The Youth of Los Angeles Chinatown

Written by William Gow

Watch Heidi Li’s film on community member Marian Leng

By the 1940s, the Chinese American community in Los Angeles numbered between 5,000 and 7,000 people. Over the previous half century, the community had undergone a slow but profound demographic shift as national immigration legislation began to take its toll. Beginning with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a series of antiimmigrant laws stripped all but a few exempt groups of Chinese of the right to immigrate into the United States. Brought on by a wave of xenophobia that washed over the nation during the later part of the 19th century, these laws had a profound effect on the lives of average Chinese Americans living in communities up and down the West Coast. While these immigration laws did not eliminate Chinese American communities from California, they did slowly change the demographics of most California Chinatowns.

In part because of these anti-immigrant policies, over the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese American communities slowly became more native-born and less masculine than they had been in the previous century. By the 1940s, children in Chinatowns were not the rarity they had been at the end of the 19th century. In 1900, native-born Chinese Americans made up only 10% of the Chinese American population. By 1940, they made up more than half. Likewise, between 1900 and 1940 the percentage of Chinese American women living in the United States increased from 5% to 25 %.1 Most of these women and girls were native born. In Los Angeles, as in other large Chinatowns, this meant that young Chinese American men and women came of age in communities quite different from the ones their parents had lived in only a few decades before.

The changing nature of Chinatowns like Los Angeles meant that the experiences of these young American-born men and women were quite different from those of their parents. Unlike many in their parents’ generation, most lived in families, often times with siblings. As young people living in one of the larger Chinatowns on the West Coast, most Chinese American Angelinos had other Chinese American friends their own age. As such, they developed their own groups and culture quite distinct from that of their immigrant parents.

Despite their similarities as a group, the life stories of each of these young Chinese Americans was unique in its own way. Click on one of the links to find out more about the young men and women who made up the Chinese American community in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s.