Founders’ Feast : Four ‘New Chinatown’ Creators Honored on 50th Anniversary
It was a group of 28 men and women, facing eviction from the old Los Angeles Chinatown, who decided to go a mile north and create another enclave on a vacant railroad yard.
They became known as “the founders.” That was after they built their brightly colored buildings with the tiled pagoda roofs, between North Broadway and North Hill streets, and opened New Chinatown on June 25, 1938.
They were wildly successful, and were later rumored to be very rich, as the area became a tourist attraction. But in the beginning, people thought they were crazy.
“People said it was too far away from the old Chinatown,” Lucille Soo Hoo Yee recalled. “They didn’t like it. There was nothing around.”
Yee was one of the founders, and is one of just five who are still alive. Sunday night the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California honored her and three others--the fifth could not be located--at a “progressive” dinner held at three of the oldest restaurants in Chinatown.
The event kicked off a number of celebrations planned to celebrate the historic area’s 50th year, which will include special walking tours, a carnival later this month, and daily firecracker displays between June 25 and Labor Day.
About 200 people first ate dim sum, or Chinese tea cakes, at Hong Kong Low, a restaurant facing “New” Chinatown’s main square, which society officials believe was one of the first pedestrian malls in Southern California.
Then they went to Grand Star Restaurant, which in 1946 had replaced a penny arcade put up shortly after Chinatown opened. There they were greeted by 91-year-old “Mama” Quon, a fixture in Chinatown who started Grand Star with her late husband. Diners ate her “Mama Quon Specials,"--oxtail soup, pork hash with duck liver, and vegetables--Cantonese dishes locals call “Chinese soul food.”
Last, they had Peking duck at Grandview Gardens, which Historical Society president Angi Ma Wong said is “the oldest continuously operated Chinese restaurant under the same name in Los Angeles.”
One of the surviving founders at the dinner, Norman Wong, now 73, said Grandview Gardens had originally been in “old Chinatown,” where it had been started by his father.
City and railroad officials had told Chinatown residents in 1934 that they would have to get out, to make way for Union Station on Alameda Avenue, according to Wong, who was born in China but came to Los Angeles at age 6.
The local Chinese community began to develop in the late 1860s when laborers were brought in to build a wagon road near Newhall. By 1890, the population grew to about 2,000, concentrated in what is now the station area, behind Olvera Street.
Many of the early Chinese had farms out in the Adams area and were vegetable peddlers, Angi Wong said. “Later they were taken over by the Japanese, but in the beginning it was Chinese.”
Looking for a Site
After the eviction was announced, Lucille Soo Hoo, then a girl, born and raised in Chinatown, trailed after her older brother, Peter, as he went looking for sites to relocate, she recalled. An engineer with the city’s Department of Water and Power, Peter Soo Hoo discovered the large lot owned by the Santa Fe Railway, and arranged with a railway agent, Herbert Lapham, to buy it. In a time when discrimination against Chinese was the norm, Lapham reputedly was very sensitive to their plight.
“We were uprooted, the government didn’t give us any money for anything,” Marjorie Quon Ong, another surviving founder, said. “We had to do this on our own.”
Lapham arranged to sell the land to the fledgling Los Angeles Chinatown Corp. for just 75 cents a square foot. A bronze plaque in Chinatown’s main square listing the founders’ names also carries a small portrait of Lapham, the only Caucasian so honored.
Today, local businessmen say, the same property is worth more than $125 a square foot.
Norman Wong, who had worked in his father’s restaurant all his life, said other Chinese at first wanted to go to 9th Street, and indeed some did. Others ended up in “China City,” a complex of about 50 shops opened in 1939 behind Spring Street but which later burned down.
But Wong was sure the nay-sayers were wrong about New Chinatown. “It cannot be a gamble. A lot of the buildings (in Old Chinatown) were too old,” he remembered. “This was going to be new.” When it opened, New Chinatown had 18 stores and a bean cake factory.
Reading and Watching
The tiny, bright-eyed man has sold Grandview Gardens and now lives in Eagle Rock, but still likes to spend every day in Chinatown, he said. He reads newspapers and sits around the corporation’s offices, located behind the wishing well in the main square. From its windows, he can see what’s going on at the restaurant.
By the time old Chinatown was demolished, another of the founders, George K. Wong, now 82, already had moved his wholesale fish market out of old Chinatown onto Spring Street. “It was hard work,” he said, starting at 7 a.m., taking telephone orders and making deliveries to more than 45 restaurants around the city, six days a week. China City grew up “right behind me,” he said, but when Peter Soo Hoo asked him, he invested in New Chinatown.
He did so because Soo Hoo was a long-time friend, he said. “When we started it was $500 a share. I put $500 down. Money got tight, I gave another $500.” He gave his shares back to the corporation in the 1950s, however, when he retired. The rule of the corporation was, he said, that “you could not sell, forever. They don’t want to foul the plate.” He now lives in Elysian Valley and often travels.
Marjorie Quon Ong, 70, now lives in Monterey Park, after retiring 12 years ago from the City of Los Angeles, where she had been chief city clerk. But she spent her childhood going to the Appaplassa Street Elementary School, in old Chinatown, and then going to her father’s restaurant, Tuey Far Low, started in the 1860s, where she filled in as cashier.
Since she was bilingual, she accompanied her father when he went to the New Chinatown site, or to see city officials. “I used to be the chauffeur. I was their interpreter,” she said, “with the construction people, and the architectural consultants.” Her father then arranged for her to have shares in the new corporation, “because of all the work I did.”
“We have our own town, all built by Chinese money. It was worth it,” Ong said.