Things You Might Not Know
About Los Angeles New Chinatown
Chinatown Central Plaza was the first land that Chinese-Americans were allowed to own. Most people have never heard of the discrimination endured by Chinese immigrants in the USA due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882-1943. The original Old Chinatown stood for 85 years at Alameda and Los Angeles Streets, but was demolished to make way for Union Station. The people who came to America in the 1850s to build the railroad-- lost their homes and businesses to the railroad. The only piece of Old Chinatown that remains today is the Garnier Building in El Pueblo, now the home of the Chinese American Museum.
After their old neighborhood was gone, a coalition of original families came together to build a New Chinatown. Not allowed to become citizens, or own land as individuals, they pooled their money, formed an Association, sold shares and with the help of an understanding man from the Santa Fe Railway, the families bought a dusty rail yard and built, by themselves, their new vision for Central Plaza. The shopping experience would be the first of its kind, offering a harmony of ancient tradition and youthful spirit, uniquely Chinese-American. The first families created their vision 17 years before Disneyland.
New Chinatown opened on June 25, 1938. The destination was an immediate hit with LA and the Hollywood crowd. For half a century, this was the place to come--- to find the best Chinese food, antiques, curios, music and night life. Hundreds of people filled the streets until the wee hours. The fledgling Association became the Los Angeles Chinatown Corporation, comprised of original families who today, still seek to maintain it for the benefit of the Chinatown community. Central Plaza is a time capsule, but the founders are still here-- working in the small family businesses to raise and educate the next generation. Explore the shops, restaurants and clubs on the private walk streets, Gin Ling Way, Mei Ling Way, Jung Jing Road, Lei Min Way, Sun Mun Way. Cross Hill Street to West Plaza and Chung King Road. The past feels very close, and many folks believe the ancestors are still here watching over us. One can sense the heart and soul they gave to Chinatown.
Some special places in Central Plaza: The Wishing Well is called the Seven Star Caverns. It’s a scale model of a real mountain in Canton, where the locals believe Immortals live. Professor Henry Liu built the structure by modeling handfuls of concrete over rebar in 1939. It is said that throwing a coin with your back turned will grant a hidden wish that only your soul can see. You can sense here, the echo of millions and millions of wishes wished over 82 years. The community is trying to save for its restoration. (Underneath the wishing well, there remains a giant cauldron that was used to melt iron for the railway, too heavy to remove.)
Once upon a time, there was a Willow Tree behind the Wishing Well. The tree was planted by actress Anna May Wong for Paramount Pictures in honor of the community. Anna May’s parents owned a laundry here. As a kid, Anna loved movies and she became the first Chinese American movie star, reaching the height of her career in the movie, Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich. Anna May is one of the 5 actresses on the silver statue at Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea.
The DSR Design Building was originally called the Dragon Tower. Over the red front door is the painting, Dragon Chasing Pearl, created by Tyrus Wong in 1941. Tyrus was a talented young artist who was discovered by Walt Disney to illustrate Bambi. Tyrus went on to work 26 years as a production illustrator where he painted and sketched concept art for hundreds of films including Rebel Without A Cause, Harper, The Wild Bunch, and The Sands of Iwo Jima. Chinese Dragons are the most powerful protectors of the people- they can fly back and forth so fast between heaven and ocean, they can change the weather. Look closely, you will see the Dragon chases a pearl. A pearl signifies wisdom; thus the Dragon is chasing a pearl of wisdom. Tyrus Wong, born in 1910, could be often seen flying his magnificent home-made kites on the Santa Monica beach until his death in December 2016. A documentary about his life, Tyrus, has been released, produced with funds raised by the community.
The magenta-pink building on the north of the square, Realm, was opened as a restaurant in 1939.
For 82 years, this place survived countless different incarnations, including two 5-Star restaurants, a USO center during World War II, and the Hong Kong Café, a famous venue for punk rock bands. The building was restored with original details as Realm, a modern store for the home. Realm closed in 2019, yielding to the Realm Chinatown Art Salon, the only gallery in Chinatown specifically focused on Chinese-American artists. Now it stands vacant once again, waiting for the next dreamer. During all this time, in the foyer of Realm, in a spot originally designed for this very purpose, has stood the marble statue of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion---the One who hears the cries of the world. It is said that repeating her name, Kwan Yin, will heal problems or sorrows, but only if you ask without a selfish heart. (There is another rendition of Kwan Yin inside the front door on the left of the KG Louie shop, a figure that is said to have appeared at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The wood carving illustrates how Kwan Yin with many hands and many tools can help anyone with a grateful heart.) Inside Realm, you will notice the original ceiling tiles depict a second creature with the Dragon— the Phoenix, or Bird of Fire. The female Phoenix and male Dragon are soul-mates, and when seen together are particularly lucky and auspicious.
The newly painted blue and yellow building on Sun Mun Way was the popular Rice Bowl Restaurant. But in the 1970s, the forward-thinking owner, Esther Wong, began to host rock and alternative bands and Madame Wong’s became the house for emerging music, such as The Police, The Go-Go’s, and Guns N’ Roses. Between Madame Wong’s, the Hong Kong Café, General Lee’s and the Grand Star Jazz Club, Central Plaza at night was a vibrant place to come in the early days of new wave. Today the Madame Wong’s building is the re-imagined ToCo Haus, a private residence with commercial space below, respecting the past and future.
The two Lion creatures you will see flanking doorways are Foo Dogs or Lion-Dogs---brave and fierce Protectors. But because the Lions are also Half-Dog, they are playful, welcoming, and always happy to see you. One Foo Dog is male with a ball under his paw. He protects earth and property. The 2nd Foo Dog is Female, with a pup under her paw. She protects life. The Male and Female Foo Dogs must always stand both together and equal, for the world to be in harmony.
About the old wooden Gateways: The green East Gate on Broadway is the Gate of Maternal Virtues.
It was built by founder, Y. C. Hong, whose immigrant father died working on the railroad. Raised by his single mother, he became the first Chinese American lawyer in Southern California, and worked tirelessly for the civil rights of all people from the law offices on the 2nd floor of the blue Hong Building. Mr. Hong’s offices are perfectly restored as they appeared when new in 1938. The East Broadway Gateway honors parents everywhere. The 4 characters across the top are to remind children to revere their parents. It is said that devotion to family is the first role a child plays in life. If the child can master this role, then s/he can master any role in life.
Beside the Broadway Gate, presides a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary who first brought the ideas of democracy and freedom to the Chinese people. He is so important to the Chinese immigrants who came to America, they surround his statue with hundreds of flowers every year on the dates of his birth and death, November 12 and April 12. Over on the Hill Street side, you will see the red West Gateway. The 4 characters across the top are translated "Cooperate to Achieve". The West Gate honors the Chinese railroad workers who united our country and stands for the idea that one cannot do great things alone.
Our newest symbol of honor is the Bruce Lee statue, the very first in the United States. Bruce Lee’s contributions to martial arts and action films are legendary, but his true legacy was breaking down racial barriers and creating a philosophy of inclusion that continues to inspire people the world over. Los Angeles Chinatown joined with the Bruce Lee Foundation and the Lee family and raised donations for the permanent placement of the statue, and in the future, they hope to restore the two Gateways. Here in Central Plaza, the sons and daughters of the first families of Chinatown, many of whom are professionals in their own lives, continue to honor the legacy of their parents by working to preserve the old shops, restaurants and night clubs. Young Chinese and American entrepreneurs are here too, with new ideas in cutting-edge fashion, art, music and cuisine. The old and young are in harmony. Explore the streets and shops here. Everyone welcomes you.