The New Chinatown

Novel shops, art spaces, and a tearoom refresh one of L.A.’s most historic neighborhoods
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Photograph by Mindee Choi

Pedestrian-friendly plazas—check. Offbeat architecture with dragon motifs—check. Close proximity to the booming downtown—check. With stats like these, L.A.’s Chinatown is prime turf for a hipster renaissance. Alongside landmarks like Hop Louie and Wing Hop Fung Ginseng Inc. are unconventional boutiques, galleries, and fusion cafés located off open-air squares, which makes picking up bulk tea and a couture sweatshirt in one stop as easy as yi, er, san (one, two, three).

1. Wonder Bakery
There’s stiff competition from longtime favorite Phoenix, but the purple neon sign here attracts breakfast and lunch crowds who consume steamed pork buns or almond cookies on sunny Central Plaza. Snag a napkin for the addictive honey-dipped butterfly pastries. » 943 N. Broadway, Ste. 101, 213-680-1111.

2. Realm
Thanks to shop owner and architect Richard Liu, this once-shuttered Chinese restaurant is now an immaculately restored gift and home accessories store. The merchandise ranges from classy to kitsch, with Easter yellow Asianera tea sets, books on sci-fi names for babies, stylish seashell paperweights, and plenty of cards to go with it all. » 425 Gin Ling Way, 213-628-4663.

3. Via Café
Works from the area’s artists decorate the walls of this tiny Vietnamese café. Beneath red paper lanterns, sharp downtowners drink young coconut water straight from the shell while slurping bowls of pho and plucking sizzling beef, spicy shrimp, cold vermicelli rice noodles, and crispy spring rolls off square white plates. » 451 Gin Ling Way, 213-617-1481.

4. Munky King
It’s a cross between Giant Robot and Toys “R” Us for 35-year-old design nerds, who come here for hip-hop figurines and plush cigarette characters. » 441 Gin Ling Way, 213-620-8787.

5. Flock Shop
Locally made dresses, organic onesies, and one-of-a-kind necklaces and vintage bags fill this mini shop. » 943 N. Broadway, Ste. 103, 213-229- 9090.

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Photograph by Mindee Choi

6. Welcome Hunters
This cozy clothing boutique specializes in European labels that range from the avant-garde to the sweetly retro. Co-owners Robin Cervar and Jason Gillis ferret out finds like exclusive op-art-print hoodies from KTZ and the casual wear line by Marjan Pejoski (responsible for the swan dress Björk wore at the 2001 Oscars), as well as unicorn-print cashmere sweaters and Italian-made shoes. » 454B Jung Jing Rd., 213-687-9905.

7. Chinese Healing Arts (CHA)
You’ll think you made a wrong turn by the dim sum joint and ended up at a spa. Chinese medicine practitioners can unblock your chi or brew a healthful tonic to go. » 1035 N. Broadway, 323-222-6000.

8. Ooga Booga
This art-scene hub sells everything from zines and high-end frocks to 7-inches by local bands and mix-tapes curated by K records’ Calvin Johnson. The balcony rocks to occasional nighttime concerts. » 943 N. Broadway, Ste. 203, 213-617-1105.

9. Chung King Road
Squeezed in among the few remaining import shops on this 500-foot pedestrian alley are a dozen or so galleries and studios that make this one of the city’s creative centers. Two of the strip’s first artsy tenants were China Art Objects and Black Dragon Society, which gave a nod to the area’s roots while exhibiting contemporary works by local and international artists. Popular newcomers include the hypermodern Peres Projects—opened in 2003 by Javier Peres, with branches in Athens and Berlin—and the experimental Kontainer gallery. The nonprofit Telic Arts Exchange works to promote new-media artwork, and the collective Betalevel hosts bizarre performances varying from collaborations between hairstylists and ambient musicians to, well, bingo. While alley-wide art walks are becoming more rare, you can find a crowded opening or other fashionable happenings most Friday and Saturday nights.