Art Scene Breathes Life Into Chinatown


Los Angeles’ long-beleaguered Chinatown is becoming a trendy place--a popular evening destination for non-Asians.

Some merchants believe the influx of an avant-garde crowd, drawn by a blossoming art scene, is a precursor to “mainstreaming” Chinatown, in the spirit of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade or Old Pasadena.

Nowhere is the change more evident than on Chung King Road, a quaint pocket of art and curio shops tucked away at the western edge of Chinatown.

By day, the sound of wind chimes and the scent of incense wafting in the alley evoke an era when Chinatown was a thriving neighborhood as well as a spiritual magnet to Southern California’s Chinese.


But by night, an artsy crowd in studded belts, multicolored hair and jewelry sticking out of pierced eyebrows and chins adds a new dimension to Chung King Road, an exquisite back street where a wishing well filled with goldfish is guarded by a statue of Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy.

The new arrivals are drawn to the half-dozen non-Chinese-owned contemporary galleries, two studios and a clothing boutique that have opened in the last two years.

Business and community leaders, who have created an assessment district to promote and finance the revitalization, are at times giddy.

“We’re getting Westsiders!” said Keng Ong, whose family owns Wing Hop Fung Ginseng & China Products, among the biggest businesses in Chinatown. “I am hoping that this will be the future of Chinatown.”


The contrast is stark between the newcomers, mostly white and young, and the Chinese old-timers in their waning years living above the shops behind colorful balconies. It’s not uncommon to see a stooped figure, carrying a plastic grocery bag, shuffling toward her quarters on a weekend night, seemingly oblivious to a party at a gallery on her street.

Merchants who have bemoaned the decline of Chinatown since the 1980s generally welcome the diversification. Some go so far as to say that it may be the start of Chinatown’s renaissance. But others, such as Kenneth Lee, whose family has owned the Jade Tree art store since 1943, said that unless it develops ample, inexpensive parking, Chinatown won’t be able to sustain all the tourists, diners and shoppers it needs for a thriving economy.

Chinatown community and business leaders started the revival of the 25-square-block area two years ago by creating the nonprofit Los Angeles Chinatown Business Council. Last August, despite considerable opposition, the council persuaded a majority of the Chinatown property owners to vote for a business improvement district that assessed property owners from $50 to $94,000 a year. That raises about $1.2 million a year for a private security patrol, beautification and programs to lure people to Chinatown.

On a recent Friday evening, an artist who opened a gallery last year on Chung King Road teamed up with the business council to throw a combined farewell party for a retiring proprietor and art exhibit.

The occasion drew hundreds to the courtyard-like alley, lit up with lanterns of vermilion, green and yellow, as if it were a Buddha’s birthday celebration.

“Chinatown has turned the corner,” said George Yu, coordinator of the business council. “The art community has been unbelievably supportive.”

Yu marveled at the encounter of old and new, East and West. “Earlier in the evening, you could hear the sound of the mah-jongg tiles” being moved on the Chinese chessboard from the apartments above the galleries.

Half a century ago, a merchant had to be Chinese--a Chinese with a Chinatown connection at that--to lease space on Chung King Road. Gim Fong, an artisan who owns Fong’s Oriental Works of Art, remembers it well.


Now, after a lifetime in Chinatown, Fong accepts changes, including the arrival of contemporary galleries, as inevitable.

“Chinatown is going international,” he said with a sardonic smile.

Like Fong, most shopkeepers on Chung King Road are second-generation Chinese Americans on the brink of retirement.

“We’re not going to be here forever,” said Ming Chuen Fong, Gim Fong’s cousin, who owns F. See On art store, around the corner. The business has been in the family since his father started it in 1872 in Old Chinatown, the site of today’s Union Station. But the cousins are aware, as are other shopkeepers, that their children and grandchildren have no intention of taking over. Someone new will move in.

“I don’t look forward to that day,” said Dick Rundall, an art collector who has been frequenting Chung King Road for 35 years and is often seen having lunch with owners.

Ming Kuen Fong has nothing against the new owners, but can’t help but wonder how their presence will affect the character of Chinatown. “When people come to Chinatown they expect to see Chinese, don’t you think?”

Newcomers to Chung King Road say they love it there.

“It’s unique and so neighborly,” said Joel Meslev, who lives above his gallery. Chinatown denizens like Jean Yung, 77--the owner of the Happy Lion Arts & Crafts, which closed this month--remind him of his Jewish grandmother, always offering people something to eat. Meslev, who grew up in the Fairfax area, said he wants to fit into Chinatown’s tradition, history and sense of community because those are the qualities that attracted him.


Inmo Yuon, the lone Korean gallery owner on the block, says he wants to see the area blossom into a world class gallery row.

“L.A. is too provincial,” he said.

Inside his museum-like store, Gim Fong turns the yellowed pages of his photo albums to reminisce about his half-century on the block.

“We had so much fun in the old days,” he said, recalling that business was so good, merchants on Chung King Road kept their stores open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and until midnight on weekends.

Makeup of Area Has Changed

Chinatown has been changing all along.

In the 1870s, Chinese and Mexicans lived and worked side by side in Old Chinatown near Olvera Street. Some intermarried.

After Chinese were forced to move to make room for Union Station, they settled in what is now New Chinatown.

Until the dramatic influx of Asian immigrants in the mid 1970s and 1980s, Chinatown merchants and residents--like most Chinese Americans at the time--traced their heritage to Cantonese-speaking southern China. Many also had roots in America, some dating to the railroad workers who arrived here in the 19th century.

Today’s Chinatown, with ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia and other parts of the world, is a richer mixture.

The new arrivals may be mostly white, but merchants note that the mixing of the races has been going on in their homes already.

“My grandsons are blond; they don’t look like Chinese at all,” said Ming Chuen Fong. “That’s part of the trend in the whole society, isn’t it?”

“It’s a new century, so it’s time for new people to come,” said Keng Ong, a recent UCLA economics graduate who, unlike most younger Chinese, chose to work in the family business. “It’s time for new thinking; it’s time for new business models.”