Written by William Gow
In 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, plans were finalized to build Union Station on the site of the original Los Angeles Chinatown. Over the next few years, Old Chinatown, as the community was known, was slowly demolished, and thousands of residents were forced to look for housing elsewhere. Barred from living or buying property in many parts of the city by restrictive housing covenants, the former residents of Chinatown had few options. Despite these limitations, over the next 15 years, Chinese Americans began to reshape the landscape of their community in Southern California, building new communities and revitalizing older ones. When all was said and done, the Chinese American community of 1945 would have little resemblance to the community that existed in 1930.
As the destruction of Old Chinatown commenced in the early 1930s, many Chinese Americans resettled in the neighborhood next to the wholesale produce market at 9th and San Pedro. This City Market Chinatown was founded in 1909 at a time when Chinese Americans still dominated much of the city’s produce business. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the City Market Chinatown grew into a separate smaller Chinatown west of Old Chinatown. By the 1930s, as the destruction of the old community hastened, the City Market Chinatown became the main neighborhood into which residents from Old Chinatown moved to escape the impending destruction of their old community. ;
The growth of City Market Chinatown in the 1930s sparked the development of another Chinese community in the vicinity of the wholesale produce market. In the neighborhood adjacent to the produce market, the availability of cheap homes created a separate bedroom community for workers of the City Market. Dubbed East Adams and situated in a racially mixed neighborhood near the corner of East Adams and San Pedro Street, this community soon became home to many of the Chinese Americans looking for single family houses. More so than Old Chinatown, East Adams was a racially mixed neighborhood where Chinese Americans intermingled with other immigrants to the city. The neighborhood became home to a number of Chinese American institutions including the Chinese Presbyterian Church, a Chinese school, a market and the CFO Gas Station. As a bedroom community for the city market, East Adams was unique among Chinese American communities of the period, and a precursor of the Chinese American suburbs that exist in Los Angeles today.
As the communities surrounding City Market Chinatown and East Adams grew, two other Chinese American communities took shape in the shadows of the newly built Union Station. One of these communities, New Chinatown, was the product of a group of Chinese American business leaders headed by Peter SooHoo. SooHoo was an American-born employee of the Department of Water and Power, who had graduated from USC. His fluency in both English and Chinese allowed him to negotiate the difficult racial terrain of pre-war Los Angeles in ways that his immigrant colleagues could not. The New Chinatown he and other community leaders opened in 1938 was in stark contrast to the dirt roads and tenement housing that characterized much of Old Chinatown. These Chinese American merchants and business leaders had a vision of creating a Chinatown that would be clean, well lit, and that could attract tourists from outside the community.
The other new community built near Union Station was dubbed China City. The product of Christine Sterling, the entrepreneur who had brought the city Olvera Street, China City opened the same year as New Chinatown. Featuring stores run by local Chinese, China City also attempted to capitalize on potential tourist dollars. With buildings modeled after the set of the Hollywood blockbuster the Good Earth and featuring outdoor Chinese performances and rickshaw rides, the vision of Chinese American community created by Sterling was in stark contrast to that presented by New Chinatown. Despite its movie set feel, China City provided a valuable sense of real community to the many Chinese Americans who worked there.
Over a 15-year period between 1930 and 1945, the shape and form of the Chinese American community of Los Angeles changed completely. The destruction of Old Chinatown brought about the creation of two new Chinese American communities in Los Angeles—New Chinatown and China City—as well as the growth of the new bedroom community near East Adams for the residents of City Market Chinatown. Gone was almost all of Old Chinatown and in its place were newer, far different communities. Follow the links below to learn more about the neighborhoods that comprised the Chinese American community in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s.