It’s hard to imagine that it was only about four years ago that Roy Choi’s Chego! debuted in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, becoming one of the first new restaurants in a long time to call this mall home. Since then, a dozen of other eateries have sprouted not only in this plaza but throughout the neighborhood, bringing in tow a new vibe, clientele, and cultural and housing changes — both good and bad, depending on whom you speak to — to the community.
Nowadays, if you make your way over to Far East Plaza located at 727 North Broadway on any given afternoon, you’ll likely find a long queue of customers snaking through the brick-lined walkway of this nearly 40-year-old mall; they’re here to get a taste of Howlin Ray's fervently popular Nashville hot chicken. In the midst of all of this, you’ll also find longtime Chinatown business owners, shoppers, and residents curiously gawking at these lines and asking others what the fuss is all about.
It’s this kind of interaction that shows how Chinatown is quickly evolving into something different, a juxtaposition of two worlds: the older Chinese community, and a newer and hipper one that is bringing in younger and more diverse customers. It’s led us to wonder: How are these different groups getting along in this shared space, and have the new changes been helping the older generation of business owners?
To understand the changes and growth in Chinatown is to know that it’s been decades in the making, and the man who’s had an integral role in all of this is George Yu, the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID) and the agent for owner of Macco Investments Corp., which owns Far East Plaza.
In a way, it feels like Yu is the Mayor of Chinatown because of how long he’s been involved with the neighborhood and his relationship with community members. Yu has old-school ties with the Far East Plaza; it was his first construction project he worked on with Macco Investments Corp. when they built the mall in 1978. He was a founding member of the Chinatown BID and has been working with the organization for nearly two decades. While Yu’s never lived in Chinatown, he says he has spent far more time there over the decades than where he lives in South Pasadena. Newer restaurant owners in the Far East Plaza will talk about how Yu has helped them bring their ideas to fruition. Choi says of Yu, “He’s family, [an] amazing dude”; and Alvin Cailan of Eggslut and Unit 120, the culinary incubator space in the plaza, says he works “hand in hand” with Yu and the Chinatown BID. Throughout our interview with Yu in the Endorffeine coffee shop in the Far East Plaza, all sorts of people — from real estate developers, to art gallery owners, and community youth — stop by to chat with him about the neighborhood. Yu apologizes for the interruptions but says it’s the best way for him to get to know everyone in the community.
There has been a wave of changes in Chinatown over the last few decades. A co-owner of the family-run, Vietnamese restaurant Gigo’s Cafe & Deli, Michael D. (he asked us not to use his last name), reflects on how business in Chinatown was booming in the 1980s and 1990s, and then it all changed. “The ‘80s to ‘90s was good, then [business] went down because a lot of people moved to [the] 626, [to cities like] Monterey Park, Alhambra, and Rosemead,” he says. He adds that he’s not completely sure if the mass migration to the San Gabriel Valley was the driving force behind decreasing sales in Chinatown, but he thinks it might be a reason why. While Michael D. feels business for his restaurant is still good, he’s noticed a different energy throughout the neighborhood, saying, “Before on the main street at night we’d have a lot of people walking [down] the street. Now it’s like 6 or 7 o’clock and it’s dead.”
Chinatown in Transition
In 1999, Yu says Chinatown property owners and stakeholders began holding weekly meetings at Chinatown’s longstanding Golden Dragon restaurant to discuss how to improve the neighborhood. “I told them you have to keep Chinatown clean and safe and then people will come,” Yu recalls.
They came up with a privately funded clean-and-safe campaign and continued to operate it until they formed the Chinatown BID in 2001. Yu says they also formed a neighborhood council, “not for any other reason except I was tasked with maintaining some balance in Chinatown.” His efforts over the years have included working with new businesses and helping older merchants, throwing festivals like Chinatown Summer Nights to draw more people to the neighborhood, working with community youth groups, cleaning graffiti, and keeping in close communication with the LAPD to keep crime down in the neighborhood.
While it may appear to outsiders looking in that Chinatown’s transition is a recent event, with the addition of these newer and more modern restaurants over the last few years, the neighborhood’s growth has ebbed and flowed for quite some time. In a 2008 article about Chinatown in Amerasia Journal, Occidental College sociology professor Jan Lin notes that as early as the late 1990s, the neighborhood began gentrifying when a new bohemian art scene emerged in Chung King Road.
According to a 2015 review published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, researchers from UCLA and UC Berkeley found that while groups of people who move into a neighborhood are usually blamed for gentrification, one of the biggest drivers of the transition is actually public investments, like building transit. The 2003 completion of the Metro Gold Line station, which has a stop in Chinatown, “has spurred tourism and urban redevelopment, bringing tangible benefits to Chinatown in the form of jobs, economic growth, and tax revenues,” Lin writes in his article. “Economic growth has also caused displacement.”
Lin says that shortly after he published his 2008 article, the recession hit. “I think that put a damper on any gentrification throughout Los Angeles for a few years until the recovery in 2010,” he says, adding that Chinatown is now in a new wave of gentrification.
Oliver Wang, an associate professor of sociology at California State University Long Beach who is working on a journal article about the new wave of Chinatown restaurants, says new shops began popping up in the community as a byproduct of the economic change in the neighborhood. He says when merchants began opening businesses in the San Gabriel Valley instead of Chinatown — something that started in the 1980s and then really started accelerating up through the 1990s — Chinatown fell into an economic depression. Properties became vacant and it created low-rent opportunities for new restaurants to move into the spaces.
It wasn’t until Yu and Choi were introduced to one another that Chinatown started to see a real culinary shift. At the time, Choi was losing his lease for Chego! at his brick-and-mortar in Palms. Yu showed Choi the restaurant space that would eventually become Chego! in 2013. It was love at first sight and, in that moment, Choi envisioned a positive future for Chinatown.
“As soon as I saw it, there was kind of a whole world that jiggled,” Choi says. “It was like I could see — this sounds stupid — I could kind of see into the future. And I saw the whole plaza filled with people, the whole plaza filled with restaurants, and all these people running back and forth and holding food, and just the energy, and sitting on the benches and the brick lining and riding the elevator hanging from the second floor yelling at my friends… And that’s when I knew this [was] the spot.”
Choi says in those early days, people told him he was crazy for opening a restaurant in Chinatown because none of that atmosphere existed then. “The plaza was closed at night, there were no signs, all the lights were shut out. It was just us in there,” he says.
Luckily, his loyal fan base kept them going for the next year and half, and then it all started changing. Over the next few years, new restaurants with different cuisines — from Filipino to Thai and Japanese — moved into the Far East Plaza. Scoops ice cream, Ramen Champ (formerly owned by Cailan), Unit 120, Lao Tao Street Food, Endorffeine, the now shuttered Pok Pok Phat Thai (and in its replacement, celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s Baohaus) made their way in.
"I saw the whole plaza filled with people, the whole plaza filled with restaurants, and all these people running back and forth and holding food, and just the energy... that’s when I knew this [was] the spot." - Roy Choi
It wasn’t just the Far East Plaza, either. Yu helped put Nguyen Tran’s Starry Kitchen as a pop-up residency inside Grand Star Jazz Club in Central Plaza; it’s since moved on to operate inside Button Mash in Echo Park. Chef Andy Ricker opened his second L.A. Pok Pok eatery inside of the Mandarin Plaza down the street, and Marcus Christiana-Beniger and Eunah Kang came to Yu about bringing in Little Jewel of New Orleans, a Southern deli, into the former Hoy King restaurant space. Chinatown suddenly became a hot culinary destination again.
Yu says he never really approached the restaurant owners to come to the Far East Plaza, and that they mostly came to him. He says he’s picky about whom he chooses to work with, and does his due diligence researching the chefs, visiting their restaurants, and making sure they will be a good fit with the community. Yu also emphasizes that he never kicked out the old tenants from the Far East Plaza, and all of this happened organically. He says some former tenants were struggling to pay their rent so he helped them get out of their leases; and for some merchants and restaurateurs, their children grew up and no longer wanted to take care of the family business, so they left, too. Most recently, Far East Plaza’s longstanding Chinese herbal shop Wing Hop Fung closed its doors. Yu says there were myriad factors for closing: the owner wanted to retire, his son lives in Hong Kong, and his daughter wanted to keep their shops in the San Gabriel Valley. Yu says he tried to reduce the rent by half for the family, but “they made a conscious decision to go to Arcadia [at their new location in the Santa Anita Mall] and they’re happy.”
Forging New Relationships
As for how these new businesses are fitting in with the old, there are mixed viewpoints. Some merchants say the old and new business owners and customers are living in two different worlds that don’t interact and affect each other much, while others believe it’s bringing much-needed foot traffic into Chinatown.
Sissy Trinh, who is the founder and executive director of Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA-LA), which is located in the Mandarin Plaza and focuses on Southeast Asian youth and community advocacy work, says, “It’s bringing in a new client base, a customer base into Chinatown, [but] whether or not those [newer] businesses support the legacy businesses, I don’t get that sense. I feel like they operate in an independent silo. They may talk to their neighbors, but the customers that are new, they’re not necessarily buying produce from the markets in Chinatown, or the customers that go to a Chego! or Pok Pok aren’t going to go to Kim Chuy — those types of places. It’s kind of clear who goes where.”
Elaine Ting, a second-generation owner of the 37-year-old Plum Tree Inn restaurant, located about two blocks down the street from Far East Plaza, says there’s very little communication between the legacy business owners and the new — and it has to do with cultural, generational and class differences. “We are usually dealing with two sets of groups: [the] older [ones] from Asia [who are] usually uneducated; and [the] newer [group], usually born in U.S. and educated,” she says. “There is a difference in how the two groups grew up in different countries, [and in their] customs and cultures. The backgrounds alone cause the disconnect in how each group handles their businesses.”
Lin feels the same as Plum Tree Inn’s Ting, that the working class, older immigrant community living in Chinatown doesn’t particularly mesh with the new. However, he sees events like Chinatown Summer Nights as something positive that brings these two groups together “because Chinatown Nights just enlivens the streets for everybody,” Lin says.
Though Cailan has noticed a difference in cultures, he believes these newer shops, like his, are helping the community. “We don’t know how [the older restaurant owners] feel, culturally everyone keeps to themselves,” Cailan says. “Yes, it has been helping drive up business for them, too. We at Unit 120 try to eat at all the restaurants in Far East Plaza and they’re all nice to us. We notice that foot traffic that wouldn’t come here before now is coming here and [people are] eating at all the restaurants. Sometimes we see someone eating at Howlin’ Rays on a Wednesday and then we see them here on a Saturday eating at Fortune Gourmet. It’s amazing.”
Choi is also positive about the changes. “I don’t know if their businesses have grown since Chinatown has grown from the food angle. I hope it has, I think it has,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of the restaurants get busier. I see a lot of people walking around with bags, so that’s always good. Commerce is growing. Yeah, I think overall it’s been a positive thing.”
The Impact of New Restaurants
Some legacy business owners are on the fence about the new restaurants in Chinatown. Gigo’s Cafe’s Michael D. says newer places like Burgerlords, which is a block away from him, gets an influx of customers because of its huge online following, and that isn’t the case for older businesses. When asked if he gets business from the overflow, he says, “We might, maybe a few, I don’t know.”
Trinh is under the impression that the older business owners are curious and hopeful that the new ones will generate more business for them, but it’s not clear if it’s actually helping. “In our conversations with them, they’re trying to be optimistic about it,” Trinh says, “but they’re just trying to keep their heads above water, trying to pay for rent — increasing rents — and trying to be competitive in a very competitive marketplace. A lot of these small businesses, they’re working like 10-12-14 hour days, so I don’t know how much time they have to think about these bigger picture issues.”
Some Chinatown institutions like Yang Chow, a Chinese restaurant that’s been operating since 1977 and is famous for its Slippery Shrimp dish, are doing fine with or without the introduction of new businesses. The restaurant’s manager Hieu Pham says, “For us, we’re an establishment that is not affected by those kinds of things really because we get people that are on welfare or low income or we get billionaires in here. And we get all nationalities, we get a lot of tourism here. We’ve been here since the late ‘70s, so for us it doesn’t affect us, but if they start to bring about a rise in rent, maybe other establishments might be affected that aren’t as set [as us], I guess.”
Plum Tree Inn’s Ting says she thinks foot traffic is increasing and as a result, business has improved for her restaurant. “I think it’s actually a little bit better for us because we are getting an influx of people moving into the area,” she says. “So from a business point of view it’s good, [it’s] creating a lot more traffic for the area.”
Foot traffic is a major concern for these small businesses. “I think it’s beneficial for people to be attracted to places like General Lee’s or Howlin’ Rays or places like that down there,” Yang Chow’s Pham says. “If there’s an hour-and-a-half wait over there, people there, they see an hour-and-a-half wait [and] maybe they think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to eat there. Maybe I’ll walk down the street.’”
For Choi, he doesn’t feel that Chinatown has changed and that residents haven’t been pushed out. Though foot traffic has been increasing, he is empathetic towards the older generation of shop owners. “Funny thing is, they still shut down — even though there are tons of people coming in — they still shut down at like 5 or 6 p.m.,” Choi says. “If they would stay open they would make more money, but they’ve got other things to do, man, [like] cook meals for their kids.”
While there may be obvious differences between the old and the new merchants, Lin doesn’t think the differences cause harm to each other’s businesses. “I don’t see that there’s necessarily competition between the newer fusion places [and the older restaurants],” he says. “It strikes me that it complements rather than competes. It probably develops more of a food scene. The careful observer could probably discern slightly different markets, like the older palate and the younger palate, but I don’t see those two kinds of food genres as competing [against each other].”
Plum Tree Inn’s Ting thinks it’s good that the newer businesses are bringing in a more diverse crowd, giving their restaurant and the community more exposure to a newer generation, but she’s afraid that the “essence” of Chinatown is starting to disappear. “Before it was more traditional, very cultural,” she says. “Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was strictly just Chinese food and sometimes there would be Chinese performers during certain times of the year, whereas now it’s more gentrified, and I guess the culture is not really there anymore, especially with the newer restaurants coming in. [We’re] kind of losing the cultural aspect of Chinatown.”
However, Plum Tree Inn’s Ting does praise the Chinatown BID for making efforts to keep Chinese culture alive in the neighborhood, using the example of the organization coordinating the annual Chinatown parade. She’s just a little worried about what the future may hold. “Chinatown will just become another city if it keeps gentrifying,” she says. “It’s not going to be any different than any other area in L.A., right?"
Lin believes it’s possible that the traditional Chinese immigrant culture could get displaced, but he sees it as an inevitable change that is happening with even second or third generations of these immigrant families. “I think some of it is being lost and some of it’s being displaced, but some of it is also just transforming itself,” he says.
"[We’re] kind of losing the cultural aspect of Chinatown." - Elaine Ting
We are seeing a shift in the identity and culture of Chinatown, but again, it’s something that’s bound to happen, according to Wang. “I think part of it would have been driven by just demographics regardless because you have an aging population there, and I don’t mean to be morbid about this, but they’re going to be leaving the neighborhood sooner or later, so there is going to be some kind of demographic shift no matter what,” he says.
Yu says it’s part of his job to help bring business to both the old and new businesses. The Chinatown BID throws events like Chinatown Summer Nights, which includes KCRW radio DJ performances, and the All Day I Dream music concert, both which drum up more revenue for everyone. Lin feels that musical events “help stimulate the food scene.” He compares KCRW bringing in DJs to Chinatown to what happened in the late 1970s when a new punk scene emerged in Chinatown, and restaurants like Madame Wang’s and Hong Kong Cafe were the catalyst behind bringing in bands like The Ramones and Oingo Boingo to the neighborhood.
Chinatown, however, hasn’t reached a perfect balance. It’s not always an easy task bringing in business to the older merchants. Yu says sometimes it’s challenging helping the old mom-and-pop shop owners because they’re set in their ways. If merchants have a problem, he’ll help them and address it, but he asks, who is he to tell people how to run their businesses?
On the other end of the spectrum, in “One Chinatown,” an in-depth, economic needs assessment of the neighborhood, USC researcher Wendy Chung writes that there is a disconnect between the two groups for civic engagement. “One group that holds regular meetings in Chinatown is the Business Improvement District (BID),” she writes. “However, since the BID is funded by property assessments within a defined boundary, residents rarely engage. Small ethnic businesses likewise express disengagement, as it is challenging for many owners to attend meetings, which are held in the daytime.”
It’s evident that this is a nuanced and complicated issue. Demands are changing in Chinatown, which is part of the reason why some older shops are struggling to stay open. Lin says that curio shops — the kinds that sell Chinese art products — once enjoyed an uptick in business during a time when there wasn’t a lot of travel to China, which in turn spurred an interest from movie studios buying their products. After the 1970s, the curio shops went on a “long, slow decline,” and business owners sold their properties to new business owners, who turned them into art galleries in Chung King Road. “So I think there is [displacement] in a sense, but it’s not out right displacement,” Lin says.
In defending the newer businesses, Yu says he’s noticed a difference in community involvement between the two groups: While newer restaurants are willing to invest more into the community, Yu says the older merchants aren’t. Yu says that after Scoops’ first year of business, the owner of the ice cream shop asked Yu for advice on which community organization he should donate money to. Yu suggested the East Wind Foundation, a local nonprofit that aims to help at-risk youth participate in cultural programs like lion dancing and martial arts. Yu also says he overheard a youth at Far East Plaza excitedly tell another teen that Chef Johnny Ray Zone of Howlin’ Rays told him and his friends to come by in the late afternoons to get free fried chicken. He says the owners of Howlin’ Rays have also asked to donate to East Wind as well in the past.
For some of the newer business owners, they’ve taken some extra steps to fit in with the community. Before moving Chego! in, Choi, who grew up going to Chinatown with his parents on the weekends, wanted to show respect to all the business owners. “We went to every business in the plaza and around the plaza and basically introduced ourselves and talked to them and asked them if it’s OK that we move in,” Choi says. “Even if they said no, we could’ve still moved in, but still it’s the respect of bowing and saying ‘hello’ [and] asking if it’s OK if we move in. We shook every grandmother and auntie’s hand throughout.”
He adds that he and his team talked to the local youth, who usually hang out upstairs at Far East Plaza doing workshops, about his business, which in turn brought support from the children and their parents. Choi brought in his Kogi BBQ truck a few times to feed everyone, which helped them become friendly with the community. Choi gives a shout out to the team at Hop Woo BBQ, who were kind to him and his team, and were the first to welcome them to the neighborhood.
Cailan also remembers Chinatown fondly from his childhood when he would eat at Pho 79, which would later become home to his Unit 120 space. He says he attended several council meetings, and also hosted U.S. government officials and international diplomats to let them know what Chinatown was all about. “Opening Ramen Champ in Chinatown and in Far East Plaza was something that felt right to me since it had brought back memories of coming here so many years ago,” Cailan says. “I knew Chinatown was changing and wanted to be more involved in the neighborhood. Before opening Ramen Champ, we did a bunch of food festivals in 2014 located in Chinatown with the help of George Yu, which all turned out well and helped our decision in opening here.”
At Unit 120, Cailan gives other budding entrepreneurs — such as baker Isa Fabro and Chad and Chase Valencia, the brothers behind LASA — the chance to test out their restaurant concepts before opening their own brick-and-mortars. Recently, he announced that LASA is now taking over the lease for the space that previously housed Unit 120, and Cailan is moving his Unit 120 concept to the Wing Hop Fung location next door.
In an effort to keep up with the neighborhood, Cailan says he tries to keep prices low. “We knew that there was a balance between menu cost and quality of food that most people are used to here in Chinatown (good food, low prices), so we adapted to that model,” he says.
Something that Trinh wants to see more of in Chinatown are newer businesses hiring more local residents. A few years ago, SEACA-LA did a survey of the residents of Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods Solano Canyon and Lincoln Heights. They found that about one-third of the working adults in Chinatown that they surveyed walked to work. “So that means they’re working and living here,” Trinh says. “A lot of them are immigrants who don’t speak English. So Chinatown’s not just residential, but also a job hub for Asian immigrants. And so as the old businesses get pushed out because they can’t pay for increases in rents. We’re not just losing the economic base of the businesses, but it’s also employment for the local residents. And [it’s important to be] really thoughtful about engaging with the neighbors, hiring locally, that kind of stuff.”
Trinh isn’t alone in this idea. Chung recommends that businesses in general should hire locally. Through data analysis and interviews with stakeholders in Chinatown, she finds that it’s imperative that businesses provide opportunities to the local youth. It’s also important to offer new career training as “many of Chinatown’s residents are low-skill workers.” Chung writes in her assessment, “As Chinatown becomes a popular new restaurant destination, provide opportunities for chefs in training. With new art galleries and creative offices coming in, engage new industries with local population.”
Yu says these newer businesses always try to hire locally. However, the jobs require some level of experience from the employees; otherwise it’s very challenging to train them, he says. In regards to job creation in general, Yu mentions that at Chego!, the woman who ran the space before Choi was hiring just one employee, and now Choi has 17 workers. While we’re at Endorffeine, Yu asks a local Chinatown resident sitting at the coffee shop about which neighborhood restaurants she’s worked at. She mentions Pok Pok and Scoops. She also says one of her friends worked at Pok Pok before he went off to college.