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As Seen in Film and TV: Revisiting Iconic Locations in Chinatown

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Given that Los Angeles has been the base of the entertainment industry in America for the better part of a century, it's no surprise that the various streets and alleyways of the city have been featured in countless films and TV shows throughout history.

One of the more popular filming locations in the city is L.A.'s very own Chinatown. The numerous walkways and storefronts of the neighborhood have been used to depict "exotic" cities of the Far East or a seedy underworld of crime and deception, that has perpetuated negative stereotypes of Asian and Asian American people.

Many visitors to Chinatown might find that the neighborhood itself resembles a movie set, and that's because in a way, it is. Chinatown Central Plaza, which opened in 1938 as part of the "New" Chinatown plan, was designed by Hollywood set designers, and even possessed a film prop donated by legendary director Cecil B. Demille to give the mall a more "exotic" atmosphere.

Photo by davidpc_ used under a Creative Commons license

In a separate area of Chinatown, Mrs. Christine Sterling, creator of Olvera Street, wanted to create a similar space for L.A.'s Chinese community. The result was China City, a Disneyland of Chinese traditions and architecture, with buildings constructed out of actual set pieces from the film "The Good Earth." Two major fires within a decade left China City a shell of its former self, and by the 1950s, it was gone.

So what are some of the films and TV shows shot in Chinatown?

Some are no-brainers, such as "Rush Hour" filmed at Foo-Chow restaurant, a fact which they proudly display on the outer wall of the eatery. "Lethal Weapon 4," with its iconic chase scene through Chinatown Central Plaza and Hop Louie restaurant, a location that was also used in "The A-Team" season 2 episode 13 entitled "The Maltese Cow."

Other films are more difficult to pin down, as they were shot in some of the less recognizable parts of Chinatown. The 1941 film "The Shanghai Gesture," an early example of film noir, has very little exterior shots, and only after trolling numerous film forums did it become clear that it was filmed in Chinatown Central Plaza.

"The Golden Child," starring Eddie Murphy, has a scene filmed at the Alpine Recreation Center on the corner of Yale Street and Alpine Street, which was determined by comparing the shot in the movie to how the intersection looks today.

Filmmakers often use Chinatown as a backdrop for the criminal underworld. Films like "Starsky & Hutch" and "Chinatown" depict a seedier side of the city, with the former opening with Hutch (Owen Wilson) robbing a dry cleaners on Chung King Road, and the latter involving political intrigue and a violent, dramatic climax filmed on the corner of Ord Street and North Spring Street.

In fact, there are only a few films shot in Chinatown that have nothing to do with crime at all. "Freaky Friday (2003)" and "Pretty in Pink," were both shot in Central Plaza, and "The Decline of Western Civilization," a documentary about punk rock in L.A., features a performance by Catholic Discipline at the Hong Kong Cafe -- a Chinatown venue that no longer exists.

With its mix of urban scenery on North Broadway and the narrow walkways lined with buildings made to look "Chinese," Chinatown continues to be a prime filming location for studios in Hollywood today and the neighborhood will capture the imagination of filmmakers and audiences alike for years to come.

Watch a video montage of some of the films and TV shows filmed in Chinatown:


Montage video edited by Jeremy Backlar

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