In Memory of Irvin Lai

When you look back at the first 100 years of Chinese migration to Los Angeles, you see the evolution of several distinct "Chinatowns." Each with distinct meanings, uses and mythos--not just for greater Los Angeles--but for the Chinese community itself. With every subsequent migratory waves to Los Angeles, and with the changing structure of immigration laws in the Unites States, the way Chinatown is identified as a cultural, economic, and symbolic center began to shift and change.

Migrants from South East Asia and Taiwan, among others, brought with them a new set of cultural values that re-defined the Chinese American experience most often associated with initial waves of Cantonese arrivals. These new migrants created multiple contexts from which to view and understand the Chinese American experience, and also created new geographic centers in the San Gabriel Valley that have rendered historical Chinatown almost obsolete.

The question we need to ask now, this after more than a century of Chinese migration to America is: What is the role of Chinatown in 21st Century Los Angeles? What does it represent? And to whom?

With the help of the Chinese American Museum, the KCET Departures team ventured into Chinatown to record its deep social and cultural history, and spoke with hundreds of people to create a multi-layered portrait of Chinatown as it is today and try to find some answers to our questions. Part oral history project, part interactive documentary, part community engagement tool, and part digital literacy project, through Departures: Chinatown, KCET also engaged youth in the community through its Youth Voices program by partnering with the Chinatown Service Center Youth Council.


Chapter 1 From Canton to L.A.
The first wave of immigration from China to the Pacific coast of the United States - San Francisco and Los Angeles, mainly - started in the mid-nineteenth century and lasted almost one hundred years.
Chapter 2 New Chinatown
New Chinatown was a fresh start for Chinese Americans, a center that could house the aspirations, hopes, and growth of the community. Though, at its core, it may have been like much of Los Angeles: a business proposition and a media campaign.
Chapter 3 The Postwar Years
The post-war years brought an entirely new set of paradigms for Chinese in America – not only because of tremendous changes in mainland China, but also due to transformations in the United States.
Chapter 4 Restoring Chinatown
In the 1960s, a new wave of Chinese immigrants began to turn away from city's decaying core in favor of outlying areas such as those in the San Gabriel Valley. Recently, younger residents and established organizations are working together from within to change family traditions and make Chinatown a new model of urban planning and development.


Youth Voices is a digital literacy and civic engagement program that invites youth to explore their neighborhood and become active participants in all aspects of their community. Take a look at some of their work and the Youth Voices curriculum. READ MORE arrow

Field Guides

Be a tourist in your own backyard, explore the places and histories that make up our unique neighborhoods.