On the surface, Los Angeles' Chinatown seems to be just like other historical Chinatown, such as those in San Francisco, New York and others that were founded in the 19th century and have survived to this day. But Los Angeles is unique in one major respect: Its current Chinatown dates only from the 1930s and effectively began as a movie set–esque ethnic theme park for tourists, with very few Chinese people actually living in the area.
Yes, Los Angeles did have a vibrant late–19th century/early–20th century downtown Chinatown, but it was leveled in 1933 to make way for Union Station. While civic do-gooders thought they were providing two nearby replacements for the historic old Chinatown in the form of New Chinatown on North Broadway and China City on North Spring, by the time these projects were completed in the late 1930s, virtually all of the Chinese residents had moved out of the immediate area. It wasn’t until more than three decades later, in the late 1960s, that federal immigration law reform repopulated Los Angeles Chinatown with Chinese residents.
So does this mean that Los Angeles did not have a real Chinatown from the 1930s to the 1960s? Well, yes and no. If your definition of Chinatown is a place for tourists to mingle with everyday Chinese-Americans in their natural habitat, the answer is no, because New Chinatown and China City were primarily tourist attractions, and almost all of the Chinese who worked at the shops and restaurants went home someplace else at night. But if Chinatown means a community where Chinese-Americans live, work, eat, shop, gamble and worship, the answer is yes. This community was adjacent to the downtown City Market wholesale produce terminal, which ran along San Pedro Street between Ninth and 11th streets. The City Market was founded predominantly by Chinese businessmen in 1909, and rivaled Chinatown’s tourist activities as the economic backbone of L.A.'s Chinese community for much of the 20th century. My father worked his way up in the City Market from truck driver to accountant to wholesale produce company co-owner in a half-century-long association with the area.
Many of the best Chinese restaurants of the day, including New Moon, Man Fook Low, Paul’s Kitchen, Modern Café, Paul’s Cafe, Li Wah Café, Moon Palace and On Luck Restaurant, were located on or near San Pedro Street. So was Hong Kong Noodle Co., which may (or may not) have invented the fortune cookie, but which definitely once asked me whether I’d be interested in composing fortune cookie inserts. And City Market dining was not completely off the pop culture radar. While Hollywood types generally gravitated toward the bright lights of Los Angeles Chinatown, screen goddess Mae West hung out at Man Fook Low; there are numerous historical references to her affinity for that restaurant. Also, California Gov. Jerry Brown held an inaugural “dinner” at Man Fook Low. The New Moon was a popular venue for Japanese-American weddings, and Chinese-American banquets too, as recently as the early 1980s, when we held my son Eric’s red egg baby party there. It is no understatement to say that the City Market area was the real Chinatown of its era, the unique mid–20th century American Chinatown without camera-toting tourists or souvenir shops.
Today the only remnant of the Chinese community here is the venerable Paul’s Kitchen, still going strong after seven decades, complete with its Tommy Lasorda special dinner. When the Chinese immigration spigot turned on in the late 1960s, Chinatown and then the San Gabriel Valley became the destination for L.A.’s new Chinese residents as the City Market slowly faded away as a Chinese neighborhood. The decline of the City Market produce terminal was accelerated in the 1990s by the refurbishment of the larger and more modern wholesale produce terminal at Seventh and Alameda streets, leading to the relocation of the City Market’s major produce houses to that facility. While some of the smaller produce wholesalers stayed behind, produce activities were eventually displaced by the eastward expansion of the adjacent Garment District, capped by the demolition of the City Market’s principal produce terminal in 2012.
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But like Los Angeles Chinatown 2 miles to the north, the City Market is poised to emerge as a center of non-Chinese dining. The market itself is on the road to becoming a $1 billion mixed-use commercial and residential community, though it may take two decades for the buildout to be complete. At 11th and San Julian streets, a dining plaza dubbed City Market South is already in its opening phase. While it looks nothing like the artist renderings showing a bustling plaza area with a panoply of dining options, City Market South has seen its first two significant openings, while other spaces in the plaza are being readied for future occupancy. First to join Paul’s Kitchen as an area destination is the third branch of Cognoscenti Coffee, serving coffee, tea and sandwiches. More recently, chef Steve Samson’s Rossoblu has begun its fine Bolognese dinner service, and has already vaulted to the top of the local Italian food scene with large crowds coming for the artisan pasta dishes and braised pork shoulder. Other spaces in the City Market South dining plaza are at the finishing-up stages, with one spot being claimed by Charles Phan of San Francisco’s Slanted Door fame; the next opening might be an open-air cocktail bar from Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix.
For those like me who remember what the City Market was like decades ago, the changes that have already occurred are an incredible transformation. And for the old-timers like my dad, the future plans for the area would have been totally beyond belief.