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Leading up to our participation in Chinatown Summer Nights on September 10, we will be taking a look at the culture and history of Chinatown, revisiting the videos and photos from each chapter of Departures: Chinatown.
In 1983, Hong Kong was reclassified from a British colony to a dependent Chinese territory. In 1984 the two countries signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, stipulating that Hong Kong - for at least 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 to the immigrants from Hong Kong, groups of Chinese began to arrive from Taiwan to Los Angeles in the 1990s and settled in areas such as Monterey Park, San Marino and Covina as opposed to Chinatown. These Taiwanese migrants during the Fourth Wave (and continues to migrate) were generally wealthier, benefiting from both America's market system and Taiwan's robust economy. There existed vast differences between the earlier waves of Chinese migrants to Los Angeles and the latest. 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 rest of the country. But after the landmark Immigration Act of 1965, the United States was opened to new types of immigrants, cycles of acculturation and upward mobility transformed the new migrants' relationship to their new country.
The Chinese immigrants from the fourth wave - like many Angelenos - turned away from the city's decaying core and set their sights on greener pastures, father out in the suburbs. 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 becoming less of a place to live, and instead becoming a weekend destination marked by cultural events, meals and, ironically, opportunities to remember the way of life left across the ocean.
This shift had many implications for Chinatown as a neighborhood. The once bustling area became a ghost town during the week. Business owners such as Esther 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 counter cultural mecca in the middle of downtown Los Angeles and shaping the global punk music scene for an entire generation. Journalists Ann Summa and Richard Spurrier tell a story of a dark and deserted place, a haven for the new brand of punks and outcasts who came to Chinatown for a new kind of music scene that was being cultivated. Madame Wong's played host to countless rising stars, as well as established musicians. The Motels, The Police, and The Go-Go's all played at Madame Wong's, while Hong Kong Café was host to lesser known local sensations. The two venues became part of the 'Chinatown Wars' and despite a rivalry, both venues were part of the quintessential nightlife at the time.
Fast forward to the 90s when efforts to revitalize the area diverged in treatment but not in form. Chung King Road for example, had extremely cheap rents that attracted a handful of artists, boutiques and galleries that transformed the area from a desolate urban core to a bustling arts district.
Telic Arts Exchange, an experimental not-for-profit art space funded by Fiona Whitton and Sean Dockray, frequently changed locations until it found its final resting spot on Chung King Road. Their programs and projects are participatory in nature. Their "Distributive Gallery" invites viewers to walk around Chinatown to view media in different venues, including Ooga Booga, Fong's and Via Cafe, recontextualizing not only the idea of the gallery space, but Chinatown itself. Similarly, their flagship project The Public School - a school with no curriculum - invites community members to propose, teach and take classes in open academic "free-for-all" sessions, where participants can study subjects as diverse as Walter Benjamin's Arcade Project, Urban Foraging and Chicano Muralism. Just as the punk invasion brought new life to Chinatown in the 1980s, recently spaces like Telic Arts Exchange are breathing new life to the area, providing much needed alternative cultural expressions in Los Angeles.
This cultural renaissance can boast no other artist who would best capture its contemporary condition than Steve Wong. With beautifully executed projects such as "Chinatown Stories," Wong provides the conceptual framework from which to view multiple iterations of Chinatown as both neighborhood and artifact. What these artists, collectives and cultural spaces share in common, is not only a redefinition of Chinatown as a locus for the Chinese-American experience but also of the revitalization of an urban core that seemed to have lost its purpose.
Claims of gentrification dominated Chinatown's art boom, with community leaders speaking out against these new, edgy, and in some cases contrarian tenants. What these critics 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. George Yu, president of Chinatown's Business Improvement District, and architect Richard Liu both understood the role history has played in Chinatown's gradual decline. Yu and Liu are trying to work from within to change family traditions and make Chinatown a model of urban planning and development.
Although the idea of a contemporary Chinatown in Los Angeles has shifted - not only geographically but conceptually - the dramatic political and social changes that have affected the Chinese America population over the last fifty years has given rise to a new generation of political views - at both local and national levels - that are redefining the political multi-ethnic coalitions. Assemblymember Mike Eng and Congresswoman Judy Chu agree that these shifts have afforded Chinese Americans with the opportunity to move beyond segregated enclaves historically denoted for Chinese, opening up affordable housing to hundreds of "American Born Chinese" residents and new immigrants after the Immigration Act of 1965, in new areas of Southern California.
Is it possible then to build a future for a new generation of immigrants and residents that call Los Angeles its home? Perhaps gestures such as assemblymember Eng's authored resolution (ACR) 76, which proposes a day of inclusion for all Californians as a homage to the atrocious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, can teach us that we can only move forward if you look and learn from the past.
- Chapter 1: From Canton to L.A.
- Chapter 2: Was New Chinatown a Neighborhood or a Media Campaign
Chapter 3: The Postwar Years: When Chinatown and a Nation Transformed