joints attract young crowds while old school restaurants still draw regulars. Developers erect high-end apartment buildings but some seniors halted a proposed rent increase.
Born out of necessity for a community displaced by racism and civic development, the neighborhood has endured for more than 80 years — but the Chinatown we know today isn't Los Angeles's first such enclave.
Not So Ancient History
Almost nothing remains of Los Angeles's original Chinatown, which sprung up in the mid-1800s near the city's origins, on Olvera Street.
China in the 19th century was in the midst of a population boom, resulting in "land shortages, famine and an increasingly impoverished rural population." Fleeing poverty and political upheaval, Chinese migrants crossed the Pacific for greener pastures in the United States. They often ended up in California, working in industries like mining and agriculture.
They began settling in and around the area now known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the oldest part of the city. This was a time of immense growth for L.A., which had only become part of the United States in 1848. Near the city's center, multiple ethnic neighborhoods — the French colony, Little Italy, Sonoratown, Little Tokyo — took shape while wealthier residents headed to chic neighborhoods like Bunker Hill. Chinatown grew as laborers poured in to work on projects like the San Fernando Tunnel in Newhall.
Once here, they faced profound racial discrimination. Newspaper stories spawned negative stereotypes and disparaged Chinese people. Fears that new arrivals were taking jobs from white people stoked growing anti-Chinese sentiment. Racist violence was a reality. That didn't stop immigrants.
By 1870, L.A. was a city of approximately 5,000 people, about 200 of whom were Chinese. Half of them lived on Calle de Los Negros, an alley tucked between El Pueblo Plaza and Old Arcadia Street.
On the night of October 24, 1871, the powder keg of resentment and racism exploded into one of the worst lynchings in U.S. history.
After a police officer and a civilian were shot during a gunfight between rival gangs, a mob of 500 people laid siege to one of Chinatown's most important buildings. The mob robbed, beat and murdered approximately 18 Chinese people. (The exact number of people who were killed has been hard to pin down.) Eight people were tried and found guilty for the Chinese Massacre of 1871 but their convictions were later overturned.
A decade later, in 1882, the federal Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented "aliens ineligible for citizenship" from buying land.
Still, Chinatown's population grew as Chinese people moved from rural areas to an urban one.
"As the region shifted from an agricultural economy to more of an urban economy, so did the job opportunities," says Eugene Moy of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. "Then there was a need for other kinds of services, whether it was providing food, shopkeepers and restaurants, or personal services like laundries and shoe repair and that kind of work."
Chinese people, as with other ethnic groups, faced restrictions on where they could live. Sometimes, they were explicitly barred from neighborhoods by covenants, portions of deeds that forbade people of various racial or ethnic groups from living in a residence. Other times, they faced unspoken barriers.
"There might not have been a legal mechanism to prevent you from moving to a certain neighborhood, but the property owners, the landlords, would practice discrimination," says Moy. "You couldn't become a naturalized citizen under the exclusion laws, so many went on to achieve success, but not achieve full-fledged citizenship. We didn't really have a complete community in the sense that people didn't feel like they were fully a part of American society."
Nevertheless, Chinatown flourished and expanded eastward.
In addition to general stores and other necessary businesses, various Chinese organizations took shape. These included family associations for people connected by the same last name. In Chinatown, these groups often functioned as intermediaries, connecting employers with potential employees. Family associations are different from tongs, whose disputes captured headlines in the early 20th century.
"It was partly real," says Moy of the so-called tong wars, "partly a perception created by the press."
Old Chinatown had its heyday from 1890 to 1910, when it could count approximately 15 streets and about 200 units in various buildings, according to Old Chinatown L.A. A 1988 guidebook about the neighborhood's history said it boasted "a Chinese opera theater, three temples, a newspaper (for a while), and later, its own telephone exchange." The Golden Dragon Parade that has become a Lunar New Year tradition in Los Angeles traces its roots to a parade that started near Old Chinatown in the late 1800s.
Along the way, the land that Old Chinatown sat on, located next to several intersecting rail lines, had become valuable. Industrialists and city leaders wanted it for a rail hub. In November 1914, "San Francisco capitalist" L.F. Hanchett bought 25 acres of land in the area, ostensibly to build warehouses but really to build a train station. His plan didn't succeed but it sowed the seeds for what was to come. Although Union Station is one of L.A.'s crown jewels, the story of its development is far less pretty.
In 1926, Angelenos were presented with the option of a new train station or "elevated railways" known as an L train. City leaders, the Los Angeles Times and even famed preacher Aimee Semple McPherson were loudly anti-L and pro-train station — and that's how people voted.
It would take more than a decade for the new train station to become a reality. In the process, much of Old Chinatown was leveled to make way for the project. (The rest of the neighborhood was demolished between the late 1940s and early '50s to make way for the 101 freeway.) All that remains of Old Chinatown is a portion of one building inside the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Known as the Garnier Building, it was home to community organizations, businesses and residences. Today, it houses the Chinese American Museum.
As Chinatown residents were evicted to make way for Union Station, one man stumbled upon a solution in a neighborhood that had previously been home to Mexican, French and Italian communities.
Born in Old Chinatown around 1900, Peter Soo Hoo graduated from USC in 1923 and became the first Chinese American employed as an engineer by the Department of Water and Power. He came across Santa Fe Railway land near the site of the Zanja Madre, the Los Angeles aqueduct that had been shuttered by the early 1900s.
Alien land laws, which wouldn't be invalidated by California's Supreme Court until 1952, meant migrants had to buy property in the names of their U.S.-born children. Soo Hoo forged an alliance with Herbert Lapham, a white Santa Fe Railroad agent, who gave them a deal of 75 cents per square foot. That workaround helped bring New Chinatown to life.
The initial group of founders who came together to create L.A.'s New Chinatown was comprised of 28 people. They were primarily restaurant and shop owners whose ventures, like the Grand Star and K.G. Louie, would come to be associated with the neighborhood.
In June of 1938, New Chinatown debuted with the grand opening of Central Plaza, located off of College St. between Broadway and Hill. It was an immediate success although Soo Hoo wouldn't get to experience it for long. He died in 1945, at the age of 45, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Chinatown quickly became a destination. In its first year, the neighborhood celebrated the Mid Autumn Moon Festival. According to a Los Angeles Times article, the event attracted 25,000 people for a parade highlighted by a 1,000-foot golden dragon and celebrity guests such as actresses Anna May Wong and Soo Yong.
World War II brought the end of the Exclusion Act. Although immigration quotas remained tight, the War Brides Act and Displaced Persons Act contributed to population growth.
While visitors came to Chinatown to shop for jewelry and gifts or dine on Chinese food, the neighborhood was also developing resources that would be crucial to the growth of the area's Chinese American population. Among these developments were new financial institutions created by and for the Chinese community.
"Before the '60s in L.A., the ability to get financing for a new enterprise was limited to a few options," says Moy. "You save your own money or you borrow from family. That was it."
F. Chow Chan, who founded Phoenix Bakery, among other businesses, helped change that.
According to a program at a 2007 Chinese Historical Society event honoring local Chinese American banking innovators, Chan had faced trouble securing loans. He then spent years trying unsuccessfully to start a savings and loan before helping launch the commercial Cathay Bank. He eventually started his own savings and loan, now known as East West Bank, in the early 1970s.
The 1965 Immigration & Nationality Act loosened strict immigration quotas, while the Vietnam War and political struggles in Hong Kong brought new migrants to Chinatown in the '60s and '70s.
"Our population began to diversify, especially beginning in the 1960s because of these changes," Moy says, noting that early waves of migrants tended to come from Guangdong (Canton) or Fujian. "Now, with people coming from other regions, the new immigrants brought with them different languages, different foodways, different religions."
That impacted the way people in the community saw themselves and their place in Southern California.
"By the 1950s, 1960s, many Chinese Americans had been encouraged to assimilate, to adopt American ways. Many became Christian. Many joined other social organizations and activities, the American Legion or the Rotary Club or become more 'American' by joining traditional organizations," Moy says.
Later immigrants, arriving in the 1960s and '70s, formed a critical mass and had more freedom to build their own institutions rather than conforming to traditional American ones.
"You could bring your cultural institutions from China or other parts of Asia — Thailand or Vietnam — and set up new houses of worship, set up a Chinese school or a Mandarin school or organize a Thai supermarket. There is that increased diversity that has actually created a different Chinatown than we had 50 years ago," Moy says.
He points to Yale Ave. as an example. At one end, near a cul-de-sac, you'll find First Chinese Baptist Church. On the other end is Thien Hau Temple, a Taoist temple dedicated to Mazu, goddess of the sea. Both are large and active establishments.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Chinese American communities developed outside of Chinatown, including Irvine, Monterey Park and Alhambra.
This was due, in part, to the civil rights victories of that era. It was also a result of Chinatown's small size. The neighborhood measures less than a square mile.
Immigrants began bypassing Chinatown. "They didn't need to come to Chinatown first as the port of entry and migrate. They could go directly to these growing areas," Moy says.
The late 20th and early 21st century have seen more changes in Chinatown.
Beginning in the late 1990s, art galleries began springing up in the neighborhood, clustered along Chung King Road. In 2003, Metro's Gold Line opened in Chinatown. Community activism in the area, which was considered "park poor," led to the development of Los Angeles State Historic Park, a project that began in 2001 and finally opened until 2017.
In the last few years, a wave of ultra-hip restaurants and bars — Chego, Howlin' Rays, LASA, Majordomo, Highland Park Brewery, Oriel — have opened in Chinatown. The area has also seen an influx of construction, including apartment complexes with high rents.
With growth, comes gentrification.
In 2018, residents of senior housing facility The Metro @ Chinatown fought a proposed 8% rent increase and won, sort of. Although they won't pay more rent, the deal is subsidized by a future development, the 725-unit College Station.
In a city where development has often been marked by displacement and xenophobia, L.A.'s Chinatown shares its historical DNA with other neighborhoods.
At his office in the Chinese Historical Society, Moy, who has been involved with the organization since 1976, explains, "One of the things that we do is to show that Chinese American History did not exist in isolation. It was really part of a larger context of the development of L.A., the development of Southern California, of California and the U.S. and, for that matter, the rest of the world."