Inside the World of Chinatown's Galleries

The crowd at a Chung King Road gallery opening night. | Photo: Hijinx Arts.

In the early evening hours of a recent Saturday, the crowd on Chinatown's Chung King Road swells as the gallery row's first mass art opening event of the year kicks off a cold January night. It's a casual affair; anyone who happens to be in the neighborhood can hop from space to space, ingesting everything from Brian Mains' massive paintings and striking drawings at Gregorio Escalante Gallery to Art Moura's intricately made dolls at Good Luck Gallery.

Inside Coagula Curatorial, the crowd mills about a collection of works from up-and-coming artists curated by Artillery Magazine's editor-in-chief Tulsa Kinney. Watching over the scene is a man forever captured in a vintage photograph that hangs above the doorway. Mat Gleason, proprietor of Coagula Curatorial, refers to him as Mr. Ling, the father of Gleason's landlord and one of the founders of Los Angeles' Chinatown.

Gleason is the first tenant in a building that had long been known as Ling's Market and Coagula Curatorial, the gallery incarnation of the arts journal he founded in 1992, has been operating here for close to four years. In that time, others have moved in as well. Good Luck Gallery, which specializes in artists who have not been formally educated in their craft, opened up shop two years ago. More recently, Gregorio Escalante Gallery, launched by Juxtapoz Magazine co-founder Greg Escalante, has settled in here, and Project Gallery moved to the neighborhood from Hollywood.

Art Moura installation at Good Luck Gallery. The show is on view from November 21 to February 20, 2016.

Art galleries aren't new to Chinatown. In 2007, Gleason's Coagula Journal featured gallerists Roger Herman and Inmo Yuan celebrating the "tenth season" of the neighborhood's art whirl. Years before that, in 2001, the New York Times ventured into the neighborhood to check out a scene that, at that time, was led by China Art Objects (which has since moved to Culver City). The popularity of Chinatown's gallery circuit has ebbed and flowed over the years.

"I've seen it get busy and then slow down and then get busy again and then slow down and right now it's definitely on a great roll," says Paige Wery, who published Artillery Magazine before opening Good Luck Gallery.

One concern that has long bubbled under the surface of stories about the Chinatown art scene is gentrification. Jan Lin, professor of sociology at Occidental College, has been studying gentrification for roughly 20 years and has watched shifts in Chinatown since 2004. He also authored the article "Los Angeles Chinatown: Tourism, Gentrification, and the Rise of an Ethnic Growth Machine," published in Amerasia Journal in 2008. "You normally look at the ethnic enclaves as being threatened by gentrification and that's been happening for at least 20 years in other cities," Lin says. "I think it's come a little later to Chinatown in L.A."

Steve Hanson, founder of China Art Objects, stands in front of the gallery's former location. The art space moved from Chinatown to Culver City in 2010. | Photo: KCET Departures.

Over at the Chinese American Museum, an ongoing exhibition, "Origins: The Birth and Rise of Chinese American Communities in Los Angeles," documents the history of the neighborhood. The area we know as Chinatown with its foot traffic-heavy center falling between Hill and Broadway, is, technically New Chinatown, a physical space that sprung up after Los Angeles' original Chinatown gave way to Union Station.

"A group of business owners and families,maybe about two dozen, then organized a corporate entity that purchased a parcel of land on North Broadway and North Hill frontages, subdivided it, and sold lots to their members and investors who built buildings in the new shopping center that was called New Chinatown," explains Eugene Moy, Second Vice President for the Friends of the Chinese American Museum and board member and past president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, by email. "It was promoted at its opening as the first planned Chinatown in the U.S."

Over the years, the neighborhood has evolved. As Lin points out in his 2008 article, migrants from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries settled here after the Vietnam War and, in the mid-20th century, Chinese banks came into the neighborhood and became involved with development projects. While Chinatown did become a hub of youth-oriented subcultures in the punk era, when bands played at now-defunct venues Madame Wong's and Hong Kong Cafe, Lin cites the beginning of the "new bohemian art scene" in Chinatown as the late 1990s with the first wave Chung King Road art galleries and the influential hip-hop party Firecracker, which took place at the Grand Star Jazz Club. This incarnation, he says, brought in not just white artists, but "the return of the second generation of Chinese-Americans, who are artists and bohemians themselves." While some of the properties have remained in the families of the original Chinatown business owners, others have changed hands.

Historic Chung King Road. | Photo: Chungking Studio.

There is much to find attractive about the buildings on Chung King Road too. They're set away from the street and along a courtyard, making it easy for people to mingle in-between gallery stops. At Gregorio Escalante Gallery, the basement becomes another place to display art. "I'm a huge fan of basements because, in California, there are hardly any of them," says Escalante.

As Gleason notes, the buildings on Chung King Road that now house galleries were made to present beautiful objects. "These spaces were designed with the idea that many of them would be stores that had curiosities, as they used to call them -- then they became antiques -- and Chinese imports," he explains. "All these spaces, every storefront in Chinatown was designed with the idea that the tenant, who would live upstairs, might be having some kind of art on display, so they're great for showing art."

And, for Gleason, there's one major benefit to operating out of Chinatown. "The rent can't be beat," he says. "With the money I save here on rent, I can do three or four art fairs a year."

Art Moura installation at Good Luck Gallery. The show is on view from November 21 to February 20, 2016.

As rents rise across Los Angeles, some galleries might choose Chinatown as a new home. That's the case for Slow Culture, which will be moving from Highland Park to a space on Hill Street, in front of Chung King Road, this February. "Our lease is up in May, and with that we'll have a significant increase in rent," explains Frederick Guerrero in an email. Guerrero and his brother, who are partners in Slow Culture, also co-own Burgerlords, the burger stand that recently opened in Chinatown's Central Plaza to immediate popularity. "During that time [opening Burgerlords] we've gotten to know a good amount of people in the community who have welcomed us with open arms," he writes. "We felt like it was something that we wanted the gallery to be a part of as well. On top of that, we also feel like there is more of an art community being part of Chung King Road. Something that we were really lacking."

That falls in line with Lin's observations about demographic shifts in Chinatown. "The Chinatown art scene is probably a further extension of the original colony," he says, referencing neighborhoods like nearby Echo Park and Silver Lake. Of course, not everyone has had a great rent scenario in Chinatown. Recently, that was the case for Fong's, a longtime fixture on Chung King Road. After a rent increase, the gift shop moved to a space on Hill Street. Their story was previously featured in a KCET Departures feature.

Lin points out that there are different types of gentrification. There's the gentrification that involves businesses, which encompasses much of what his 2008 article discussed. However, there's also "residential gentrification," which has also crept into Chinatown in the form of new, high-end apartment buildings that have been constructed in the neighborhood. He explains that the reasons for these shifts are slightly different and could be related to the neighborhood's proximity to the Metro Gold Line and Union Station. It's something he calls "green urbanism," where "returnees from the suburbs" are attracted to walkable neighborhoods with access to public transportation. "That's taking us back to Chung King Road," he says. "That's very much a walkable area."

Wyatt Mills, "Memory of Moment," oil and mixed media on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Mills' solo exhibition "Normal" at Project Gallery is on view from January 9 to March 6, 2016.

"The word gentrification needs to be used for the class and racial transition," says Lin. But, he indicates the complexity of the issues related to the term. "I really think that gentrification is related to the growth of a more livable city and people's interests in going back to the center of the city," he adds.

The reasons for Chung King Road's current surge in popularity are plenty, including new galleries with fresh exhibitions. One more recent development, though, is the opening of The Broad museum. "I'm a cynic when it comes to the powers that be in the art world and I had very low expectations that The Broad museum would contribute at all to the cultural life of L.A. outside of people maybe going across the street to MOCA, but I was very wrong," says Coagula Curatorial's Gleason. "I've made sales because of The Broad."

Like many other neighborhoods near the center of Los Angeles, Chinatown is in flux. But Chinatown will always be an epicenter for culture.


Top Image: Historic Chung King Road. | Photo: Chungking Studio


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