Saturday, May 02, 2020

Chinatown, Los Angeles

When I was a kid, it was always a treat to visit Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles with my grandmother. She shopped there enough that some of the store owners knew her; she loved the wooden furniture, and had stacks of glazed ceramic bowls of all sizes in her cupboards. 

The Chinatown that we see in today's pictures was founded in 1938 after the original historic Chinatown was demolished to make room for Union Station (a beautiful art deco train station that is worth a visit). I love this first photo, from the 1950's! You can't tell in these photos, but the buildings are outlined in neon, to dazzling effect.

Here's a contemporary photo, scrounged from the Internet.

The next two photos are from July, 1964. I believe that the building in the distance is next to the East Gate of Chinatown. The area includes restaurants, shops and art galleries but also has a residential neighborhood with a low-income, aging population of about 20,000 residents.

There are two schools and a branch library in Chinatown, as well as a city park and a state park. Many motion pictures have been filmed in the area.

Now we're looking the other direction; using my incredibly deductive powers, that would mean we're facing west! I used to love to buy things like sparklers and smoke bombs here, as well as little cellophane "fortune-telling fish" (they curled in your hand, but how they did it was important!, little clamshells that you'd drop in a glass of water - after a time, they'd spring open and small pink flowers would float to the top. Strangely, I don't ever remember eating in Chinatown, maybe my grandma thought that we'd be too picky. We definitely ate Mexican food at nearby Olvera Street!

I hope you have enjoyed your visit to Chinatown in Los Angeles.


"Lou and Sue" said...

Those neon lights are crazy-cool!

Major, what wonderful memories you can treasure now about being in Chinatown with your grandma. You say you don't remember eating there, as a kid - but do you now like Chinese food? Have you ever gone back there to eat, in more-recent years?

. . . little cellophane "fortune-telling fish" (they curled in your hand, but how they did it was important!, little clamshells that you'd drop in a glass of water - after a time, they'd spring open and small pink flowers would float to the top. --
I never saw one of those . . . now I want one. On our one and only trip to Chinatown in Chicago, a few years back, I bought one of those wooden birds (like a wood pecker) on a spring - that you pull up to the top of a 15" metal pole and then let it go . . . and it bounces down slowly, while pecking the metal pole on its way down. It also has a fluffy purple ostrich feather on top of its head, that flops around. I remembered seeing those as a kid - and just had to have one when I saw it in Chinatown.

Fun post, as always - thanks, Major!

Nanook said...

I [regrettably] haven't been to Chinatown in just about forever. These pictures remind me of what I've missed. Thankfully on my visits there, I did eat the great food offerings.

And now... beginning on the left: a 1953 Chrysler 'Windsor'; a 1950 Plymouth; a 1951 Oldsmobile 'Rocket 98'; partially-obscured is (probably) a 1953 Ford; a light green, 1951 DeSoto; a white, 1953 Chevrolet; and finally, a 1952 [maybe a 1951] Chevrolet, in Emerald Green.

Thanks, Major.

TokyoMagic! said...

I was born and raised in L.A. County, but for some reason I had never visited Chinatown, until just a few years ago! I'm not sure why that is. I had been to the nearby Olvera St. and Union Station, many times. I really enjoyed walking around this area and seeing the cool architecture. And since it was dusk, we were able to see all of the neon turn on.

That building in the first pic, with the red columns on the first and second floor, is visible in all of your photos, even the contemporary one. You can spot it by it's octagonal windows on the front and sides of the building.

I have a close-up photo/slide of that same building, which my dad took in 1965, but unfortunately, it's a little blurry. I was just looking at it two days ago (coincidentally) and trying to figure out what that tall blue sign behind the building said. I can see in your first photo that it reads, "The Phoenix...Pastries...Candies"

Thanks, Major!


MAJOR : it is so odd you posted these pictures today : yesterday I came across a box of research and drawings regarding LA’s China Town from a project many years ago - and I got hooked on a book on the history of the China Town seen in your pictures and the original seedy ,non-themed version. All the images in the book and most of the research shows new China Town and its sister , China City that burned down in only black and white - and I thought “where are the color pictures of China Town!??”
And this evening here there are!!

JC Shannon said...

What great photos! I love the fact that they are in color as well. My mother and my grandmother loved Chinese food, as did all of us. My mom bought a Chinese vase and had it made in to lamp. I still have it. I believe she bought it in Chinatown. I will take any one of those classic cars, and and totally trade my pick up. Thanks for today's awesome snaps and the great memories.

zach said...

I've visited San Francisco Chinatown many times in the 50s and 60s mostly with my dad because of his job. But never LA.

These photos bring back the sounds and foreign smells and activities all around. I'm pretty sure we got fire crackers there.

Thanks Major for the Chinatown visit.


Irene said...

These photos certainly bring back a lot of memories. My parents loved to go to China Town for special occasions such as eating dinner there for their anniversary. Sometimes I tagged along (maybe Bruce did too but I really don't remember him being with us). I remember one time I was allowed to eat a cream puff at a bakery there (I know, not really a Chinese dish) and I got so sick!!! The cream was probably bad. I would not eat cream puffs again for many, many years. Another time I went with them to see some block buster movie in Hollywood and then dinner in China Town. Why they would let a kid tag along for their anniversary outing I'll never know. My dad loved Chinese vases and things and I still have some, somewhere. China town is really not like I remember it in the 50's and 60's anymore unfortunately. Kind of run down. One of the long time restaurants (Hop Louie) recently closed after many, many years in business in a building that had been there since the "new" China Town was built in 1938. Owned by the same man for many years (NOT since 1938) but his children did not want to carry on the business when dad retired. It made the news and Charles Phoenix held a special "final meal" there. I did a google search and there were several articles dating back to 2018 about it's reopening but it sounds like it will mostly be concentrating on the bar part. Even says there won't be the chop suey lunch special, which is a shame. Nothing since 2018 so maybe this has fallen through. With the advent of light rail it is very easy to get there using the Gold Line (renamed now with some letter). Of course we aren't supposed to travel right now, but in the future when I am released maybe I will take a trip. I had planned to go to the Chinese New Year celebration this past year in February but changed my mind with all the corona virus scare and my compromised immune system - and this was even before the lock down! There is a great bakery there that makes the best, fresh baked almond cookies. Not Wonder Bakery but one outside the plaza that is called Phoenix Bakery, Inc.

Anonymous said...

We shot a short scene for Ready Player One (Scene 7pt—EXT. CHINATOWN—“Gamer zeros out, takes googles off”) on that very walkway back on May 20, 2017 (not sure why we worked a Saturday).

I hadn’t been to Chinatown since my parents last took my brothers and I there back in the mid-‘60s but, as far as I could tell, the place sure hadn’t changed much!


stu29573 said...

While I haven't been to this Chinatown, many years ago I went to Chinatown in San Francisco. One of my sharpest memories was seeing several eels in a tank next to a shop door. They were about a quarter of the way out of the tank and stretching toward the open doorway. My thought was, "Guys, even if you make it out the door- then what?" Worst thought out escape plan ever.

K. Martinez said...

Forget it Jake - it's Chinatown.

My experience mostly lies with San Francisco's Chinatown, but this place looks pretty darn cool. Perhaps on a future visit I'll check out the place with some friends. Thanks, Major.

Major Pepperidge said...

Lou and Sue, sure, I like Chinese food a lot. Trouble is, it seems like to get decent Chinese food around here, it is expensive! I went back to Chinatown a few years ago, and didn’t eat there for reasons that I don’t recall. I’ve been to Chicago’s Chinatown, had one of the best meals there (sauteed soft shell crabs). I’ve seen those bouncy birds you described, but I couldn’t tell you where.

Nanook, going downtown is always something of an adventure; I usually enjoy it (except for the traffic of course), don’t know why I visit so rarely. I’m glad I saw Clifton’s Cafeteria while it was still an approximation of its old self. I guess now it just wants to be a trendy nightclub/bar, which is a bummer. I thought you might like all those beautiful old cars!

TokyoMagic!, just a couple of years ago I went with a date to explore Olvera Street and Chinatown, and we did go over to Union Station as well. We’d planned to ride the reopened Angels Flight, but ran out of steam. I did notice that these photos show the same buildings; I guess the most picturesque parts of Chinatown encompass a pretty small area. I’m glad that you can read that blue sign now!

Mike Cozart, I have more old pictures of L.A.’s Chinatown! You’ll probably see them one of these days. It is kind of weird when you think of something that seems almost random, and then within a day or two you see a news story, or a magazine article, or a blog post (!) covering the same subject. “China City”, what was that? Part of Chinatown? I’ve never heard of it! Time to visit Google.

Jonathan, I think my own grandmother’s fondness for Chinatown goes all the way back to when my grandpa worked as a printer in downtown L.A. I’ll bet she would visit the shops as something else to do when she came into downtown to visit gramps!

dzacher, I went to San Francisco’s Chinatown years ago, it seems WAY bigger than L.A.’s. I bought some black slippers with red rubber soles - nearly impossible to find any to fit my size-11 feet.

Irene, oh boy, just hearing about your cream puff experience is making me feel queasy! It does seem funny that your parents would bring you along on an anniversary celebration, but it’s nice that they wanted you there. Maybe they didn’t want to pay for a sitter? I think Chinatown as seen better days, the shops don’t seem as fun and funky - they all seem to sell the same stuff, bins and bins full of trinkets. There are some fun things though, I bought an all-bamboo “Samurai sword” (not very Chinese!) for my nephew, and he loved it. It was cheap, too! I remember hearing about Hop Louie closing (I am a fan of Charles Phoenix and have seen his life performances), it’s always sad when a piece of history is gone forever. I can’t blame his kids for not wanting to continue, though… the restaurant business is brutal. I have no idea how many people went to Chinatown for an evening meal. Like you, I hope we can all get out and do the things we crave, including going to Chinatown again!

Huck (ha ha, my fingers accidentally typed “Juck” at first), I saw Ready Player One, didn’t know you worked on that! Now I’ll have to go back and look for that scene, I don’t recall a Chinatown location.

stu29573, maybe you saw some rare flying eels? What a funny (and odd) memory! Maybe they could slither to the nearest sewer drain, and live lives down there along with the flushed alligators!

K. Martinez, if you do go to Chinatown, I recommend making plans to do other things to, it’s not that huge. Olvera Street is good. Angels Flight is a unique experience, and the Grand Central Market is wonderful.

Melissa said...

It's the FONS! Aaaayyy!

I remember getting those fortune-telling fish in Cracker Jacks when I was a kid.

I got lost in New York's Chinatown once, but it turned out it was some kind of festival, and there was a gorgeous parade and lots of street food and stuff. I bought some costume jewelry there and had it for years.

I love today's pictures.


MAJOR : Los Angeles had a second China Town called CHINA CITY. It was developed by Christine Sterling who also developed OLVERA STREET.
CHINA CITY opened in 1938 and used most of the movie sets from the film THE GOOD EARTH ( imagineer Herbert Ryman actually worked on those movie sets!!) CHINA CITY was more themed than CHINA TOWN and was famous for its maze of winding narrow streets and alleyways as well as its popular rickshaw rides. CHINA CITY held all kinds of Chinese community events as well as various celebrations popular with tourists. Because so much of CHINA CITY was made from temporary movie sets there were problems with fires and after a BIG fire in 1950 the city of Los Angeles decided to permanently close the attraction and tear the rest down.

Many pictures and photographs of CHINA CITY are mistakenly identified as CHINA TOWN - especially CHINA CITY’s multi-tiered pagoda tower that house the Lotus Inn Restaurant.

Anonymous said...

I'm like Ken, I am more familiar with the San Francisco Chinatown, and we toured the NYC Chinatown just last fall. The LA location is mostly strange to me, so thanks for the photos and all the backstory from everyone.

I grew up in Hanford, in the Central Valley, and it had a fairly large Chinese community, focused on a little street called China Alley. It is still there, now a historic monument. The Taoist Temple is very well-preserved. I got a peek inside many years ago, but it is now reservations-only. Several of the buildings are connected with below-grade tunnels, it is all very quaint and mysterious. The Imperial Dynasty Restaurant was a frequent destination for Sunday lunch after church. This was a famous restaurant run by a local family. The Chef was classically trained and served on the White House staff among other places, before coming home to found his business. The wine cellar is extensive and occupies some of those secret tunnels. People used to charter planes and buses for groups to come to Hanford to eat there. I see that the restaurant is closed now. Here is the story >>

Major, the moment I read your comment about the fortune telling fish, all the memories came flooding back. I know I had at least one, and maybe more over time. They were dark red cellophane and came in a little white envelope. Melissa says these were Crackerjack prizes, which I don't recall, but I don't know how I would get one otherwise. Maybe they were sold in China Alley or given away at the Imperial Dynasty.

Thanks for the memories.