AirTalk®

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The changing meaning of Chinatown Los Angeles

by Fiona Ng | AirTalk®

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Chinatown

Immortalization is one thing Los Angeles Chinatown can claim over its other iterations in the country. The 1974 Roman Polanski noir put this Los Angeles landmark in our collective imagination. It's Hollywood myth-making, and exemplifies one way the idea of Chinatown is figured in American culture.

Read: Curbed LA's The Ultimate Chinatown Filming Location Map of Los Angeles

The identity of Los Angeles Chinatown has been always changing. It began as simply put a place where Chinese railroad workers who went southward from San Francisco to Los Angeles gathered and lived. That area, centered on Calle de Los Negros between El Pueblo Plaza and Old Arcadia Street, was torn down to make way for the construction of Union Station. It'd eventually re-establish itself at its current location at Cesar Chavez and North Broadway.

Listen: NPR's Code Switch team explains the origin of the so-called "Oriental Riff"

Read: Wiki entry on the "Oriental Riff"

The new Chinatown, as is common known, was built in the 1930s. The look and feel was design to evoke the Orient and conceived to bring in local Chinese residents as well as American tourists. At the time, only the well-to-do had the opportunity to travel to exotic places abroad. For a taste of the good life, the rest of populace went to local destinations like Los Angeles Chinatown.  

View: LA Times photo feature on old and new Chinatowns

Read: UCLA's "The State of Chinatown Los Angeles" report

New shopping centers and buildings sprung up along Broadway in the 1980s. But by the late 1990s, Chinatown had fallen on hard times. Increasingly, new Chinese immigrants were flocking to burgeoning enclaves like Alhambra and Monterey Park in the San Gabriel Valley. Today, about 15,000 people live in Chinatown and about a quarter of them is Latino. Asians (from Vietnam, Cambodia, and other Southeast Asian countries) make up about 64 percent of the population. The average year income for a family of three is under $20,000.

Read: Chinatown tour map

Read: Chinatown art gallery guide

Local artists taking advantage of cheap rent and the availability of empty storefronts began moving into Chinatown, establishing art galleries and art spaces and ushering in a renaissance of sorts for the area. The impact of the revitalization of Downtown Los Angeles is beginning to be felt in Chinatown. The Jia Apartments, the $93 million, 280-unit luxury apartment complex, was completed earlier this year. Another mega shopping/housing complex called Blossom Plaza is expected to finish construction in 2015.

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In this special AirTalk segment, we’ll take a look at the past, present and future of Los Angeles Chinatown. To hear it, click on "Listen Now" above.

Guests:

Linda Chong, writer and historian and a volunteer and docent for the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California who gives guided tours of Chinatown

Bonnie Chen, development coordinator at Chinatown Service Center. She also co-authored the demographic profile “The State of Chinatown Los Angeles” for the Asian American Studies Center and the Urban Planning Department at UCLA 

Yong Chen, history professor at UC Irvine and author of “Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America” (Columbia University Press, 2014)

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