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A Los Angeles Primer: Chinatown

"A good urban context and the history it represents teach, with a sense of humor, even kitsch how to live." So, in "Travels in Hyperreality", writes Umberto Eco, who, despite not necessarily having Los Angeles in mind, nevertheless sets up a pillar of the mental framework needed to consider this city. Much of what appeared here in the early- to mid-twentieth century — the countless unprecedented forms of advertising, the theme parks, the buildings shaped like the products sold within, the freeways — must have at first seemed somehow "unreal," and calculatedly so. While some of these have since vanished, the intervening decades have seen a steady drip of reality, even mundanity, seep into the survivors. What we might once have held up for ridicule as Los Angeles kitsch, we now barely even notice at all unless we look carefully enough. Take Chinatown: some regularly use and even enjoy it, while most seem to have only the vaguest awareness of its existence. In 1938, the year Olvera Street developer Christine Sterling opened one of its predecessors, China City, everyone would have had an opinion.

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"China City must have been a sight to behold," writes William Gow in the article "Building a Chinese Village in Los Angeles." "Located near Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, only a few blocks from the nearly completed Union Station, the walled city featured buildings adorned in Chinese-style architecture, a lotus pond, and Chinese rickshaw rides. There was a temple, and replica buildings from the set of the 1937 Hollywood blockbuster, 'The Good Earth.' Costumed Chinese American workers greeted tourists, and a Chinese opera troop performed live shows in front of the shop of Hollywood recruiter Tom Gubbins." What a staggering wealth of kitsch this urban simulacrum of a cinematic simulacrum of a Chinese village must have offered. Alas, one 1939 fire weakened China City, and a second 1948 fire destroyed it. When you walk through today's Chinatown, you walk mainly through the descendant of New Chinatown, the other late-thirties development that competed with China City to both employ Chinese and Chinese-Americans and provide free-spending Angelenos with a non-threatening Middle Kingdom experience.

This hardly aligns with "the notion of Chinatown as the forsaken hellhole of civic negligence" (in the words of Thom Andersen's documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself") we get in Roman Polanski's eponymous Los Angeles-set detective film. But "Chinatown," set in 1937, dealt with the old Chinatown: the one built up in the late nineteenth century, the one eventually razed to make room for Union Station. The predecessor of China City and New Chinatown, which drew the usual fearful rumors about brothels, opium dens, and underground tunnels, must have struck some as a bit, to use a modern phrase, "too real." Today's Chinatown remains, on the whole, in the same league of innocuousness as China City and New Chinatown, though I do notice efforts to sharpen the place's edges. I walked one Friday night through the now-gallery-lined Chung King Road — its name a vestigial bit of Chinoiserie alongside those of Bamboo Lane, Gin Ling Way, and so on — and found there a bustle of aggrieved performance art, public nudity, experimental music, and the sipping of show-opening-grade wine. You can't go unstimulated in these evenings on Chung King, but then again, you can only have so disturbing an experience in a neighborhood offering for sale a thousand versions of Hello Kitty.

If you require representations of Yuko Shimizu's round, mouthless cat, and especially if you don't require their production under official Sanrio license, by all means come to Chinatown. Follow the rows and rows of Hello Kitty dolls, keychains, flags, and visors, and they'll lead you down into one of the neighborhood's swap meet-like subterranean malls, labyrinthine to the first-time visitor but perfectly straightforward to their many Chinese, Vietnamese, and Latin American habitués. They come to shop not just for Hello Kitties, but brightly colored luggage, strangely branded footwear, chunks of seasoned pineapple on sticks, live miniature turtles in plastic boxes, "Armani watches," karaoke discs, and t-shirts emblazoned with the flags of the world. Here we have the scene of one major element of Chinatown commerce. In the concrete plazas that dominate the place's aboveground retail experience, we have another. Architecturally dated to the sixties and seventies and feeling quite a bit worse for wear -- a working escalator comes as a pleasant surprise -- some of these hulks do periodically hollow out: poor old Bamboo Plaza, for instance, functions at this moment as little more than a parking garage wrapped around a core of mostly empty storefronts.

But the view from the elevated Gold Line train into Chinatown reveals the enduring prevalence of these plazas in the neighborhood landscape. That and other emerging connections with the rest of the city, not to mention the considerable quantity of nearby housing now under construction, surely make these plazas look like newly re-fertilized commercial soil. One well-known Los Angeles food entrepreneur has put his money where his mouth is — or rather, where the city's culinary innovation-hungry, reasonably young but just-affluent-enough mouths are. Roy Choi, the chef best known for his Korean-Mexican Kogi trucks that rolled at the vanguard of Los Angeles' new-wave mobile-food movement, recently relocated his flagship eatery Chego from from the west side to Chinatown's Far East Plaza. On my last visit there, just as the sun had begun to set, I found the place wide open, its loudspeakers pumping "Mary Jane" out to an early dinner crowd just sitting down to their pork belly plates and kimchi spam bowls at picnic tables placed amid the Plaza's host of already shuttered Chinese businesses and aging coin-operated children's rides. Those making bets on Chinatown's future may do well to watch how fruitfully Chego's seed sprouts.

Not that we've heard much bullishness over the part forty years from those who watch Chinatown, any conversation about which inevitably comes to the long exodus of Los Angeles' Chinese population to the far-flung suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley. Several shops urge you to visit their larger, more parking-laden Monterey Park locations, and nearly all of Southern California's high-profile food critics will, when asked for Chinese food recommendations, send you ten miles out to Alhambra, twelve to Rosemead, fifteen to Arcadia. And I wouldn't dare argue with them; everything in my own experience suggests that the schlep out to the San Gabriel Valley gets you a wider and more regionally representative variety of Chinese dining experiences available anywhere outside China itself, though something about enjoying such vibrant meals amid what feels like a vast, bland mallscape — in large parts an askew imitation of the low-lying communities in which the last couple generations of Americans grew up, bored — unsettles. As far out of fashion as Chinatown dining has fallen, I usually just opt for a curry beef pie, ham-and-onion roll, or sesame ball from one of Broadway's bakeries, some of which go all the way back to the faux-Peking days of New Chinatown. Current Chinatown, no longer a faux anything, has, in some sense, become "real" again. How long before the same process has its way with those developments beneath the San Gabriel Mountains?

Photos by Colin Marshall.


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About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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