History of Chinatown LA

Reprinted from The Los Angeles Chinatown 50th Year Guidebook, June 1988: The Golden Years of Los Angeles Chinatown: The Beginning by Suellen Cheng and Munson Kwok, Chinese Historical Society of Southern California

A Neighborhood steeped in Culture and History

Reprinted from The Los Angeles Chinatown 50th Year Guidebook, June 1988: The Golden Years of Los Angeles Chinatown: The Beginning by Suellen Cheng and Munson Kwok, Chinese Historical Society of Southern California

Fifty years ago on the sunny Saturday of June 25, 1938, California's Governor Merriam and a host of dignitaries dedicated Los Angeles Chinatown's Central Plaza in a gala Grand Opening ceremony. One of the Nation's first malls and certainly the first modern American Chinatown, owned and planned from the ground up by Chinese, Central Plaza would provide a magnificent hub and lexus for growth into the famous colorful, vibrant Chinese American community we all know today.

Originally, New Chinatown consisted of many notable restaurants, shops, an herbal store, a grocery store, a bean cake factory, a Chinese deli and offices. In 1938, these long-time establishments were all moved from Los Angeles' Old Chlnatown, not quite a mile away. What led to this sudden mass relocation into Los Angeles' Little Italy, and the need for establishing a new Chinatown?

The first Chinese was recorded to be in Los Angeles in 1852. Continuous settlement began in 1857. By 1870, an identifiable "Chinatown" of 200 or so was situated on Calle de Los Negros - Street of the Dark Hued Ones - a short alley 50 feet wide and one block long between El Pueblo Plaza and Old Arcadia Street. These early, mostly male, Chinese were mainly laundrymen, market gardeners, agricultural and ranch workers, and road builders. Despite the heavy discrimination in the late 19th century, Chinese held a dominant economic position in the Los Angeles laundry and produce industries for several years of this period. Consequently, old Chinatown flourished, expanding eastward from the Plaza across Alameda Street and eventually attaining a population of over 3000. The Exclusion Acts inhibited any real growth for many years.

In a typical experience, Chinese became lessees, subleasees or tenants of a major land or property owner, such as Apablasa. Laws prohibited most from citizenship and hence, property ownership. The Chinese densely settled a major part of Old Chinatown on the Juan Apablasa grazing grounds and vineyards, controlled by his old widow. Inability to gain ownership in large measure would have dire consequences later.

Old Chinatown in its heyday, 1890 to 1910, could count 15 or so streets and alleys, and perhaps 200 building units. It had sufficient size and sophistication to boast of a Chinese opera theater, three temples, a newspaper (for a while), and later, its own telephone exchange. Old Chinatown was a residential as well as commercial community. The slow increase in the number of women would lead to the establishment of families with children. During this time, most of today's leading Chinese family and district associations, Chinatown institutions were founded, and church missions were organized, which began the process of community acculturation. Old Chinatown, with restaurants, curio shops, and "strange" entertainments, even became an attraction for the early, pioneering breed of American tourist.

"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 Chlnatown, 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!!

By the early 1910's the seeds o{ decline were sown in Old Chinatown. Besides the Exclusion Acts curtailing immigration, the inducements of the new produce center at City Market, co-founded by the Chinese, and a new nearby Chinatown with an evolving residential district led to a gradual population decrease in the Old Place. Symptoms of a generally corrupt Los Angeles, news of wide open gambling houses, vestiges of opium dens, often staged for the unwary tourist, and the fierce tong warfare of the period encouraged the respectable visitor to avoid the Old Quarter. Now, highly dependant on Chinese residents alone, business in Old Chinatown declined.

Perhaps the most important factor in Old Chinatown's increasing depression was instability and uncertainty in the actions of the landlords. With the rumors of impending City redevelopment increasing in volume with each passing year, few cared to improve or maintain their Chinatown properties. Incredibly, the historic streets of Old Chinatown east of Alameda were never to be paved as a result of this downward spiral of disinterest. Housing conditions were abominable in the end. And the Chinese became too impoverished or too dispirited to improve much. Without a place to go, they would remain stubbornly reluctant to vacate even at the very end.

The threat of Chinese relocation started as early as 1913 when a large portion of Old Chinatown was entangled in a three-way litigation suit between the Apablasa family and the City of Los Angeles over the ownership of Chinatown streets. It was contended that the streets belonged, not to the city, but to the estate since all street improvements had been paid for by the estate and the property had been maintained as private.

Meanwhile all the leases on the Chinatown property had expired and litigation was the one barrier which prevented the sale of the property for uses other than housing the Chinese. On December 12, 1913, all suits were dropped and six acres of Old Chinatown property were sold for $310,000, possibly for Southern Pacific track ways. On November 7, 1914, a large deal was concluded for the acquisition of all Chinatown lying east of Alameda Street. This property cost the new owner L.F. Hanchett, a San Francisco capitalist, over two million dollars. Old Chinatown was to be converted into an industrial and warehouse district while a new Chinese Colony would be developed. In time, Hanchett was found to be planning a railroad terminal instead, but he was thwarted in court as his plan lost credibility.

The Hanchett experience was the first of several attempts for a terminal. Civic discussions continued at the highest levels of power, with always the favorite site being Old Chinatown since it was conveniently adjacent to a confluence of tracks and the land was controlled by one or few owners. In a day when rail was king, the strong metropolitan desire for a major rail terminal, Union Station, was akin to the push for Los Angeles International Airport years later. On the fateful day of May 19, 1931, a California Supreme Court decision was upheld approving land condemnations and the construction of the new Union Station upon the site of Old Chinatown. Two years were to slip by before an acceptable Chinese relocation proposal was accepted by the City.

Formed as the Los Angeles Chinatown Project Association. the group's main objectives were fundraising, site acquisition, design, and construction. Quickly, the membership grew to 33. By August 1937, $40,000 was reportedly raised. The Association or company sold shares, eventually 546.5 shares for $100 per share for the initial capitalization. By the time of the Grand Opening, it was estimated that $100,000 had been invested. All of this money was raised among the Chinese without bank financing or loans. No land acquisition or construction would proceed without the up-front collection of all required funds. Community approvals needed to be gained from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Chinese American Citizens Alliance, and the Chinese Consulate.

Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson were the architects who worked successfully to combine the elements of Chinese designs on essentially modern buildings. Economy and a limited budget dictated that the structures be kept simple rather than exactly authentic.

The role of Herbert Lapham in the land acquisition process cannot be underestimated in this period. He was sympathetic to the Chinese need, and worked to convince his superiors. As SooHoo was to say, "Mr. Lapham is considered the 'godfather' of Chinatown because he has given them his helpful guidance, and was instrumental in helping establish this new Chinatown here."

Three groups of buildings were constructed initially along Gin Ling Way, comprising 18 Units. Straddling Gin Ling Way at Hill (Old Castelar Street) is Chinatown's oldest pailou, the West Gate. The superstructure is made partially of 150 year old camphor wood. The four characters of poetry across the gate were composed by T.K. Chang. In translation, they represent "Cooperate to Achieve" - a good motto for this community project. A traditional composition on a pailou was the highest compliment the representative of China could pay to the Chinese community of Los Angeles for success in their venture.

By the Spring of 1938 of Los Angeles newspapers were beginning to notice the arrival of a new Chinatown. Meanwhile Peter SooHoo was giving talks on the new project to American groups such as the Women's Club. The first stores opened in February and by June 1 the first 18 units were in operation.

As the project raced toward Grand Opening Day, additional units were in the planning. The goal was 62 units over one square block. In July, the two Story office building and the adjacent mall restaurant complex developed by Y.C. Hong was begun. The famous East Gate (Broadway Gate), also erected by Mr. Hong, was completed before the end of the year. By the second anniversary, apartments had been started, and the project worth was about $500,000. Four more buildings were to follow, so that SooHoo could acclaim In early 1941 that the investment had reached $750,000 (in 1941 dollars).

The climax of years of planning and hope took place on June 25, 1938. A full page ad in Section I of the Los Angeles Examiner greeted the morning reader, inviting him to partake of "The Enchanting Charm of Old China in Los Angeles." The ad was sponsored by the New Chinatown contractors and contained signatures for each store unit or proprietor, including those soon to move to the new facility.

Illustrated featured articles in all the City's newspapers announced the public ceremonies. An interesting emphasis was the sense of a pioneering Chinese American heritage. The Chinese merchants extolled with pride that some businesses already were nearly 50 years old, extending over three consecutive generations of ownership. Peter SooHoo declared, "This Chinatown is intended to be the center of activity to which all Chinese scattered throughout Los Angeles will be attracted."

New Chinatown was decorated with colorful lanterns and banners. The flags of the United States and the Republic of China were seen everywhere. These gala preparations were made by the youths of Chinatown, organized in a unique 1930's Chinese American group - the Federation of Chinese Clubs in Los Angeles. Visitors began arriving in the morning. The principal public ceremony conducted by the Los Angeles Chinatown Association was held on Gin Ling Way at the West Gate on Hill (Castelar) Street. Master of ceremonies was the ever present Peter SooHoo. A parade consisting of 400 of the Chinese youth in the Federation, young men and women in native costume, passed by the West Gate reviewing stand on Hill (Castelar) Street. Among the dignitaries present were government officials, Consul Chang and his wife, Consul Wong, Anna May Wong, Keye Luke, Soo Yong, a famed actor of the period, a certain Mrs. Thaddeus White, who was Princess Der Ling, and Mrs. Merriam. Radio station KTMR broadcasted the ensuing events.

Around two o'clock, ex-California Governor Frank F. Merriam rose to speak. He noted that New Chinatown "represented a monument to those Chinese who played such an important role in building the West and a lasting evidence of American Chinese amity." Gov. Merriam then dedicated a curved plaque mounted on a column of the pailou, which was "Dedicated to the Chinese Pioneers Who Participated in the Constructive History of California." Merriam was followed to the podium by Los Angeles Mayor F.L. Shaw and Supervisor Gordon L. McDonough.

Chinese Consul T.K. Chang remarked that the building of New Chinatown is an example of a willingness to adopt new modern ways, that the community needed to follow this spirit to promote "our Chinese economic and social status."

Telegrams from Senator W.G. McAdoo and Chinese Ambassador Wong were read. A Veterans Band played the American and Chinese anthems. And after the round of speakers, about 100 guests adjourned to the Man Jen Low banquet rooms for a luncheon reception.

Meanwhile, the public festival was in full swing. All stores were open, and street booths were set up to attract even more customers. Some booths run by the youthful Federation were raising funds for civilian relief in war-torn China. About thirty high school and college Chinese girls, in the traditional cheong-sam, served as guides to the visitors. A display of art by Chinese American artists was available to the public. Some of the artist exhibitors remain familiar: Tyrus Wong, Keye Luke, Gilbert Leong, Jade Fon, George Chinn. Tyrus Wong, in particular, would later leave his creative mark in New Chinatown with outdoor and indoor murals which can be seen to this day.

The festivities moved toward a fitting climax in the evening. Traffic at the street intersections had, by now, been jammed for hours. Ceremonies began around seven o'clock with bands, one Chinese and one American, at the West Gate and on the east side of the Plaza. The bands took turns performing. Lion dances and singing lasted more than two hours. Finally, with the crowd at a high level of exhilaration and anticipation, two Chinese opera singers from San Francisco's famed Tai Mou Toi troupe lit the "tons" of firecrackers.

Dancing to the sweet American music of the '30s by Chinese lantern light lasted well past midnight in the streets and the Central Plaza. The booths closed late, and over $400 was raised for China by the youth. Anywhere from 25,000 to 100,0000 had taken part. Lucille SooHoo would remember the streets to be carpeted red, layered with more paper from spent firecrackers than she had ever seen.

New Chinatown had thrown a great party and made an auspicious start.

One young man would note, "This new community will offer and materially aid in providing employment and opportunities to the younger group." Eyewitness historian William Hoy could declare in his "CHINATOWN" column in 1938, "This new Chinatown is the only Chinese community in America which was planned beforehand, something which is typical of the present American trend of community planning. Whether it will live up to the expectations of those who are responsible for its birth remains for the future to decide."

In the first year following the memorable opening, the Hong buildings on Gin Ling Way would be completed. So would the famed landmark East Gate or Broadway Gate, also constructed by Y.C. Hong. The Seven Star Sacred Caverns and wishing pool would also be completed by artist Prof. Liu Hong Kay. The Caverns are an artistic rendering of an actual scenic spot in Guangdong province, China. A willow tree would be planted at the pool by Paramount's Anna May Wong.

The East Gate is else know as the Gate of Maternal Virtues, erected by Hong in honor of his mother. The four character poem states, "The spirit of (Mother) Meng and (Mother) Ow." These women were exemplary mothers in the history and culture of China, and so appropriately were revered by their offspring, as each Chinese child should revere and respect his mother. The first lighting ceremony of the East Gate took place on the first anniversary of New Chinatown. This historic event reprised years later in 1985, when the East Gate was ceremoniously refit following a major rehabilitation and beautification effort by the Chinatown Project of the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Events which received public notice included the celebration of the Chinese New Year around January 26, 1939, and the colorful first anniversary celebration in June, chaired by Peter SooHoo and Y.C. Hong. The celebration began with a press reception at the Forbidden Palace and ran for a week. Featured was the Mei Wah Girls Drill Team led by drum majorette Barbara Jean Wong. There were fireworks, street dancing, and booths.

By the second anniversary the mall was averaging 20,000 visitors a week, so said Walter Yip, now president of the association. The anniversary celebration nowfeatured a lantern parade on the New Chinatown street, the highlights of which were the Mei Wah girls and a ceremonial dragon. Speeches were held and the Jinnistan Grotto (Chinese) band appeared at the East Gate stage.

In early 1941, the five tier pagoda of today's Hop Louie-Jade Pagoda (Golden Pagoda) was constructed. This perhaps was the last major landmark to be erected characterizing today's New Chinatown Central Plaza. The rapid success of New Chinatown led to the development plans for a West Chinatown across Hill Street, and so the Chinese Development Company was formed. This new effort would lay dormant until after World War II. The shadow of war in the Pacific and the Asian mainland led to a major community festival in early August, the Moon Festival. The proceeds of event were to be used for war relief in China, which was hard pressed by the Japanese invader. For the first time, the three existing Chinatowns in Los Angeles were in close cooperation: Old Chinatown, China City, and New Chinatown. For three days major parades on the thoroughfares of Los Angeles connected all three Chinatowns. Movie stars were seen everywhere. Entertainment and fundraising booths were set up in all three areas.

As the community entered the days of World War II, when new, more serious priorities would arise, Herbert Lapham could summarize the entire effort by the following remark which remains true nearly fifty years later:

"It is quite a thing, this new Los Angeles Chinatown. It is a credit to the enterprise, the courage, and the pioneering spirit of these hard working people." (Lapham, 1941).

(Authors are indebted to Peter SooHoo, Jr. and George W. Tom and to E. Bingham, "Saga of the Los Angeles Chinese.")