Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

The Old Los Angeles Chinatown

Los Angeles Chinatown
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, also constructed for Chinese businesses a few years later), which was built for local Chinese merchants in 1890. Both Garnier Building and Block are on the edge of what is now the historic Los Angeles Plaza and at the time the buildings formed the heart of Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

However Chinatown is now several blocks to the north. So what happened? Did the neighborhood pick itself up, walk up the street and plonk itself back down in a different place? Well, in a way, yes (although it was not done voluntarily).

Chinese Immigration to California

There has 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 immigrants moved to San Francisco (where fortunes were also being made) and over time some drifted south, down to LA. During the 1860’s and 70’s many Chinese men also found work building the Transcontinental railroad. Accordingly the Los Angeles Chinatown slowly grew.

First Los Angeles Chinatown

Early immigrants from China faced huge obstacles though. Due to their distinctive clothing, customs and language they weren’t readily accepted into American society, which wasn’t known for its tolerance at the time, and they faced increasing hostility. This culminated (in Los Angeles) with the Chinatown Massacre of 1871, still one of the worst mass lynching’s in U.S. history.

The horrific event, in which at least twenty Chinese men and boys were summarily executed on the streets of the small pueblo, was merely the most brutal chapter in a story of ongoing racial discrimination and hostility.

The massacre was centered around a building known as the Coronel, on the Calle de Los Negros, along the western border of Chinatown. The street itself was notorious in LA back then, and its very notoriety made it one of the only places recent immigrants from China could get accommodation. No one else would want to live in such an awful place.

Why was it so notoriously unpopular with everyone else as a residential district? Because it happened to be the roughest, toughest, most dangerous street in town, and that’s saying something for Los Angeles in those days. The short street was full of opium dens, brothels, gambling joints and other fun establishments of vice – and disputes were often settled with a gun, Wild West style.

The Chinatown that had sprung up in the surrounding streets over the previous twenty years numbered about 200 people of Chinese descent, out of a town of around 5,000 inhabitants. This means that more or less 10% of the entire population of the neighborhood was killed on that one terrible night.

Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre of 1871

A Successful Community Develops

In spite of tragic events like that, and the huge legal problems created by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (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.

Chinatown was in good company at the time. There was a Frenchtown to the northeast (they had built the first hospital in Los Angeles there in 1866) and Little Italy was northwest, while the Olvera Street neighborhood was known as Sonoratown (since many of its residents were from Sonora in Mexico). By the end of the nineteenth century there was a Little Tokyo taking shape several blocks southeast.

The food in the area must have been amazing!

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 accountants, 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.

Chinatown was given a big boost, inadvertently, by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In the years after the Great Fire a significant number of Chinese people moved down to LA, leading to a substantial financial and population boost from its northern neighbor. Although it never entirely lost its nineteenth century reputation for illicit activities, and it did possess the odd opium den, speakeasy, brothel and underground gambling shop into the 1930’s, by the early twentieth century the neighborhood was relatively quiet.

It was quite modern in many ways, being very mixed use. Offices, shops, restaurants and other businesses all existed alongside nearby residential areas. Much like San Francisco Chinatown, it was also considered touristy, although not as much. By the late 1920’s Chinese elements were being added to landmark buildings and, there was a growing fascination with China. A great example of this is the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Indeed the the construction of the fabulous new movie palace in Hollywood cemented Chinatown’s new status in LA,, as the neighborhood’s very own Anna May Wong helped drill the first rivet into the steel structure of the theatre (although she had actually been living above her parents laundry shop in nearby Bunker Hill by the time she embarked upon her film career as an actress).

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. It 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).

Funnily enough the film has a nostalgic feel towards the 1930’s, with its beautiful recreation of the era, yet it was set in 1937, the year that the Chinatown of the title slipped into the past. Evoked only in old movies of the period (Chinatown itself was made in 1974). By that year most of old Chinatown had already been bulldozed.

Demolition and Recreation

Why was that? Well, unfortunately for its residents (who obviously opposed the proposal), in 1933 Los Angeles had ordered the razing of most of the area. A neighborhood where many families had been living for decades, often for several generations, was to disappear in order to erect the city’s brand new railway terminus, Union Station. The station opened in 1939, right as passenger rail travel was going into long-term decline under the onslaught of the automobile.

Although a huge area, including numerous residential and commercial buildings, was leveled, a decent-sized section of old Chinatown survived until the middle of the last century, before another round of destruction was meted out to the neighborhood in order to create a cut-through and off-ramps 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.

A New Chinatown

What Los Angeles calls Chinatown today is actually ‘New Chinatown’, only a few blocks away from its predecessor. 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 made 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 Today

LA’s Chinatown, the “new” version (it’s almost a hundred years old), is still well-worth visiting. Take Metro to Chinatown station and walk up Broadway or Hill Street and you’ll enjoy a vibrant LA neighborhood, with some great restaurants and shops (try the slippery shrimp at Yang Chow).

Other great places to visit in the area are non-profit Homeboy Bakery and the large State Historic Park, on the other side of the station from Chinatown.

The El Pueblo Commission is the organization that runs the La Plaza Historic District and it 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 a 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.

I only wish the rest of the historic Plaza’s unused buildings, such as Pico House and the Merced Theatre, could be utilized so effectively, as several are vacant and almost never used.

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.

LA: Food + History + Design Tour

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)

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