A New Beginning

“Every American who had a Chinese acquaintance thought he had a deal cooked up. Every Chinese who had an American friend thought likewise.” Peter SooHoo, 1937. Such was the fever of the times in Old Chinatown during these Depression years. The first plan which seemed acceptable to everyone was the Eastman plan of 1933. Put forth by George Eastman, a past Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce president, the development had the support of the Chinese, as expressed by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the City of Council by October. The elaborate project would include shops, restaurants, a temple, a theater, gardens, and plazas, all in a Chinese architectural motif. Finally found to be too costly to implement, the Eastman plan had the net effect of starting the wrecking ball to swing. In December the two-story building housing the Chinese School was brought down. The original Chinese produce market and the “ma ya” remembered by every child of Old Chinatown had come to an end. The old Chinese vegetable peddler in his one horse cart, a fixture in Los Angeles for fifty years, was no more.

With the Eastman plan stillborn, the search for acceptable solutions intensified. The Chinese seemed to be on their own. Many would head for the City Market area or disperse. The Plaza Development Association, a consortium of seventy corporations, undertook the evacuation process as the evictions occurred.

Mrs. Christine Sterling, a prominent Los Angeles socialite, civic leader, and the creator of the famed Olvera Street Mexican market, sought to create a similar project for the Chinese. By 1935, her concept was well advanced along the lines of the “exotic” atmosphere in a Chinese village or small town, with booths and stalls along narrow winding streets. In the late 1930s the China City project provided an alternative for the dislocated Chinese businessman or the would-be entrepreneur. Eventually over 70 such opportunities would exist in China City for tenants. Two major fires in a decade sapped the vitality of the enterprise. By the early 1950’s China City was gone.

Many of the businessmen with long-time establishments still did not have a viable solution. A certain desperation was beginning to creep in. From the words of SooHoo in 1941, “… when the merchants in Old Chinatown had orders to move out to make room for the Union Terminal, they did not know what to do. They tried very hard to find a new place. Much effort was spent seeking the proper location. They were handicapped by lack of finances and, because of the uncertainty of knowing where to go, some of them had to close their place of business.”

The community was fortunate to have one of their own, a visionary native Chinese American born and raised in Old Chinatown in this time of great need. Peter SooHoo moved with facility in both the Chinese and Los Angeles communities and gained the high trust of both. He became an influential leader in the Chinese community at a relatively young age. Fluent in Cantonese and English, he became the spokesman for Chinatown to American institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce and the press. During the 1930’s, he made periodic declarations to the local papers that the reported demise of Old Chinatown was premature, and that customers in Chinatown were most welcome. He graduated in engineering from the University of Southern California, one of the first local Chinese Americans in the field, and was the first Chinese American to join in the Department of Water and Power. His commitment to his community was total.

Thus the opportunity for a new Los Angeles Chinatown was largely shaped by SooHoo. As several scholars have noted, and as he told it, “I would go to Mr. Barclay, the engineer of Union Terminal, time and time again to ask for an extension because those who remained had not yet found a place to move to… Finally one afternoon as I sat with Mr. Barclay asking him for one more time [for an extension]. I mentioned the fact that here on North Broadway would be a good location for Chinatown, but I didn’t think it could be had. Mr. Meiggs who was present said, ‘I will tell you whom to see.’ He gave me Mr. Lapham’s address and I wasted no time going to see him. That afternoon the seed for the new Chinatown was planted.” Stanley Meiggs was assistant superintendent of the Union Terminal and Herbert Lapham was land agent for the Santa Fe Railway, which owned the storage yard area SooHoo sought.

The concept for Central Plaza may have been influenced greatly by SooHoo’s vision. He did try working with Eastman and Sterling, but the outcome from both efforts were unsuccessful: for one, financing was the difficulty; for the other, the philosophy of the approach. These experiences and discussions of the early Hanchett ideas may have shaped the form of the new Los Angeles Chinatown. The Chinese would finance the venture themselves including land and buildings. They would want to be self sufficient. They would wholly own and control the project. That step would lead to an association and eventually a California corporation. Such an entity totally organized by Chinese solely for business was an unprecedented development. The buildings would be most modern and airy, correctly engineered for earthquake, fire safety, and sanitation. The streets would be wide for an open, safe look. Thus the area would be palatable to the casual American tourist as well as fellow Chinese. The new community would eliminate potential houses of vice, such as gambling. Although enterprises were emphasized, there was to be a residential element. Later, SooHoo even viewed the complex as a culture center as well.

However the design and operational concepts for Chinatown evolved through the collective community process, the organizers remained true to their heritage in architectural design. Chinese building concepts and symbols can be viewed throughout the complex, especially in the oldest buildings. In the end, these courageous men and women created a unique idea for a Chinatown, neither distinctly Chinese nor American, but a harmonious blending of both into a new style called Chinese American.

The historic organizational meeting of the association with Herbert Lapham occurred at night on April 22, 1937, at old Tuey Far Low on Alameda and Marchessault Streets. The host was the eminent Chinatown leader and restauranteur, Quon Soon Doon. The others present included SooHoo, Chinese Consul T.K. Chang, Lee Wah Shew and L.W. Fon. Lee was the original owner of the famed Yee Sing Chong grocery and Fon, the proprietor then of the recently closed, century-old Man Jen Low (General Lee’s). There would be 28 Chinese listed as Founders of Los Angeles Chinatown. Lee Wah Shew was Founding President; Walter Yip and Dr. John Lum, the vice presidents; Quon Soon Doon. treasurer; Peter SooHoo, English secretary; Tom H. Ling, Chinese secretary; Mu Bien Sam and K.G. Louie, auditors. Advisors to the Board were Consul Chang, Vice Consul Y.S. Kiang and pioneering L.A. lawyer Y.C. Hong. Counsel for the association was to become Robert Craig, later Dean of USC’s Law School. The association would own all rights-of-way and, initially, around one quarter of the land in Central Plaza. The rest would be private investments of association members only.

At last, Chinatown had its relocation plan!!