How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

LA’s Thai Town, only one in US, turns 15

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Ruen Pair opened about 20 years ago, a small mom-and-pop restaurant in East Hollywood that spiced its papaya salad to order.

There were half a dozen tables at the outset. Then the city named the neighborhood the country’s first — and only – Thai Town 15 years ago: Oct. 27, 1999.

Business picked up and several years ago the restaurant expanded to 14 tables, said Champ Jansaeng, whose family runs Ruen Pair, something he credits to the Thai Town designation.

"It really did open it up for people to know about Thai Town and Thai culture, so people started taking an interest and becoming more adventurous in their food adventures," Jansaeng said.

Today, Thai Town is comprised of about 60 businesses — restaurants, markets, bakeries, spas and mechanic shops centered over six city blocks on Hollywood Boulevard between Western and Normandie avenues.

It’s a hub for social services and a gathering spot for L.A. County's Thai population — estimated at 30,000. It's also a port of entry for new arrivals. Thais started coming half a century ago, during the Vietnam War, said Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center.

"The only thing they heard of in the U.S. was Hollywood. So they thought, 'Oh, that's where we’ll go,'" Martorell said.

Martorell said Thais quickly learned East Hollywood was more affordable. Thousands were living and working there by the time she launched the campaign for a Thai Town in the 1990s in hopes of fending off blight, while winning political clout and recognition for a growing Thai community.

"It was saying to the world that 'We’re here, we have a presence, we exist,'" Martorell said.

Immigrants gravitated to the San Fernando Valley as they grew more affluent, to areas such as Van Nuys, Panorama City and Sun Valley.

But Thai Town continues to serve as home to more than 3,000 who also work locally, Martorell said.

New immigrants staff Ruen Pair as cooks and servers, working alongside Jansaeng, who's been hanging out at the family restaurant since he was 4.

Having been born in the U.S., Jansaeng can speak Thai with his co-workers, but he can't read or write the language.

"I write everything in English when I take the orders to them, so they're learning English from me," Jansaeng said.

A birthday celebration will take place at the Thailand Plaza shopping complex from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Van Nuys, Panorama City and Sun Valley as cities. They are all areas within the city of Los Angeles.

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