There was a time when for the best Chinese food in the city, you went to Chinatown. It’s where generations of Angelenos—including Asian Americans—cut their teeth on egg foo young and fried rice. As an exotic miniature, Central Plaza, with its upturned tile roofs and red lanterns, is a stage set anchored by the pagoda tower of Hop Louie Restaurant. With the ascendance of the San Gabriel Valley as the nation’s nexus of Chinese dining, Chinatown may not be what it once was, but to me the completely manufactured Chinese village is still the best prism through which to peer at the past.
In the late 19th century, Chinese workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad settled on land below where Alameda Street turns into Spring. Back then the enclave was an unwitting curiosity, one that was viewed with paternalistic amusement by Anglo L.A. In a 1902 Los Angeles Times article, a reporter writes about his visit to a “genuine Chinese chophouse,” blithely dashing off an ethnic slur before describing how the smiling waiter “came up and said, with a rising inflection: ‘Sloop?’ ” To non-Chinese, the eating houses served unknown foods, the temple was an incense-burning puzzle, and the saloon was surely an opium den.
In the 1930s, the construction of Union Station created the opportunity to relaunch. The land was purchased from the Santa Fe Railroad for 75 cents a square foot by the children of immigrants who, because they were born in China, had been prohibited from doing so. This time, in the name of drawing foot traffic, the business owners played up the unfamiliar with an “Oriental” fantasy of kitsch-stuffed gift shops and theatrically appointed restaurants. Displayed in the Los Angeles Public Library’s menu collection is a 1940s gem for the Forbidden Palace Restaurant on Gin Ling Way, its calligraphy-inspired fonts and rich hues—saturated by offset lithography—bringing the coiled dragons to life. Here was the opium den-cum-brothel of the Anglo imagination, but it served stiff drinks and chop suey. Perfect.
With the massive influx of immigrants who arrived from China between 1965 and 1984 came a different kind of Chinese experience. Those who landed in L.A. tended to find opportunity in the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, setting up restaurants against whose nonchalant authenticity the artifice of Chinatown’s older establishments paled. Simply put, the Hunanese shopfront and Hong Kong seafood palace staked a claim on normalcy that older generations weren’t allowed.
But to those who live here, Chinatown is no mere fantasy. With time its invented atmosphere—the scarlet columns, the dragon filigrees—has acquired an authenticity of its own. The markets along Hill and Broadway, with their burbling fish tanks and jars of dried medicinal herbs, have been a source of continuity for the neighborhood’s aging population. A livelihood, too. As evening descends, hipsters stroll into the lantern-festooned courtyard of Chung King Road on their way to the galleries while restaurants fill up with crowds that come for satisfying if imperfect fare. The neon is flickering, and elderly men who play mah-jongg have packed up and gone home.
Photograph by Alex Farnum