Chinatown: The Story of an Icon of Los Angeles

Chinatown: The Story of an Icon of Los Angeles

Chinatown is one of L.A.’s most popular tourist destinations, situated in Downtown Los Angeles, close to the city’s civic and cultural center.

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Chinatown was the first Chinese neighborhood established in Los Angeles back in the 19th century and was originally located where Union Station stands today. However, after falling into decline, the government decided to remodel the entire area, displacing the Asian population to a location next to Los Angeles State Historic Park.

In Chinatown, visitors can explore the Central Plaza, the community’s vibrant heart, Chung King Road, which once served as a Hollywood set, the Thien Hau Temple dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu, and the Chinese American Museum, which showcases the history and culture of this community.

Chinatown played a pivotal role in shaping the image and identity of Los Angeles

Following the completion of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads in the late 19th century, city leaders, developers, and real estate speculators began transforming this former Hispanic-Mexican town into a major metropolis. Railroads hired journalists to promote the area.

The city’s population grew from 11,000 in 1880 to over a million by 1930. However, behind the vision of what promoter Charles Fletcher Lummis dubbed the “land of sunshine” lay a process of violence and exclusion that was racial from the start. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reports depicted Chinatown as a dirty, violent, and sordid neighborhood.

The district was on a street known as Negro Street, which the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers regularly referred to with an even more racist nickname. In 1871, a furious mob invaded Chinatown, attacking immigrants, destroying property, and lynching 18 people. This event became known as the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre, part of a wave of anti-Chinese acts that swept across the American West in the late 19th century.

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Photo: The New York Times

Alongside French, Italian, and Mexican immigrants, Chinese Americans thrived in the city’s multiethnic downtown. Chinatown boasted restaurants, curio shops, two Chinese temples, and a Chinese theater; on Los Angeles Street, the Consolidated Benevolent Association of China. It occupied the top floor of the Garnier Building, which today stands as one of the last remaining structures in Chinatown. For a time, the community even maintained a Chinese newspaper.

But by the early 20th century, English-language press and regional advertisers increasingly painted images of suburban idylls of Los Angeles against depictions of Chinatown. By characterizing this places as an outlier, newspapers applied heightened scrutiny to the relatively small population of the community.

In the summer of 1938, two neighborhoods were created in place of the old Chinatown. Known as the “New Chinatown” and “China City,” they employed risky commercialism, superficial aesthetics, and racial representation to shape American popular perceptions of this area. The interaction of racial differences in both districts shaped the image of Los Angeles as a complex multiethnic metropolis.

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Photo: LA Walking Tours

Under the leadership of Peter Suhu, Chinese American merchants built a new settlement that it still cherish near the city center. In contrast to the image of Chinatown, dotted with hidden underground passages and opium dens, they designed their district as an urban shopping center with neon lights, wide pedestrian streets, a creek, and pagoda roofs.

The “China City” was destroyed by fire in 1948. But in the decades that followed, new Chinatown allowed Chinese Americans to reclaim their image from the city’s promoters and create their own representation.

Today, Chinatown is one of Southern California’s most Asian neighborhoods. From Little Saigon in Westminster to Little India in Artesia and the ethnoburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, Asian American neighborhoods help define the region.

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