Stepping into another world, Chinatown in Los Angeles

The scene changed quicker than expected.

I had barely walked a few blocks away from Ovelda Street and the lively Day of the Dead celebrations and it felt as if I had walked into the streets of the living dead. Lined along the broad street were rows of tents flush to the wall, each a home to one of the many homeless Americans on the street (more on this in a much later post).

Google maps had indicated that I was getting hotter and closer to my next destination, Chinatown. But there was none of the gentrified riot of colours that greeted me in Singapore, or the laid back residential vibe in Barcelona. It was clear I was stepping into a Chinatown however, faded signs with latinized Cantonese words hung from stores located in pagoda-roofed buildings. Old ladies who clearly did not speak English hawked goods on the streets bargaining in sign language with buyers trying to get a cheaper price for their wares.

This was Chinatown alright, but unlike in Singapore or London there was none of the young and hip vibe that comes with it, this one was more run down and unkempt, an enclave and culture separate from the main, I was stepping into another world.

One where shop signs looked like they were printed in the 1960s, where the paint on the walls had faded, where buildings seemed stuck in the 1970s not out of hipster coolness but genuine lack of redevelopment, immobile to the present. This was a different world. Chinatowns tend to be located in shabby areas wherever you go, unless gentrified. Los Angeles’ downtown Chinatown felt no different.

6.5% of all Americans are Asian American, in California they comprise close to 14% of the population. While a largely panethnic group (including Japanese, Indians, Vietnamese, Hmong) no discussion of Asian Americans will be complete without the Chinese-Americans who form the largest subgroup.

The earliest Chinese arrived in America in 1820, when a trickle of 325 low skilled Chinese men arrived from six districts within one province in southern China. With the California Gold Rush in full swing in 1849, there were 25,000 Chinese immigrants. By 1880 some 100,00 Chinese immigrants lived along the US west coast (this increase in numbers is mirrored today in other places).

While originally gold miners, these immigrants later took on agriculture, garment work and were key to the building of large chunks of the Transcontinental railroad connecting the two coasts of continental United States.

A unique trait that can generally be used to distinguish the Chinese diaspora is their dialect group (or put another way, ancestral province). Most Chinese people who immigrated from China prior to 1949 came from the southern Coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian (the same majority dialect groups that are found in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong have). Most Chinese immigrants after 1949 tend to come from more varied linguistic backgrounds.

The teochew clan association building. The Teochew people are southern Chinese dialect group who most probably formed part of the early migration to Chinatown.

Just like foreign workers today, the Chinese labourers arrived to make money in America and send it back home. Like today, their economic circumstances meant they took jobs that paid poorly, the same jobs local Americans would have done for more substantial salaries (locals have families to support in the economy, transient workers usually have themselves and money they remit), their presence therefore depressed the wages in these labour-intensive jobs. This still happens today, with more controls however in many sectors, with the exception of the research in Academia which is still an economic wild west. This engendered clear economic and cultural discontent with the Americans settled in the area. Their clear and different physical differences marked them out as clear ‘others’ and marked them out as an invading horde, Yellow Peril it was called. The politicians acted, with the then racist-Democratic party calling for outright banning of Chinese and the Republicans, sympathetic but insisting on immigration rights. All this culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882. The Acts were only repealed in 1943.

The fate of the Chinese and Japanese were intertwined but also opposite especially in the 1940s. Because of World War II, Japanese-Americans were interned while Chinese-Americans and Chinese saw the Exclusion Act lifted on them. Many Chinese in Los Angeles can trace their arrival to the 1800s and certainly way before the emergence of two concepts of China.

This Chinatown seemed like the rundown one in Singapore I witnessed growing up. Authentic, grimy, selling weird things in strange places, worshipping a pantheon of gods, a 1970s design not out of place in Hong Kong or Taiwan and home to great cheap eats. Then all of a sudden, I walked into one part of this very same Chinatown that was decorated and clearly re-dolled to looked wayyyyyy too stereotypically Chinese.

While downtown Chinatown is the ancestral home of many Chinese-Californians, its overall quality of life made it a no-brainer for the increasingly wealthy segments of the population to move eastwards towards the St Gabriel Valley, a more genuine Chinese enclave in Los Angeles, known more affectionately as 626 (the postcode), and enjoying a reputation of Chinese food capital. Many of them had left the isolated world of Chinatown for a more American lifestyle.

My sojourn was over, it was time I left this Chinatown too.



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