About Chinatown

In Memory of Irvin Lai

When you look back at the first 100 years of Chinese migration to Los Angeles, you see the evolution of several distinct "Chinatowns." Each with distinct meanings, uses and mythos--not just for greater Los Angeles--but for the Chinese community itself. With every subsequent migratory waves to Los Angeles, and with the changing structure of immigration laws in the Unites States, the way Chinatown is identified as a cultural, economic, and symbolic center began to shift and change.

Migrants from South East Asia and Taiwan, among others, brought with them a new set of cultural values that re-defined the Chinese American experience most often associated with initial waves of Cantonese arrivals. These new migrants created multiple contexts from which to view and understand the Chinese American experience, and also created new geographic centers in the San Gabriel Valley that have rendered historical Chinatown almost obsolete.

The question we need to ask now, this after more than a century of Chinese migration to America is: What is the role of Chinatown in 21st Century Los Angeles? What does it represent? And to whom?

With the help of the Chinese American Museum, the KCET Departures team ventured into Chinatown to record its deep social and cultural history, and spoke with hundreds of people to create a multi-layered portrait of Chinatown as it is today and try to find some answers to our questions. Part oral history project, part interactive documentary, part community engagement tool, and part digital literacy project, through Departures: Chinatown, KCET also engaged youth in the community through its Youth Voices program by partnering with the Chinatown Service Center Youth Council.