March 01, 2011

A walk through history…♬

…L.A.’s and my own.

Monday morning, Chinatown, the client is going to be late for our meeting. I decided to take a walk.

Although Chinatown is no longer a hub of activity relative to other parts of Los Angeles, it contains significant portions of the cultural history of the city within its tiny one-square-mile boundaries. It has served as the gatekeeper to America for many generations of immigrant groups, not only from China but also from all over the world. It’s been a launching pad for all of the true believers that clung to the promise of a new life in the land of opportunity. Today, you can hear the echoes of these stories, and the underlying heritage of the lives that were left behind, reverberate throughout the community. Far more than just a novelty, Chinatown is a reflection of many of the things that, for better or worse, give L.A. its identity beyond the postcard images and the glitz and glamour that the rest of the world projects on to it.

Although Italians were prominent in the area well into the 1900s, the Little Italy that was once there is all but vanished. Little Joe’s Restaurant on Broadway and College, which closed in 1998, was the last connection to the Italian-owned businesses in Chinatown. The building is still here used sporadically as a film set it has recently been purchased and plans are under way to develop the site and restore the restaurant.

The legacy of the French in Chinatown is seen through the Pacific Alliance Medical Center on College, as noted by the Joan of Arc statue which stands guard in front. It was originally built in 1868 as a hospital to treat French immigrants, but has over time served as the primary medical facility for Chinatown residents.

The Capitol Milling Company was a flour mill that serviced bakeries all over LA, including Nancy Silverton’s beloved La Brea Bakery. It operated in the area for more than a hundred-fifty years until 1998, when the company relocated to a bigger facility in Colton.
Since 1883, it had been owned by multiple German immigrant families and their descendants, before being purchased by ConAgra in 1999.
The building is one of the oldest standing buildings remaining in Los Angeles, going all the way back to 1831. Redevelopment plans have been made to convert it into (what else?) lofts but, like the many other proposed projects in Chinatown, the groundbreaking has not yet begun.

At the corner of Grant and Alpine is St. Anthony’s Croatian Catholic Church documenting another wave of immigrants that migrated through the area. Most, if not all of its members, have dispersed to the suburbs.

The removal of discriminatory laws wasn’t a panacea for the challenges of assimilation. For example, Chinese still struggled to gain access to funds to help grow businesses and purchase property. Thus, they began forming their own banks to address this need. Cathay Bank was the first Chinese-American bank in California, opening in 1962 as a commercial bank, and is now the oldest Chinese-American bank in the country. This was my first design project in Chinatown.

On the hill to the north is Dodger Stadium. During World War II, sailors in the naval station below the present stadium poured down the hill and into the Alpine barrio, fighting with the young Latino men in what became known as the Zoot Suit Riot. I don’t know if there’s a plaque that memorializes that bit of history.

A little detour will take you into another world: an incense-filled Taoist Temple on Yale Street. This ornately decorated temple serves as a focal point of the immigrant community and is one of the most beautiful of its kind.

Central Plaza is full of quaint walkways and tiny shops. The sound of clicking mahjong tiles can be heard from upstairs windows. 

Saigon Plaza, Chinatown Plaza and Dynasty Center. Most of the shops and stalls in these bazaars are owned by Chinatown's newest ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Far East Plaza is home to Wing Hop Fung Ginseng and China Products Center the largest store of its kind in Los Angeles, fragrant with herbs and tea, and overflowing with chinaware, garments, arts and crafts. A pharmacy and acupuncturist are located within.

There are zero Starbucks in all of Chinatown. It’s the one place where the gospel of Howard Schultz hasn’t caught on (there's even Starbucks in the Forbidden City in Beijing). For the price of one venti mocha latte, you can get forty cups of Joe at Philippe.

Now if Starbucks specialized in tea instead of coffee, maybe it would be a different story. Tea is an integral part of not only the Chinese dining experience, but its cultural norms as well. In Chinatown, boxed teas can be found in most of the general stores, as well as specialty stores where you can also walk in and self-serve from large canisters for your own magic elixir.

So then where do the cool kids hang out?  While most of Chinatown shuts down early, there is a small nightlife scene concentrated in Central Plaza. Grand Star Jazz Club is the standard, a restaurant/jazz club owned by the Quon family for more than 60 years. It’s totally chill and sporadically offers karaoke in addition to the live acts – co-owner Frank (one of my friends tabbed him Frank Quon-atra) and his brother Wally will get up and sing some old standards as well, while “Mommy” tends the bar. On the first, third, and fifth Friday of the month, the second floor turns into a dance club, Firecracker. This was my second design project in Chinatown.

If you do not want to do the “Dim Sum action” at the (predictable) Empress Pavilion there is always Philippe. Decidedly not Chinese, it is the hands-down best place to eat. The original 99-year old restaurant on Alameda and Ord, which claims to be the creator of the French Dip sandwich. It doesn’t exactly blend into its surroundings, but it’s been a fixture in this location since 1951, as Chinatown grew up around it. According to the restaurant, the sandwich was created when deli owner Philippe Mathieu accidentally dropped a roll into meat drippings while making a sandwich. Now, the legendary sandwiches are hand-dipped in au jus (pork at it’s best), while the little quirks of the restaurant like the sawdust on the floors and the jars of pickled eggs at the counter make it a one-of-a-kind dining experience. Frankly, if you haven’t been to Philippe, you have no business calling yourself an Angeleno. Oh by the way, they still sell a cup of coffee for nine cents, the best deal in town.

Chinatown, made famous by Roman Polanski.  Remember that famous line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown"?

Chinatown a business district waking up for the day. I paused and looked south toward downtown Los Angeles, where I have spent many years searching for her past. All around me were places where I used to gather stories and documented sights.

I headed back to the meeting.  There I presented the client with my vision for restoring a house in the French Quarter of Shanghai, China.


Anja said...

The "Superior Scribbler" award goes to you.

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Pere Stockholm said...

I want to visit LA. These photos are beautiful and thanks for sharing some history here. Nice post!

Los Angelina too said...

How interesting, the history, photos and sound!
A very nice post that makes me want to go for a visit!
What an interesting story.
Thank you so much for sharing your part of the world.

Erin from Vancouver said...

a very nice post with god historical information
we too have large Chinatown.

“Westside dweller” said...

Great post of a very interesting place.
I can't believe I never went there.

Alan said...

Thank you for the post.
And a big thanks for the ♬ link to one of my favorite movies about Los Angeles.

Gittes: There's no point in getting tough with me.
Mrs. Mulwray: I don't get tough with anyone, Mr. Gittes. My lawyer does. ;-)