Lights, Camera, Chinatown


Beneath a parking lot near Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles lies what was once known as China City. Created by socialite and entrepreneur Christine Sterling, the same woman who later developed Olvera Street as well, China City has been practically erased from Los Angeles' civic memory. But, like many places throughout our city's history, China City blurred the fine line between fiction and reality into a world of profitable fantasy.

A Chinese-themed Disneyland before Disneyland existed, China City was, literally, a set built at a complex moment in the relationship between Hollywood and the city's Chinese population. Constructed in 1938 using props and set pieces reconstructed from the Oscar-winning 1937 Cecil B. DeMille film "The Good Earth" (in consultation with set designers and architects from the Paramount lot), China City was intended to cater to both tourists and working movie crews, rickshaw rides and all. Chinese American children took to the streets in "traditional" costume by day, and at night returned to Chinatown proper just a few blocks away to change into normal streetwear. Street vendors advertised "exotic" Chinaburgers - a burger with bean sprouts.

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A huge hit at the time, "The Good Earth" not only provided China City with its architecture, but also served as a major point of connection between Hollywood and Los Angeles' Chinese population, as local Chinese American residents like Esther Lee Johnson were scooped up as extras to fill out stereotypical scenes. In the video below, Johnson describes being one of the extras in The Good Earth as a young girl, joining busloads of other children picked up in the city's original Chinatown daily to film village scenes. That first experience was the beginning of a career as a Hollywood extra that lasted almost two decades, Johnson's roles evolving from villager to refugee as WWII era war movies took hold. Although the roles she had were never glamorous and often cliché, Johnson remembers always being treated well, and that the money was good. Eventually, Johnson became well-known enough in the industry that she began to represent casting agencies among her neighbors, recruiting Chinese Americans to fill spots in upcoming films.

While The Good Earth and the development of China City were the architectural culmination of the relationship between Chinese Americans and Hollywood, the entire decade of the 1930s was a pivotal time overall for both communities. China and the "Orient" had become areas of exotic fascination for American movie-goers, and Chinatown itself carried a certain mystique spiced by gambling houses, rumored opium dens, and crumbling buildings. As Hollywood's technicians frequented old Chinatown in search of extras and backdrops by day, Hollywood's elite also flocked to the area in seach of the escapist nightlife and rare goods the area promised. Gossip columns reported on wild nights out, and high society women would often venture into the area to bring back striking Chinese antiques to be the topic of conversation at dinner parties.

Against that backdrop, Eddy See, owner of the popular F. Suie One Company antique store in old Chinatown, drew together many of the local artists to create the first art gallery in the area in his shop. When his antique business began to flounder under the weight of the Great Depression, Eddy decided to open a restaurant under the store in 1935 called the Dragon's Den, but with a major twist: it would feature the work his artist friends. Lisa See, Eddy's granddaughter, remembers the important and unique role that restaurant came to play in the community, connecting Hollywood's elite and Chinatown's bohemians in a setting that didn't involve a camera.

Tyrus Wong - who earned a fullbright scholarship to study at Otis College of Art and Design and later worked on some of Walt Disney's classics - was one of the artists whose work was shown at the Dragon's Den. He recalls that when the restaurant was first starting up it was as famous for its art and design as its food.

The Dragon's Den was the perfect mix of bohemian hangout and chop suey joint, combing both in a way that catered to a more avant-garde crowd. Aspiring artists came to soak in the vibe of the basement establishment, and its huge murals and handmade menus provided a space for both Chinese and Japanese artists like Tyrus Wong and Benji Okubo to showcase their art and draw attention to a uniquely American take on Asian style. Hollywood visionaries became regulars as well, from set designers who frequented the antique shop above to big names like Walt Disney and the Marx brothers, who could occasionally be found entertaining in the dark corners.

But even as the Dragon's Den was opening, demolition on Los Angeles' original Chinatown had begun. The city wanted to clear the way for Union Station. Chinatown's residents and community leaders sought to create a New Chinatown in response, one set up for residential life and a broader range of businesses, while Christine Sterling made China City a reality for tourists. For a while, "Chinatown" had three meanings: Both China City and the New Chinatown opened in 1938, only a few blocks away from each other, while Dragon's Den, still in the basement on the edge of where the original Chinatown once stood, continued to flourish for a few years, catering to a bohemian community that wanted nothing to do with China City's façade. When World War II broke out, Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps and the multi-ethnic Dragon's Den crowd dispersed. China City thrived into the 1940s, but two fires eventually leveled the place. It was never rebuilt.

It was the New Chinatown that survived and became the Chinatown that still exists in Los Angeles today. Tyrus Wong painted a huge dragon mural in New Chinatown's Central Plaza similar to that of the mural in Dragon's Den, and set designers and casting agencies continued to frequent the area for antique shops and extras well into the 1950s. New Chinatown, while less stereotypically exotic than China City, was built by its residents, not Hollywood. Perhaps that's why it survived the longest: It reflected the needs of the community, not the camera lens.

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