Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

The Old Los Angeles Chinatown

Los Angeles Chinatown
The Garnier Building, home of the Los Angeles Chinese American Museum, in Los Angeles’ old Chinatown

With this month marking the date of the Lunar New Year (as celebrated in China and much of Asia) we wanted to take a look at the birth of Chinese-American culture in Los Angeles and, specifically, the history of LA’s Chinatown. Although San Francisco’s Chinatown is more famous, Los Angeles has been home to a Chinese community for almost as long, and it has a proud history in Southern California.

The oldest surviving Chinese building in Los Angeles is the Garnier Building (not to be confused with the nearby Garnier Block), which was built for local Chinese merchants in 1890, on the edge of what is now the historic Los Angeles Plaza. Why did the Chinese make their home here? Put very simply, because of restrictive housing covenants and outright discrimination, which meant that they weren’t welcome in other parts of the city. This area was really the only place they could establish their community.

Chinese Immigrants in LA

There had been a Chinese community in Los Angeles since the early 1850’s, when many Chinese made the dangerous journey across the Pacific hoping to try to make their fortunes in the California Gold Rush. Once the early. more easily exploited, claims had been exhausted many Chinese found work building the Transcontinental railroad in the 1860’s and 70’s.

However due to their distinctive clothing, customs and language they weren’t readily accepted into American society and they faced increasing hostility, culminating (in LA) with the Chinatown Massacre of 1871, still one of the worst mass lynching’s in US history. This horrific event, in which twenty Chinese men and boys were summarily executed on the streets of the small town, was merely the most brutal chapter in a story of ongoing racial discrimination and hostility.

Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre of 1871

The massacre was centered on the Calle de Los Negros, on the Western border of Chinatown. Since, it was one of the most unruly – and therefore cheapest – streets on which to get property, many recent immigrants were basically stuck there. It was one of the few places where they were permitted to rent property. Nevertheless, like San Francisco’s Chinatown at the time, the short street was full of opium dens, brothels and gambling joints and other fun establishments.

Early Chinese immigrants had established beneficial societies called Tongs (meaning ‘meeting hall’), designed to help their members find employment and accommodation. Over time however some Tongs became criminal enterprises, but that was at least partly because most other opportunities were closed to Chinese people.

Los Angeles Chinatown. Calle de Los Negros
Calle de Los Negros, heart of the old Los Angeles Chinatown, at the end of the nineteenth century

In spite of this, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 (still the only federal law to ever discriminate solely against a specific nationality), the community survived and even thrived into the late nineteenth century in an area centered on Alameda and Macy (now Cesar Chavez) streets.

First Los Angeles Chinatown

The aforementioned Garnier Building was commissioned by Basque settler and businessman Philippe Garnier, a member of the locally influential family. Solidly constructed from limestone and brick, the Garnier Building was a cultural home and sanctuary for early Chinese Angelenos, who had exclusive use of it. General merchants and locals could gather and gossip in their own language in peace. There were lawyers and a Chinese Laundrymen’s Association located on the ground and mezzanine levels, while social organizations (such as Tongs), schools and temples occupied the second floor.

Being closer to heaven the top level was considered more appropriate for these institutions and, amongst other things, they would help resolve business and personal disagreements, care for the elderly and act as mediators between the community and Anglo Los Angeles. There were also theatrical and Chinese opera performances for the community and it was almost considered a Chinese City Hall.

Many businesses and organizations that occupied the Garnier Building during this period are still active today in Southern California, including the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese American Citizen’s Alliance.

Demolition and Recreation

Unfortunately, in 1933, Los Angeles’ city fathers ordered the clearing of most of the neighborhood, where Chinese residents had been living for decades, in order to construct Union Station. Although many blocks, including several bordellos, gambling houses and opium dens were razed, a decent-sized section survived until the middle of the century, before the city ordered its destruction to make way for the 101 Hollywood Freeway. 

By that time Chinatown had been re-imagined and re-constructed a little to the North, in what had been Los Angeles’ very own Little Italy. It was this – Los Angeles’ old Chinatown – that gave its name to the famous neo-noir movie Chinatown, which was set in the 1930’s. This had been the beat of the lead character, Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), when he was an LAPD detective years earlier, and it was the scene of the movie’s tragic denouement (the only time the film visits the area).

What Los Angeles calls Chinatown now is actually ‘New Chinatown’, only a few blocks away. It looks more Chinese, with its architectural China-fications, even on the modern buildings, but the Garnier Building, despite its strictly Western look, with a commercial Italianate façade, is the most Chinese building in Los Angeles. In fact, since San Francisco’s Chinatown was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, it’s been the oldest and most significant building associated with the Chinese community in any of California’s cities.

The Garnier Building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 as part of the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District. In 1987 the local Chinese community, including many descendants of those Chinese American pioneer families, formed the Friends of the Chinese American Museum, with the Garnier Building as the home for the museum. This is the group that puts on LA’s not-to-be-missed Lantern Festival in March. 

Los Angeles Chinatown. Garner Building
The Garnier Block, at the Los Angeles Pueblo

Los Angeles Chinatown Today

El Pueblo Commission, the state-appointed group that runs the Plaza Historic District, also helped fund initial work on C.A.M. Many Chinese American families and businesses have donated cherished possessions to the museum, including antique furniture, children’s toys, herbal store furnishings and supplies, traditional wedding gowns, photographs and letters from loved ones. Elderly Chinese Americans have also had their memories of growing up in old Chinatown recorded on audiotape.

The City of Los Angeles’ contribution to the C.A.M. is substantial and demonstrates its commitment to small multicultural venues. For the sum total of $1 per annum, the city and state of California rents the 7,200 square feet of the Garnier Building to the museum and funds the employees to staff it. We only wish the rest of the historic Plaza’s unused buildings, such as Pico House, could be utilized so effectively!

LA: Food + History + Design Tour

You can see the Garnier Buildings and the Garnier Block on our LA: Food + History + Design tour, every Sunday, when we stop in the area for lunch.

If you have any feedback on the Old Los Angeles Chinatown please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter) and Maggie Wineland (Twitter)

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