For many, the best way to approach Chinatown is as an urban adventure — not into China, but into a distinct culture both Chinese and American. As the first established Chinatown in America, the area quivers with cultural history, woven into a now-modern and bustling community.
Buses roar through the streets labeled in both English and Chinese. Shoppers crowd the sidewalks. Everywhere, Chinatown restaurants boast the best dim sum and noodles. Windows display rows of Peking duck. Along the streets, fresh fruit stands sit side by side with gift shops selling a hodge-podge collection of BB guns, parasols, “Los Angeles”-emblazoned T-shirts and other trinkets.
Chinatown has come a long way since its inception, even if its current location is only a few blocks from the original site at Union Station — then an alley called Calle de Los Negros. The alley was one block between El Pueblo Plaza and Old Arcadia, much smaller than the area Chinatown covers today.
As early as 1852, Chinese immigrants settled in the area, many capitalizing on the laundry business while others worked a variety of manual labor jobs. Eventually, the community grew to some 200 buildings, and by the early 1900s, it featured an opera theater, temples and a thriving commercial community.
With the unveiling of “New Chinatown” in 1938 — consisting mainly of Central Plaza — the area officially opened its doors to Los Angeles in a much-publicized grand opening. Chinese architecture presented something new and fresh for Los Angeles tourism. Some shops sold a variety of gifts and trinkets, while others sold a seemingly random assortment of imports.
From then on, Chinatown’s landmarks — the Gate of Filial Piety, the five-tiered pagoda, the wishing well and more — attracted a healthy wave of visitors.
It also brought movie directors looking to add Chinatown flavor into their movies. Rush Hour, Lethal Weapon 4, Freaky Friday, Collateral, Nancy Drew and many more have featured Chinatown’s distinctive architecture and authentic Chinese restaurants.
Through the years, Chinatown has seen dislocation, a surge in tourism and, more recently, a much-discussed revival as artists have opened up galleries at Chung King Road, one of LA’s newest and hottest arts districts. Despite all the change, the spirit of Chinatown — its perseverance, its traditions — has remained relatively unchanged.
Today’s Chinatown isn’t so much an imitation of China as it is its own modern community, complete with schools, banks, shopping centers and housing complexes. While Chinatown’s landmarks offer a hint of its old slogan, “the enchanting charm of Old China in Los Angeles,” daily life in Chinatown encompasses its history, its architecture, its food and its cultural traditions.