New Chinatown in Los Angeles is a unique mostly Asian community filled with history and diversity. Several malls, or plazas, offer hundreds of shops, restaurants, Chinese Bakeries and art galleries to explore.
History of Los Angeles Chinatowns
The New Chinatown district in Los Angeles was a long time in development.
The first Chinese community in Los Angeles, now referred to as Old Chinatownor the Old Place by some Chinese—was located on the southeast side of El Pueblo de Los Angeles including the area where Union Station is now located.
A one block alley between El Pueblo Plaza and Old Arcadia Street had roughly 200 mostly male Chinese living and working in what was by 1870 a recognizable Chinatown. The street at that time was called Calle de Los NegrosStreet of the Dark Hued Ones, also known as Negro Alley or Nigger Street.
In 1887 Los Angeles Street was extended to the Old Plaza and in the process much of Calle de Los Negros was destroyed with most of the buildings torn down including the historic Ygnacio Cornel Adobehome to the family of Antonio Francisco Coronel of one of LA’s four Latino Mayors. That location is now the on ramp to the 101 Freeway.
At that time Chinese were not allowed to own property which limited investment in the area. Chinese were contributors to the economy then as they are today and were the major labor providers in several industries at various times including vegetable marketing, citrus growing, railroad construction and laundry services, but tension rose as the general economy declined in the 1870's. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882the first major restriction on immigration to the U.S.was the culminating national response to thirty plus years of anti-Chinese sentiment which began during the gold rush.
National and international attention was focused on Los Angeles for the first time when, on October 24, 1871 a mob estimated at 500 went on a burning and lynching spree on Calle de Los Negros. At least 17 Chinese were killed in the Chinese Massacre of Los Angeles—the largest mass lynching in American history. Partially as a result of a law that forbade Chinese from testifying against whites no one was held responsible for the deaths.
Construction of Union Stationofficially Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminalwhich opened in May 1939, finally forced the Chinese community to complete its move out of the center of downtown LA.
One plan for a new location was advanced by Mrs. Christine Sterlingthe same prominent Los Angeles socialite and civic leader responsible for the revival of Olvera Street as a Mexican Marketand another development called China City had some success though two major fires helped contribute to its eventual failure.
Peter SooHoo, a young Chinese American born in Old Chinatown who had received an engineering degree from the University of Southern California, was instrumental in finding the location for New Chinatown.
The first development in New ChinatownCentral Plaza one of the first pedestrian malls in the U.S.was designed with modern buildings engineered for earthquake, fire safety and sanitation on wide safe streets to make the development acceptable to both Chinese and tourists.
Neo-Chinese or American-Chinese architecture focused on details such as gaily painted balconies, ornately carved screens on windows, luminous tile work and sweeping upturned roofsmany decorated with sculptures of mythical animals.
A statue in Central Plaza honors Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a Mainland Chinese revolutionary leader considered the “founder of modern China.” This unique monument was erected in the 1960s by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association one of several such organizations headquartered in Central Plaza.
Twenty-eight Chinese are listed as the founders of New Chinatown. One aspect that made this development unique was that it was financed, land and buildings included, by the Chinese. In order to circumvent the law against Chinese owning property the land and buildings were owned by their offspringborn in the U.S. and therefore U.S. citizens. The founders formed the Los Angeles Chinatown Project Association to develop Central Plaza. Peter SooHoo served as the English secretary, Lee Wah Shew was Founding President.
New Chinatown’s grand opening took place on June 25, 1938 as a full page ad in the Los Angeles Examiner invited readers to partake of The Enchanting Charm of Old China in Los Angeles.
The landmark East Gate or Broadway Gate (at 951 N. Broadway) was completed the following year. Known as the Gate of Maternal Virtues it displays a four character poem praising the spirit of exemplary mothers in the history and culture of China.
A five tier Golden Pagoda was constructed in 1941. The last major landmark to be erected in the New Chinatown Central Plaza it is now known as Hop Louie’s Restaurant Pagoda.
In addition to Central Plaza LA’s New Chinatown now boasts a number of newer developments including Bamboo Plaza, BC Plaza, Chinatown Plaza, Dragon Plaza, Dynasty Center (a huge indoor swap meet), Far East Plaza (with the highly rated Ocean Seafood restaurant which you may remember from Lethal Weapon 4 which was shot there and in Central Plaza), Jade Pavilion, Mandarin Plaza, Saigon Plaza and West Plaza.
Many other movies have been filmed in New Chinatown including Rush Hour, starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
Chung King Road, at the back of West Plaza across Hill Street from the Bamboo Plaza and Central Plaza, has many specialty Chinese shops but has also become a popular neighborhood for galleries with Saturday night open studios attracting a large, mostly non Asian, crowd. Bamboo Plaza has a multi-story parking garagea convenient place to park in Chinatownand the Empress Pavilion Restaurant.
Most Los Angeles New Chinatown destinations are also easily accessible by public transportation.
Many of these malls were built during the 1980’s although West Plaza opened just five years after the Chinese won the right to become naturalized citizens in 1943. West Plaza differed from earlier purely commercial blocks in that it had upstairs apartments which contributed to creating a neighborhood ambiance. It was mentioned in Lisa See's novel On Golden Mountain and the F. See On shop there is still run by See family members.
As earlier generations found financial success many moved to the hills beyond New Chinatown, some neighborhoods there have over 50% Chinese households, as continuing immigration from other Asian countries moved in to take their place.
Immigration from many Asian countries to Los Angeles Chinatown in recent years has resulted in a wide diversity of languages being spoken in addition to diversity of types of restaurants serving Asian cuisine in the neighborhood.
Several New Chinatown restaurants feature Cantonese cuisine but there are also a number of Vietnamese, Indonesian and Thai restaurants. Teochew Chinese, Mandarin and Szechuan are popular as are Chinese food delicatessens like Lucky Deli. The Sam Woo BBQ Restaurant chain serving Cantonese cuisine and the smaller local chain Mein Nghai which serves Teochew noodles both started in Los Angeles Chinatown.
Superior Poultry Chicken at 750 Broadway has been a landmark in Chinatown for more than 50 years and is said to be the last place in Los Angeles to sell live chickens to retail and wholesale customers.
When it opened in 2002, the Chinatown Farmers Market became the first multicultural district in the Los Angeles area to host a farmers’ market. Although sponsored by the Chinatown Business Improvement in conjunction with the Southland Farmer’s Market Association this farmers’ market is unique with a tremendous selection of Asian produce in addition to what you are likely to find at other markets. Every Thursday from 47 pm.
A four-story tall Twin Dragons Towers Gateway was built to span the entrance to Chinatown at Cesar Chavez Ave and North Broadway in 2001. The twin dragons are meant to appear to descend from the clouds.
The day of the Lunar New Year is the most celebrated holiday of the year for the nearly 1.5 million persons of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese decent in Southern California. Chinatown celebrates with a parade that typically attracts over 100,000 spectators.
Slideshow—all photos on this page
Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson