A Chinese Town Underground

Vague reports have spun a web of myths around the so-called Chinese Underground--where the bulk of Los Angeles' first Chinese families lived and worked.

Little is known about the extent of the network of tunnels and interconnected basements below the Old Plaza area, except for historic references that often reflected a marked discrimination against the population of "Chinee" in the 19th Century.

In 1861, Chung Chick opened the first Chinese store on Spring Street opposite the Court House. The Chinese population at the time was 21 men and eight women, working as servants and running laundries.

Nigger's Alley (La Calle de los Negros) became the heart of the city's first Chinatown--and was also known as El Pueblo's Barbary Coast, filled with gamblers and lawless, trigger-happy drifters in the aftermath of the Gold Rush.

The narrow thoroughfare that led from Aliso Street to the Plaza was not more than 40 feet wide and just one block long and was the city's toughest neighborhood.

Chinese activity was limited to growing vegetables, to "cheap labor" on the railroads, to running small shops, laundries and opium dens. Much of this took place in the basements of the underground where Chinese families huddled in a humid unhealthy environment.

Most of the Chinese domain lay below the Garnieri building, where the Hollywood freeway now dips under Los Angeles street, where the Union Depot now stands and below Pico House and the Merced Theater. City tours today include a look at these basements.

For those who came west to settle in Los Angeles in the late 1800s, there were mixed feelings about this "bloodstained Eden," which in 1871 was the scene of the Chinese massacre, one of the darkest chapters in the history of Los Angeles, following a night of mayhem and lynching that left numbers of innocent Chinese dead.

When old Chinatown was razed in the 1930s to make way for the new Union Passenger Terminal (completed in 1939), most of the population of old Chinatown was relocated to China City, a group of renovated buildings resembling a Chinese village.

New Chinatown was started from scratch in 1936 through the efforts of Peter Soo Hoo and celebrated its opening in 1938. In spite of devastating fires in the late 1930s and the mid-1940s, Chinatown remains a gem in the crown of La Reina.

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