Chinatown: The Backstory

As established in the post I wrote last week, I have a bit of an obsession with Chinatown DTLA. Aside from my personal feelings and memories, Chinatown Los Angeles has a backstory almost as dramatic as its architecture. Shall we begin?

1850s: From the humble beginnings of immigrant laborers, Old Chinatown began with a deep-rooted culture carried over by a small population Chinese men. In the second half of the nineteenth century the pull of the American Dream magnetized these men to travel from China to California for work. Many settled in Los Angeles. Slowly the population grew and these first Chinese immigrants banded together as strangers in a strange land. The centralization of a Chinese community naturally evolved as more immigrants arrived. Old Chinatown developed into residences and businesses including restaurants, temples, shops, a newspaper, telephone exchange and even an opera house at one point. But things changed.

1882: California passed the Exclusion Act which banned almost all Chinese citizens from entering the state. The act also legally excluded Chinese citizens already residing in California from US citizenship which excluded those affected from owning property or being able to leave the US and re-enter. The Exclusion Act suspended potential growth for the Chinese community to truly flourish at this time. It was passed for political reasons, but was later repealed in 1943 once China became an ally to the United States during WWII.

1913: After growth was stopped due to the political and financial climate, Old Chinatown experienced years of slow decay. Commerce slowed significantly due to the deteriorated appearance of the ill-maintained buildings and eventually the downward spiral came to an end. The land on which it was located came under a dispute of ownership between the city of Los Angeles and the private estate that considered it their property. Eventually the lawsuit was dropped in 1914 and the land was sold to make way for railway tracks and Union Station. This would eventually displace the last businesses and residents that  still in the Old Chinatown but the process would slow.

1931: A location for the New Chinatown was needed, not just for the community but it was vital for Chinese business owners to have a location where they could continue to operate and attract customers. Various plans were suggested but none could be realized until a location was established.

1937: New Chinatown was carefully planned to avoid the drawbacks that brought the demise of the first Chinatown. To achieve that goal, the project would be planned and financed entirely by the Chinese community. Eventually a core group of 33 citizens came be known as the Los Angeles Chinatown Project Association. The New Chinatown would house businesses and attract tourists to support the Chinese community economically, as well as establish a cultural core for the Chinese-American community. During this time, the association raised tens of thousands of dollars and New Chinatown slowly went from vision to actuality.

1938: New Chinatown’s grand opening was announced. Several businesses were still in the works and the last building to be completed was the five-tiered pagoda that is Hop Louie’s. It’s still in operation as a restaurant and bar in New Chinatown’s Central Plaza.

1941: Chinese Celestial Dragon mural is painted by Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong (who was also leader artist for Disney’s “Bambi”). The mural was restored by Fu Ding Chen in 1984. It’s still up and still beautiful.

Chinatown Central Plaza // N. Broadway and W. College St, Los Angeles, CA 90012

There are so many more details and so much more to the story of New Chinatown as we know it. I can only imagine the lives that were lived there over the years. I think I was drawn in to falling in love with Chinatown because its history is almost palpable, even if on the surface it only appears to be a tourist trap.

In the mood for Chinatown Los Angeles? Yeah, me too.