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The First Wave: Canton to L.A.

Old Chinatown billboard, Los Angeles (Calif.)  |  Daily News (Los Angeles, Calif.), 1938

The first wave of migration from China to the Pacific coast of the U.S - San Francisco and Los Angeles, mainly - started in the mid-19th Century and lasted almost 100 years. This first arrival stretches from the age of the Californios well past the creation of the new Los Angeles Chinatown in the 1930's.

Many of these immigrants came from the South East area of China of Canton or Kwantung in the Pearl River Delta and from the rural regions of Toishan, Sam Yup and Chun Song as well. These immigrants, referred to as the sojourners, usually came to "Gam Saan" - the West Coast was often dubbed "Gold Mountain" in Cantonese - in search of gold, or to work in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Transcontinental Railroad was finished in 1868 as the Union Pacific Tracks and those of the Central pacific Railroad joined together; according to some reports it was Chinese workers where who laid the last rails somewhere in Utah.

Immigration laws - culminating with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 - restricted the immigration of Chinese nationals, making it almost impossible for them to enter and work in the U.S. legally. Smugglers had transported illegal workers to work for the construction of the Transcontinental and Pacific railroads, and the Exclusion Act prevented many of these immigrants from bring their families into the U.S. once they had settled. (The risks of mining and railroads usually prevented women and children from coming to the Gold Mountain.) For that reason, the majority of the Chinese population in Los Angeles was male.

Los Angeles' first Chinatown was placed next to the railroad tracks, where Union Station stands now. Segregated covenant land, Old Chinatown was home to almost 3,000 Chinese males and businesses to serve this unique community. From its inception, it was a tightly knit culture, with networks of family alliances that darted back to homeland China. These alliances - who still exist today - were created to compensate for the lack of social and political services, as well as representation for the community. Today, the CCBA (Chinese Consolidates Benevolent Association) brings many of these older associations together to find a common language and direction.

The core businesses that the Chinese developed in Old Chinatown shaped the evolution of the area, as well as their image outside of Chinatown. The only way the sojourners could get certain foods was to create not only their own grocery stores, but also their own restaurants. Some of these become staples in the New Chinatown.

Herbal shops and herbalists commanded great respect in the community and became the most successful entrepreneurs among the migrant sojourners. Many had been brought to the U.S. by "scouts" who needed people to care for the hundreds of Chinese immigrants that had come to work for the Transcontinental Railroad. It was a privileged role: Unlike many of their counterparts, their job did not involve risking life and limb or heavy lifting. At the end of the railroad era, herbalists had a much easier transition to "city life" than many others, and many procured a fan base outside of the covenants, as many Latinos and gringos looking for alternative remedies banged on their doors. Lisa See immortalized the stories and traditions of these herbalists in her novel On Gold Mountain.

Antique shops, selling curiosities and amenities for the community, where also high on the list of successful businesses. Fong's Oriental Works of Art, who still exists in today, began as a small operation just off from Alameda.

Gambling and gaming were also an important business ventures for the Chinese community, one that brought a different type of clientele to the area, mainly whites looking for diversion. In the book L.A Noir, there are great stories of outsiders flocking to Chinatown for gambling and excitement - as well as how the police patrolled and controlled the area carefully. Gambling, as well as the existence of opium dens and cribs (recorded in early maps from the city) and prostitution, created an image of Chinatown that did not always correspond to the reality of those that lived in the neighborhood.

Old Chinatown was home to many, but it was also a mythic racial artifact to others, a place of both desire and fear. This friction turned violently evident in 1871, when a mob of more than 500 people ran through the Calle de los Negros - Chinatown's main drag - to attack, rob and murder residents of the area in retaliation for the murder of a local rancher, Robert Thomson, who was caught in the crossfire of two Chinese factions.

Old Chinatown, with its business and family associations grew steadily between 1870 and 1930, until city officials decided to build a new site for a train terminal at the same location. In the same ways that Latinos where displaced from Sonora Town and the Chavez Ravine during the construction of Dodger's Stadium in the 1950's, Chinese American where so that L.A could - ironically - one of its most iconic public buildings - Union Station.

The Chinese American Museum, located at the Garnier Building in El Pueblo, is the only remaining building from Old Chinatown. The museum tries to reflect, capture and tell the story of this first wave of Chinese immigrants.

Under the vision and direction of Peter SooHoo, a relocation plan for Chinese businesses began to take shape and in the summer of 1938 and a new Chinatown center was born. New Chinatown, as historian and activist Munson Kwok rightly suggest, was a Chinatown build by choice not destiny. The plan to create a business hub for the community, recreating the "idyllic charm of Old China" to attract tourist and Angelinos alike was at the center of this particular moment in Chinatown's urban renewal. Mixed-use dwellings, with business on the first floor and homes on the second floor (think Chung King Road) provided housing to some displaced residents, most of them successful business owners from Old Chinatown. The remaining residents moved into areas surrounding the new plaza, next to Little Italy and Sonora Town.


All in all, the new Chinatown was a fresh start for the Chinese, a center that could house the aspirations, hopes and growth of the community. At its core, though, it was like much of Los Angeles a business proposition and a media campaign.

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