Chinatown: Eating Through History

For many, Chinatown is not much more than a place to eat dim sum or a bowl of noodles. With narrow streets lined with popular restaurant palaces and hidden holes in the wall, it's not difficult to see why. The steaming shrimp dumplings from Empress Pavillion or the Chiu Chou style noodles from Kim Chuy are always there for you to fill your cravings.

What may be obscured by the smell of Hoisin sauce and the sight of hanging roast ducks (once banned in America) is the area's deep social history ingrained in the hidden alleys and corners, starting in Old Chinatown where Union Station currently stands. It's a tight-knit community with a sense of pride, having experienced many difficulties--from the first race riots to forced relocation. Through it all, there's one thing that has always been at the core of the Chinatown experience: food.

During the first wave of Chinese immigration in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, one of the most common occupations for the migrants was in the produce business. Unable to find ingredients from their homeland, they grew their own, often peddling the beans and cabbage door-to-door in the Old Chinatown neighborhood. The City Market, established by a group of immigrant farmers in 1903, served as one of the main outlets for such vendors, and its surrounding areas became one of the first Chinese-American suburbs.

  • Charlie Quon - On working at The City Market and how Chinese-Americans ruled the produce industry.

  • The City Market - A slideshow of images depicting the changing neighborhood surrounding the market.

By the 1930s, almost 80 percent of produce consumed in Los Angeles were grown and distributed by Chinese-Americans. The restaurant business was also flourishing. The opening of The Dragon's Den in 1935 brought a bohemian element to the historically multi-ethnic neighborhood. While its neighbors slowly disappeared due to the construction of Union Station, they continued until 1942, serving dishes like fried shrimp and almond duck--considered exotic at a time when many Chinese restaurants served only chop suey. In 1938, coinciding with the opening of New Chinatown, the family-owned Phoenix Bakery opened to serve traditional Chinese pastries not found locally.

In the post-war years, a new wave of Chinese migration brought an entirely different set of values and principles. More urban and educated, they came during a time of tremendous political upheaval in their homeland. Cantonese families who had escaped to neighboring countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia due to the government's centralization efforts found themselves having to relocate again when their adopted home became torn apart by war. Many settled in Los Angeles, where they once again embraced their Chinese roots and looked to their homeland for a taste of their comfort food.

  • Kim Chuy Cambodian Restaurant - Political turmoil in Cambodia in the 1970s prompted the Lim family to relocate to Chinatown, where they began practicing the art of the Chiu Chow style noodle cuisine.

  • New Battambang Restaurant - Owner Phen Tang escaped from Cambodia to Vietnam to Thailand, to refugee camps, and finally to America, where he serves traditional Cambodian cuisine at his restaurant.

Now, perhaps more than ever, food plays a large part in the shaping of Chinatown while it maintains its roots as home to a community. While college students take a bite at their latest Yelp discoveries, lifetime residents can be seen perusing produce at markets that still dominate the street corners. Next time you're in Chinatown for a little bite to eat, keep in mind the sometimes extraordinary stories behind each hole in the wall--the journey they've taken to arrive there can be as inspiring as their food.

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