The late 70's and early 80's saw a complete transformation of L.A.'s Chinatown. The change happened in two stages, first with yet another geographic shift for the ever-shifting "Chinatown," then with an iconic cultural clash that would impact American (and global) culture for decades to come.
First, the geography. During the last quarter of the 20th century, a new wave of wealthier, "ethnic" Chinese began to arrive in the greater Los Angeles area. These new migrants had little connection to the Old (New) Chinatown near Downtown, and instead created mirror images of East Asia's booming urban centers and ex-urban sprawls in areas such as Monterrey Park, San Marino and Covina.
The shift further east had many roots. The Taiwanese population that migrated to Los Angeles during the 4th Wave (and continues to migrate, for that matter) was a group that benefited from both America's market system and the then-thriving Asian economy. The difference between the earlier waves of Chinese migrants tied to Old Chinatown and this one one could not have been more stark. The early sojourners fled China in search of the legendary Gold Mountain, leaving families behind 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 U.S. to new types of immigrants, and, as cycles of acculturation and upward mobility transformed new arrivals' relationship to their new home, the 4th 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 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 owners of The Hong Kong Café in Chinatown's main plaza, found the would have to find creative ways to attract business to their establishments or shut their doors completely. That's when the the next phase of the region's life began, with Chinatown Wars.
Madame Wong's solution to her business problem was to book alternative bands during the weekday night shift, attracting a new generation of migrants to Chinatown - disillusioned and disenfranchised youth from East LA and beyond. Other venues like the Hong Kong Café followed suit, and soon Chinatown was a musical Mecca. Future icons like X, the Undertakers, Black Flag, and Guns n' Roses all made their way in Chinatown in the late 70's and early 80s, with groups like The Police crossing continents and oceans to play here as well.
Madame Wong preferred the more refined new-wave sounds of bands like Blondie over the untamed energy of punk locals such as the Undertakers - who played at The Hong Kong Café - and thus the Chinatown Wars began. New-wave vs. punk, nose rings and spikes vs. preppy hats and thin ties, all of it played out against the backdrop of a deserted part of Los Angeles that was being claimed at best part-time, and this by an increasingly settled immigrant population with a radically different experience of the neighborhood.
Today, one just has to walk through Chinatown's Main Plaza to see the legacy of a cultural syncretism that absorbed both the history of L.A.'s ethnic population, and the new idioms forged by the children of those early immigrant populations.
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