Opinion: How L.A.'s Chinatown helped reinvent Southern California (2024)

For almost 150 years, Los Angeles has been an idea as much as a place. Even before the growth of Hollywood, newspaper publishers and land developers sold a carefully constructed image of the region to the world. These boosters promoted Los Angeles as a suburban paradise to an audience of middle-class white families in the Midwest. Perhaps surprisingly, as both a concept and an immigrant enclave, Chinatown was crucial to developing this image and forming L.A.’s identity.

Following the completion of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railways in the late 19th century, city leaders, boosters and land speculators began transforming this former small Spanish-Mexican village into a major metropolis. Railroads hired journalists to promote the region. The city’s population exploded from 11,000 people in 1880 to more than a million in 1930. Yet beneath this vision of what booster Charles Fletcher Lummis dubbed the “land of sunshine” lay a violent and exclusionary process that was racialized from the start.


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Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reports portrayed Chinatown as a neighborhood of filth, violence and vice. The district lay on a street known as Calle de los Negros, which the Los Angeles Times and other papers routinely referred to in print using a more racist moniker. In 1871, an angry mob rampaged through Chinatown attacking immigrants, destroying property and lynching 18 people. This event would come to be known as the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre, part of a wave of anti-Chinese actions that swept the North American West toward the end of the 19th century.


If the threat of violence wasn’t enough, by the 1920s most neighborhoods across the city were covered in restrictive covenants, language in housing deeds that prevented people of color from buying homes. Middle-class white residents, however, considered the urban core less desirable, leaving these homes available.

Alongside French, Italian and Mexican immigrants, Chinese Americans thrived in the city’s bustling multiethnic central core. Chinatown featured restaurants, curio shops, two Chinese temples and a Chinese theater; on Los Angeles Street, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn. occupied the top floor of the Garnier Building, which today stands as one of the last remaining structures of Old Chinatown. For a while, the community even supported a Chinese newspaper.

But by the early 20th century, the English-language press and regional boosters increasingly constructed L.A.’s image of suburban idyll against representations of Chinatown. Depicting Chinatown as a pariah, newspapers applied outsize scrutiny to the community’s relatively small population.


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The 1930 census identified about 3,000 Chinese in a city of more than a million people. During this decade, the Los Angeles Times mentioned Chinatown more than 1,100 times — compared with just 200 mentions of Little Tokyo, even though the Japanese American community was seven times larger. Coverage even surpassed that of the Mexican American community near the Plaza, nearly all of which predated the arrival of Anglo settlers. Alarmist media depictions contributed to the city’s decision to build Union Station on the site of Old Chinatown, displacing most of the immigrant community.

In the summer of 1938, two neighborhoods emerged as replacements to Old Chinatown. Known as New Chinatown and China City, they pushed back against leering representations of Chinatown by using nonthreatening commercialism, surface aesthetics and racial performance to shape popular perceptions of Chinese Americans. Both districts’ commodification of racial differences shaped L.A.’s image as a complex multiethnic metropolis.

Under the leadership of Peter SooHoo, Chinese American merchants created New Chinatown — the Chinatown we still have today near downtown. SooHoo was a Los Angeles-born graduate of city schools and USC and one of the first Chinese Americans hired by the Department of Water and Power. He partnered with attorney Y.C. Hong, the first Chinese American to pass the bar in California, to form a corporation through which Chinese merchants bought land for their Chinatown. To contrast with portrayals of Old Chinatown as riddled with secret underground passages and opium dens, they designed their district as an urban mall with neon lights, wide walkable streets, a wishing well and pagoda-style roofs.

That same summer, Christine Sterling, the white philanthropist behind the pedestrian-friendly Olvera Street, built China City close by, around Hollywood myths. Backed by the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and Hollywood producers, the district included a re-creation of the House of Wang set from the MGM film “The Good Earth,” a 1937 blockbuster set in China, and the Chinese Junk Cafe, a bar fashioned as a pirate ship run by movie performers Luke Chan and Johnson Sing.


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While China City has been dismissed by some as culturally exploitative, the workers there formed a real community. To run the stalls, Sterling hired local Chinese Americans, many of whom supplemented their income working as background extras in Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s. China City, with all its artifice, offered a safe haven and camaraderie for many who felt ostracized by the merchant elite running New Chinatown. These included Swan Yee, the son of a Pennsylvania laundryman, who ran the rickshaw stand with his brother Johnny; Camille Wing, née Chan, a mixed-race Chinese American whose father was a vaudeville performer; and Tsin Nan Ling, the merchant who ran Chekiang Importers and hailed from outside the Pearl River Delta region that most Chinese immigrants called home.

China City eventually was destroyed by fire in 1948. But in the coming decades, New Chinatown continued to allow Chinese Americans to wrest control of their image away from city boosters and create their own representation. Of course, the local papers and elite continued to cast Los Angeles against the idea of a racialized urban core, increasingly by stereotyping Black and Latino communities as urban threats. The ties between Los Angeles’ suburban identity and racial exclusion proved to be stubborn.

Today, Chinatown is one of many Asian neighborhoods across Southern California. From Little Saigon in Westminster to Artesia’s Little India and the ethnoburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, Asian American neighborhoods help define the region. Within this context, it’s easy to forget the distinct role that Los Angeles’ Chinatown has played.

Too many people dismiss Chinatown’s pagoda-style roofs, fortune cookies and wishing well as inauthentic representations of Asia and Asian Americans. Instead, we should embrace them as reminders that neither the popular image of Los Angeles nor the city itself would have developed as they are today without Chinatown.

William Gow is an assistant professor at Sacramento State, a community historian with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and author of “Performing Chinatown: Hollywood, Tourism, and the Making of a Chinese American Community.”

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Opinion: How L.A.'s Chinatown helped reinvent Southern California (2024)
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