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.
In 1983, Hong Kong was reclassified from a British colony to a dependent Chinese territory. Although in 1984, the two countries signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, stipulating that Hong Kong – at least for fifty years – would retain its own governing economic and legal independence, this monumental political shift catalyzed another wave of Hong Kong immigration to America.
In addition, a group of Chinese began to arrive from Taiwan to Los Angeles in the ‘90s, disregarding Chinatown in favor of areas such as Monterey Park, San Marino, Covina and others. This Taiwanese population that migrated to Los Angeles during the Fourth Wave (and continues to migrate, for that matter) was generally wealthier, benefiting from both America's market system and Taiwan’s robust economy. The difference between the earlier waves of Chinese migrants to Los Angeles and this one one could not have been more stark. The early sojourners fled southeastern China in search of the legendary Gold Mountain, leaving behind families and struggling mightily to carve out a rightful place for Chinese and Chinese Americans in both Los Angeles and the country at large. But after the landmark Immigration Act of 1965 opened the United States to new types of immigrants, and as cycles of acculturation and upward mobility transformed new arrivals' relationship to their new country, the Fourth Wave Chinese - like many Angelenos - turned away from city's decaying core and set their sights on greener pastures. For these new migrants, the dream of a new life in America was not defined by the Old Chinatown and boundaries imposed by history and segregation. For new and old immigrants, Chinatown was increasingly less a place to live, instead becoming a weekend destination marked by cultural events, meals and, ironically, opportunities to remember a way of life left behind across the ocean.
This shift had many implications for the neighborhood we all know as Chinatown, most prominent of which was that the once-bustling area became a ghost town during the week. Business owners such as Madame Wong and the proprietors of The Hong Kong Café in Chinatown's Main Plaza found they would have to find creative ways to attract business to their establishments. They began to book punk and New Wave bands to attract customers, creating a countercultural haven in the middle of downtown Los Angeles and shaping the global punk music scene.
Current efforts to revitalize the area diverge in treatment but not in form. In Chung King Road, for example, cheap rents have attracted a handful of artists and gallery owners who have tried to transform the area from a desolate urban core to a bustling art district. As an experimental art venue, the area has proven to be a success, but as a commercial art scene that attracts Westside collectors, a failure. After ten years of operation, Steve Hansen, founder and owner of China Art Objects - one of Chinatown's mots successful galleries - is now moving to Culver City.
Claims of gentrification dominated Chinatown's art boom, with community leaders speaking out against these new, edgy tenants. What they seemed to have forgotten is that many of Chinatown's original business owners had created a void by relocating to more affluent areas of the city’s Chinese American neighborhoods. This fact did not come as a surprise to George Yu, president of Chinatown's Business Improvement District, and architect Richard Lui, who both understood the role history has played in Chinatown's gradual decline. Yu and Lui are trying to work from within to change family traditions and make Chinatown a model of urban planning and development.