The Postwar Years: When Chinatown and a Nation Transformed

Chinatown, Los AngelesLeading 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.

Chapter 3: The Postwar Years

"The post-war years brought an entirely new set of paradigms for Chinese in America." So begins the overview text for Departures: Chinatown The Postwar Years mural. That shift occurred "not only because of tremendous changes in mainland China, but also due to transformations in the United States."

Those "tremendous changes" abroad refer in great part to the 1949 creation of the communist People's Republic of China and the subsequent retreat by two million anti-communist business people and others across the Taiwan Strait and into the Republic of China - or, Taiwan.

On a related note, emigration from Hong Kong to the United States' west coast took place during the early days of Mao Zedong and company's victory. During the coming decades, emigration from Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia formed part of a third wave of Asia-to-Los Angeles re-locations.

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The transformations, meanwhile, that occurred in the United States during the generation that followed the end of World War II are as legion as they are now familiar.

These changes encompassed the likes of civil rights progress; domestic and ultimately international migration; Baby Boom demographics; the rise of new popular technologies (television!) and transportation methods (interstates!); and the domestic consequences of continuing political and military turmoil in Asia.

"World War II is a turning point for Asian or Chinese-Americans," Irvin Lai said. Lai (1927-2010) was a longtime leader in Los Angeles' Chinese-American community.

In the interview with Departures prior to his July 16, 2010 death, Lai spoke of serving in the Coast Guard during World War II and as a field artillery man during the Korean War. Lai spoke too about the injustices he and others experienced upon returning to Los Angeles. "There is a lot of things we can't do," Lai said, speaking in the present tense, remembering that era. He continued:

"We can't go into a restaurant and buy a hamburger - won't let you go in there. You go in a department store, they won't wait on you. There's a law by the government that you cannot employee Chinese in a corporation and also in the government. You cannot find a job.

And how did that make Lai feel?

"That accumulates all those things inside of you and you feel it isn't fair for them to treat you like that. You were born here you are an American citizen. Why do you get treated that way? That implanted in my mind that I had to do something to straighten that out."

Lai's response was, in part, to become more involved with politics and urge others to do the same. He supported politicians running for office who he thought would work to overturn or otherwise render moot policies such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

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Lai's efforts - and those of many others - paid off. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law The Immigration Act of 1965. This significantly altered the method in which U.S. visas were issued - ending quotas for arrivals from particular nations and instead offering up hemispheric quotas. This led to far more Asian (and Latin American) immigration to the U.S.

The new arrivals were often distinct from predecessors from previous waves of immigration - such as those hailing from the Pearl River Delta region prior to 1882. In Los Angeles, this meant, in part, that more middle and upper class former Hong Kong residents were arriving post-1965.

Eugene Moy is an urban planner for the City of El Monte and the former president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. He mentions that the 1965 law and its subsequent influx of urban - not rural - dwellers who were used to residing in small domiciles in large apartment buildings re-shaped the housing stock of Los Angeles' Chinatown. "That has contributed," he said, in turn, "to the rise in land values and the rise in rents."

Moy also pointed out that today, 60-70% of Chinatown's residents are Asian. Lawrence J. Lue, CEO of the Chinatown Service Center - established in 1971 to provide services to the fast growing "American Born Chinese (ABCs) population - supported this fact, indicating that 70% of his non-profit organization's clients speak their "home language" predominantly.

Castelar Elementary School on Yale Street was another such bridge. "I had the idea that Castelar School should be a community center," said William Chun-Hoon, a Chinatown community leader and former principle of Castelar. Indeed, he installed adult classes and offered the building up to meetings held by organizations such as the Chinese Historical Society.

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Susan Dickson, a longtime Castelar fifth grade teacher, who is also behind the project "the Young People's Guide to Chinatown," described the changes over the years in her charges. "Kids become Americanized very fast," she said. "In my early years, I had a lot larger population of kids that were immigrants.... Now almost all of my children are second generation."

Dickson also said that during parent-teacher conferences, she notices that due to language barriers, parents and students can't always communicate well with one another. "How can they understand their own traditions, their own heritage, their own culture," Dickson said of the students, "if they can't understand their parents?"

On the other hand, when considered in a different, horrific context, this is not the absolute worst problem for a family to have.

When the Lim family, owners of the Kim Chuy Restaurant, arrived in Chinatown in 1979 from Cambodia, they were among the Hoa - or ethnically Chinese - boat people who fled Southeast Asian turmoil and targeting in the wake of the Vietnam War.

"We had to pass by dead people to escape from Cambodia," Matthew Lim recalled. "We had to walk on top of them, drinking water and stuff. Even though they were dead, we had to drink because we were really thirsty."

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Photo, Videos: Via Departures

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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