Written by Tara Fickle
A History of the Los Angeles City Market: 1930 – 1950
by Tara Fickle
[Gum Saan Journal, Volume 32, No. 1, 2010]
Chinese involvement in vegetable farming and peddling far predated the opening of the 9thStreet City Market in 1909. Even before large-scale immigration of Chinese men began to flow into California due to the Gold Rush and railroad construction in the mid 19th-century, Chinese had long devoted parts of their home plots to sustenance farming, particularly in the Sze Yup provinces, where the majority of early Chinese immigration originated. Due to the similarity in climate and soil fertility, the transition to growing vegetables in California soil was a relatively easy one. As Chinese railroad workers began to arrive en masse, they were accompanied by farmers and cooks, also men, whose primary role was to grow Chinese vegetables and cook familiar meals for their compatriots.
From Railroad to Vineyard
Once the primary sections of the transcontinental railroad had been completed in 1869, vast amounts of track having been laid all across the Sierras and into the interior plains, thousands of Chinese men migrated to Western urban centers, particularly San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their movement and settlement patterns were greatly restricted due to both discriminatory housing and employment laws, as well as general anti-Chinese sentiment, culminating in anti-Chinese riots in 1894. Chinese migration between the two urban centers was common; interviewee Keong Lee’s father moved the family from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1925, tiring of working as a cook in a Chinese restaurant and hoping for better luck in the burgeoning Los Angeles produce market.[i]
Los Angeles proved to be an ideal location for Chinese vegetable growers, both because of its climate and its vast tracts of undeveloped land. Initially, the acres east of Alameda Street, between Macy and Aliso streets, were owned by one of the earliest Angeleno families, the Apablasas; “Apple Blossom Street�? is the Anglicized name for the thoroughfare that cut through their land. This area, bounded by Macy and Aliso streets to the north and south, and Main and Juan streets on the west and east, became most of what came to be known as Chinatown (later “Old Chinatown�?). Juan Apablasa was an early employer of Chinese laborers, mostly displaced railroad laborers who worked the thousands of vines on his property. In addition to working the vineyards, many Chinese also raised beans and other vegetables, peddling them door-to-door in two sacks balanced on a bamboo pole. This process was vastly simplified by the existence of zanjas, irrigation ditches which ran along the city streets: Zanja Madre, the largest of the two, ran along the west side of Alameda Street, while Zanja 2, which later would provide water for the city’s first ice factory, ran between Chinatown and the Los Angeles River. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Chinese were discovered siphoning water from the zanjas in the dead of night to obtain water for their gardens.
Building the Produce Market
Outside of Chinatown, other Chinese entrepreneurs established large vegetable gardens in South LA, in the area now known as Watts, Lynwood and Compton, and as far down as Wilmington and San Pedro; smaller farms, many of them growing asparagus, dotted the fields of El Monte, Artesia, Fountain Valley, and La Puente.[ii] By 1880, fifty out of the sixty registered vegetable peddlers in Los Angeles County identified as Chinese, and by 1894, there were 104 licensed vegetable wagons owned by Chinese.
By the turn of the century, the agricultural business is estimated to have employed a full one-quarter of the Chinese male laboring population in California. Produce was taking its place alongside restaurants, laundry, and gambling as one of the Sei Dai Kuen (“Four Big Businesses�?,) of Chinese America , both because of untapped markets and discriminatory hiring practices, which confined Chinese to certain sectors of the service industry.[iii]
A market established by the Chinese themselves, however, was quite long in coming to fruition. Initially, the majority of vegetable selling was done around the circular Olvera Street Plaza, just South of Macy Street, where Caucasian, Japanese and Chinese farmers congregated with their goods. However, the increased presence of wagons and the long hours of the makeshift vegetable market became a nuisance to the city; in 1926, horses were legally prohibited on streets, making wagons an obsolete method for transporting produce.[iv] However, it was clear to the City of Los Angeles that the demand for fresh produce was only increasing; subsequently, it leased a vacant lot at 9th Street and Los Angeles Street to provide a more regulated space for the vegetable market. This new market, known as the Hughes Market, opened its stalls in 1901, expanding at a rapid rate until it outgrew its bounds and leased another vacant lot from the city at 3rd Street and Central in 1903, establishing the Los Angeles Market Company. Infighting amongst the shareholders and stall vendors led to the creation of two new markets in 1909; one was the City Market of Los Angeles on 9th Street and San Pedro, established by Mr. Louis Quan, while the other remained, in name, the Los Angeles Market Company, established on 6th Street and Alameda (the Southern Pacific railroad, wanting to run track through the 3rd and Central street location, exchanged this land for the lot on 6th street). Both markets grew at a tremendous rate, and while the City Market was able to expand three blocks south to 12th street, and 1 block west from San Pedro to Wall Street, the Los Angeles Market Company soon moved to a larger space on 7th and Central Streets. The construction costs, however, soon became prohibitively expensive due to war costs, and the Southern Pacific Railroad purchased the company, completing its construction and opening the Wholesale Terminal Market in 1918.
Louis Quan was an instrumental figure in the creation of the City Market, which was unique in the ethnic diversity of its vendors and clientele. Due to his English competency and business savvy, Quan was able to raise 41% of the initial capital from 373 Chinese stockholders, raising $81,850 towards the Market’s development. This contribution was exceeded only by Caucasian shareholders, who contributed $81,900, and was supplemented by Japanese owners, who contributed $36,250 towards the $200,000 investment required.
The day-to-day machinations of the market, and the community that began to develop around it, are not nearly as well-documented as the story of its legal establishment. In some cases, the oral histories of residents from “9th Street�? (around the City Market) provide our only insight. A number of these histories are from men and women who grew up in the first two decades of the 1900s, and their accounts suggest that Quan’’s business venture initiated, or at least coincided with, an increasing specialization in agriculture. While the City Market itself supplied produce wholesale to hotels and restaurants in addition to individuals, exclusively Chinese supermarkets began to cater to the taste of a growing Chinese population.[v] Several interviewees recalled that their parents often shopped at one of a few large Chinese grocery stores, such as Wing Cheung Lung and Yee Sing Cheung, which sprung up in the 9th street district and provided groceries to Chinese residents from all over Los Angeles. Some entrepreneurs, like Chung Moy Louie’s family, started produce companies to take advantage of the growing market, or rented vending stalls at City Market for $35 a month (~$800 in today’s money)[vi].
In addition, the presence of a second-generation of Chinese Americans and the developing English-speaking abilities of first and second-generation Chinese allowed for strong competition with Caucasian produce markets. The transition from truck farming and door-to-door or wagon vegetable peddling to produce brokering and wholesaling allowed the Chinese to progress in the farming business. Out of the 155 Los Angeles produce companies in 1910, the Chinese owned 17. They had, of course, to compete with certain technological factors as well; the introduction of refrigerated rail cars, which allowed produce to be shipped from the San Joaquin valley and as far as 100 miles away in mid-winter to the large Caucasian produce markets, meant that Chinese farmers and sellers had to work even harder to break even.
Some of these ventures proved quite profitable: The Louie Produce Company, founded in 1908, was able to turn a profit of $300 a month (~$7000 in today’s money); according to Chung Moy, the family did their business by streetcar, and delayed buying an automobile until 1940.[vii] To meet the rise in demand, other Chinese Californians upgraded from home vegetable plots to farms, often 20-50 acres, as did Marie Louie’s family: “My father bought an asparagus farm, and my eldest brother managed the farm. They hired other relatives and other Chinese people or sometimes Mexican people to harvest the asparagus and sold it at the City Market on 9th street.�?[viii] But while employment opportunities as a laborer might have been plentiful, S.K. Lee noted that it was “difficult to get into [the] produce business. You have to know someone to lead you in.�?[ix] Various Chinese business associations, with membership often determined by home province and kinship, was key to organizing and differentiating the growing labor force.
These new enterprises did not, however, mean a life of affluence and leisure for the majority of the 9th street district. While according to Keong (S.K.) Lee, most men working in the produce business had wives and families who remained in China,[x] discriminatory legislation, financial difficulties and cultural mores meant that the growth of Chinese households, and Chinese homeownership, were slow to develop in the States.[xi] As a result, most of the men working in the City Market lived in nearby boarding houses run by Caucasians, one of which Clarence Yip Yeu recalled being on Ninth & Wall Street, for which the Chinese boarders paid $6 a month to lodge (about $140 in today’s money).[xii] The fact that Chinese resided in such a small radius, concentrated between San Pedro and Crocker streets, was also a result of the grueling demands of the City Market: Mr. Louie recalls that, before the union was created in 1937, he worked from 8pm to 12 noon the following day, often putting in 18 hours a day.[xiii]
Others, particularly the vegetable sellers and their families, were forced to live in hastily constructed residences adjacent to the market due to the long hours and difficult labor; unlike the other two markets (Los Angeles Market Company and the Wholesale Terminal Station coexisted for a brief period), the 9th Street Market opened at 2am rather than 3 or 4am, increasing the demands on its laborers. In addition, as the City Market began to prosper, a number of Caucasian stockholders, discovering that they were not going to be able to squeeze out their Asian counterparts and thus eager to move to the Caucasian-dominated Los Angeles Market Company, pulled their investment out and insisted that the market be closed unless the Chinese and Japanese vendors could produce $100,000. Luckily, the Asparagus Association supplemented the approximately $70,000 that the Asian shareholders came up with to keep the Market open.
Despite their successes, the Chinese in the City Market also suffered intense competition from their counterparts in the business, the Japanese. Japanese Californians, who were usually more established and had English-speaking Nisei children to assist in translation of business transactions, were farming 15% of the land in Los Angeles County dedicated to produce; that is, 40,804 acres out of 270,431. With that 15%, they were producing 68% of the county’s vegetables by the 1930s, including 85% of its celery, 60% of its cauliflower, and 40% of its potatoes and cabbage.[xiv] The domination of Japanese farming and production severely depressed the Chinese American economy, to the extent that the late 1930s still saw Chinese American businesses in a deep depression, while other American businesses were emerging from the Great Depression. Many Chinese families like Mr. Chow’s were hit hard by the Great Depression, which, in addition to Japanese competition, kept the local Chinese economy so low that families often had to sleep on the floor, and there no lysee (red gift envelopes containing money) were handed out on Chinese New Year.[xv]
The role of the Chinese hui, a system originating in China and found in nearly every Chinese diaspora, became particularly important during the Great Depression. By pooling money together, groups of Chinese families, often linked by the kinship of home provinces, were able to lend significant sums to those individuals in need. The fact that the City Market continued to employ mostly Chinese meant that the produce market was keeping more families afloat than simply the vendors’. Tyrus Wong explained how he was able to get an education during the Depression despite his family’s financial difficulties:
And then that was during Depression times and my dad says gee, I don’t have that kind of money, and I know in your heart, you’d like to go to art school and he wanted me to go to art school. So he asked some friends from our old the same village back in China, from the City Market, they were all young men making good money so I asked him about it and he could borrow money for that. So he borrowed $100 and he said well son, here’s $100 for you to go to Otis and so forth, but this money isn’t mine and I borrowed it, so I have to pay them back! So I want you to promise me to really work hard and I said I will. So I’m assuming he must have paid them back afterwards. That part I don’t remember or not, but he, that was very nice of him.[xvi]
This form of rotating credit reflects a tight community, one based largely on extended kinship, and one which was greatly concerned with the welfare of its members. When Eleanor Soo Hoo was asked how the Great Depression affected her family on 9th street, she replied:
…It didn’t really affect us. Because my brother-in-law was in the produce market so it didn’t affect him.
WG: How did his being in the produce market help you?
ESH: Well, they had plenty of food, Some, they distributed to people that didn’t have anything.
WG: Did you know Chinese that were affected by the Depression?
ESH: Well Chinese. They don’t spend a lot of money on a lot of things.
WG: So can you think of any examples of Chinese that were hard hit?
ESH: No. Because you know a lot the Chinese people would go to these family associations they would take care of them.
WG: When you say take care of them you mean…
ESH: They would give them food and lodging. And that’s all they needed.
WG: So these family associations worked as a kind of welfare system?
ESH: Yes right.[xvii]
The Chinese community thus became a source of both economic and social support. With the destruction of Old Chinatown in 1933 to make way for Union Station, some displaced Chinese residents began to create a community around the City Market in the late 1920s, making the nearby streets of West Adams a kind of Chinese suburb. Other families lived on Crocker, 9th, 10th streets and Towne Ave.[xviii] As a result of this proximity, and because New Chinatown and China City would not be built until five years later, it was the City Market that became, at least temporarily, a stable Chinatown for Los Angeles in the pre-WWII years. The oral histories provide us with some insight into the differences between the “Old Chinatown�? and the new 9th street district:
WG: How was the Chinatown on 9th St. different than Chinatown?
PSH: It’s smaller a little more spread out. You really couldn’t identify it as a Chinatown, but there were a lot of Chinese grocery stores and the Ninth street market was close by. There was a church there, and some Chinese residents. I’m not sure what the numbers were but enough to make it look like a Chinatown but it wasn’t.[xix]
WG: What was the difference between Old Chinatown and Ninth St?
ML: The old Chinatown had been there a long long time and then the Union Station was built there so they had to move away. They couldn’t seem to find one specific place to move to. A group would move here, a group would move there. A little group went to China City, which was on Spring and Ord, another group went to the main Chinatown on north Broadway and another group went to Ninth and San Pedro. There were a lot of produce houses there. So there was a small Chinatown with some stores and restaurants. Hong Kong Noodle Company was there. Sometimes my mom would pick me up after school and we’d go to Ninth Street that was closer than going to Chinatown and we would buy what we needed.[xx]
WG: In terms of this area around the produce market, the 9th street area. The difference between 9th Street Chinatown and Chinatown itself… Was there ever any tensions between the people?
JY: They were different types of people. They were more or less professional. They owned business. They lived in homes, old homes. But they had their own bathrooms that we didn’t have. We lived in flats and took baths in big tin tubs. We didn’t have any hot water. The people in 9th Street might have been a little more affluent than we were.
WG: Was there ever any rivalry?
JY: No no. Must have been a lot of envy what they had and what we had. The break up of Chinatown was in two phases. East of Alameda they were evacuated about five years before west of alameda. We were the west part. We didn’t move until during the war. That’s when my family move in with my brother. Prior to that, the east part of alameda moved about five years [earlier]. So it was in two phases. They got out of the ghetto before we did. Lets put it this way. They were more Americanized.[xxi]
The influx of Chinese families from Old Chinatown, joining with the already present Chinese families near the City Market, created a need for a number of newly-built institutions, such as schools and churches, which eventually had an exclusively Chinese membership. Children who had remained in China, or were sent there for schooling, now arrived in the United States as a result of the Japanese invasion of China in 1939, further changing the dynamic of a Chinese bachelor society.[xxii] The younger ones attended the 9th Street Elementary School, often working alongside their parents in the produce market all morning before attending.[xxiii] Rodney Chow, a teenager at the time, recalled that the junior high school in the 9th street district had a mostly black population, and that many Chinese children used false addresses in order to enroll elsewhere. Many of them seem to have returned to the area to attend Poly High School, where Mr. Chow recalls high school students making extra money by pulling rickshaws for tourists; others were able to make $25 a week (~$600 today) as an all-around helper at the grocery store.[xxiv]
Years of Plenty
This change in fortunes for the 9th street Chinese came almost overnight with the passage of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The hasty internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps along the West coast meant that all Japanese businesses, the majority of which were farms, produce wholesale and brokering companies, and grocery stores, had to be sold immediately for far below market value. Chinese and Caucasian entrepreneurs were quick to seize this opportunity, leasing or buying up much of this property for rock-bottom prices. Along with the employment of thousands of Chinese in the war industries, the elimination of Japanese competition, which had comprised 10% of Los Angeles food stores, created a massive boon in the Chinese American economy by the mid 1940s.
The City Market, and the Los Angeles Chinese population, underwent significant changes as a result of the economic surge during World War II. This meant, however, that many residents were now able to work outside of Chinatown in various war industries, and in some cases to move outside of the area with the increase in salary. There seem to be multiple hypotheses for the collapse of the City Market’s prominence by 1950. Mr. Louie cited the lack of re-investment in farmland that he felt characterized many Chinese businesses: “The landlord offered to sell the Louie family farmland for $30 an acre, the Louie family rejected the offer and replied: ‘You keep your land, I keep my $30. I take my $30 home to buy an acre of good land. I can pass my life easy.�?[xxv] Mr. Louie noted that this led to increasing transience of the Chinese American population, which was not tied to the land in the same way as the Japanese, who began to reestablish themselves in the produce business after their release from internment. The return of Japanese Californians also changed the landscape of the City Market “Chinatown�?:
WG: Was there any problems…After the war, how did the neighborhood become Japanese again?
JY: Slowly. Slowly. They were moving them out. There was quite a few Chinese restaurants down there. They almost had to close up too because they lost all that Japanese business.
WG: Did the people that were living give the businesses back? How exactly did it work?
JY: I guess they couldn’t make it. And slowly the Japanese came back in. Just like the produce. Same thing. All the produce, about 25%, were owned by Japanese. And they lost everything. A lot of these big places. Venice celery. Lot of big produce down there owned by Japanese. They lost everything. But they came back. They were so industrial [sic].[xxvi]
The construction of China City and New Chinatown, the slow breaking down of discriminatory housing practices, and the outmigration of second-generation Chinese Americans to employment opportunities beyond Chinatown all contributed to the decline in the City Market community. The majority of its residents moved to the area between New Chinatown and China City, bounded by Sunset Blvd and Bernard Street on the north and south, and Yale and Alameda Streets on the west and east. This sharp post-war decline in City Market population meant that it lost much of its prominence as a community and residential center for Chinese Americans. By 1952, only 25 Chinese families remained in the City Market area. Today, the City Market remains an integral part of downtown Los Angeles, but is no longer a Chinese American hub as it was half a century ago. Though there are a number of Chinese produce sellers occupying stalls, the Market has begun to focus its attention on the wholesale merchandising of garments, made more relevant by the fact that the City Market is now adjacent to the Fashion District.
Tara Fickle is a third-year Ph.D. student in the English Department at UCLA. Her interests include Asian American Studies, Women’s Studies, and Contemporary American Literature.
A Note on Oral Histories
William Chew Chan, Frank Y.C. Sam, Clarence Yip Yeu, Keong (S.K.) Lee, Rodney H. how, Chung Moy Louie, and Gilbert Leong were all interviewed as part of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project, 1978-1991. The transcripts were retrieved from the University of California, Los Angeles Library: Department of Special Collections, Collection #1688.
All other cited interviews are part of the most recent CHSSC Oral History Project; transcripts were received from William Gow, and specific information about each interview can be found in the respective footnotes.
[i] Keong (S.K.) Lee, Oral History Transcript.
[xvii] Eleanor Soo Hoo, Oral History Transcript. Interviewed by William Gow, October 7, 2007.