A City’s Chinese Passage

Times Staff Writer

During the day, the faded red lanterns that crisscross Chung King Road in Chinatown dangle listlessly above a row of Chinese antique and trinket shops that have seen better times.

But on a recent Saturday night, after the gates on the Chinese shops were pulled down, another Chinatown sprang to life near L.A.'s downtown.

Modern art galleries that have filled Chinatown’s storefronts in recent years opened, and the red lanterns were illuminated. A mostly bohemian crowd jostled to view abstract drawings and photographs of Brazilian prostitutes. Amid the fashionably dressed visitors drinking Mexican beer and smoking cigarettes, an elderly Chinese woman scoured the street for empty cans, even accepting ones out of the hands of art patrons.

These days, there are two Chinatowns -- one on the rise, the other on the decline.


The old Chinatown -- the one established as an entry point for Chinese immigrants, made up of long-standing family associations and shops that celebrate China’s traditions -- is struggling. The population is aging, merchants are starved for shoppers and the associations can’t attract younger members.

The new Chinatown -- the one of art galleries, loft developments and trendy boutiques celebrating modern Asian fashion -- is booming. It’s a community more about style than tradition, created by a mix of white artists and second- and third-generation Chinese Americans who came from the suburbs to form their own vision of Chinatown.

The transformation has been occurring gradually over the last six years but now appears to be shifting into overdrive. Loft conversions, mixed-use projects and luxury apartments are on the horizon. Director Quentin Tarantino has even bought an old theater where he plans to show Asian films.

The situation has created a culture clash. Some old-timers complain about the rowdy behavior of the new patrons. There are periodic flare-ups over art shows that some longtime Chinatown merchants consider too racy. Some elderly residents worry about being pushed out by gentrification.

“They’re North Pole and we’re South Pole,” said Michael Han, a jade cutter whose jewelry store, Win Sun Co., has been a mainstay on Chung King Road for 30 years. “There’s no way for the two to get together. They’ve got people with nose rings, earrings, all those things. They come in here asking if they can use the restroom. I’m not offended; it’s just the trend.”


In the back room of his jewelry store, Han was playing a noisy game of mah-jongg with three elderly friends and bantering in Cantonese. The septuagenarian also speaks Mandarin, Taiwanese and Toisanese -- a true mark of an old-timer, because some of Chinatown’s earliest settlers were from an area in southern China’s Guangdong province where it is spoken.

Though he is ethnically Chinese, Han grew up in Burma and left for the U.S. in the 1960s. He landed in Chinatown, like most Chinese immigrants of that time. He fondly remembers the 1970s, its boom period.

“It was so busy I never had a chance to have lunch,” said Han. “Jade was very fashionable.”

Han’s store is on the ground floor of a peach-colored building. He rarely sits behind his glass counters, which display hundreds of jade and gold necklaces, earrings and bracelets. He’s lucky to get one customer on some weekdays, so playing mah-jongg in the back room has become part of his daily routine.

Han still sends out 500 Christmas cards each year to the regular customers he’s accumulated in three decades of business. Many haven’t been to the store in years.

In Chung King Road’s golden era, Han’s business was one of many high-end dealers in art, furniture, ceramics and jewelry. But by the end of the 20th century, many patrons had passed on, and reproductions of Chinese antiques were being mass-produced.

Most of the merchants’ children have college educations and little interest in taking over the stores. Han’s son is a robotics engineer and his daughter is a teacher.

Shop after shop has closed on Chung King Road, leaving behind only some of the more well-known businesses, such as F. See On, the Jade Tree and Fong’s Oriental Works of Art.

By the late 1990s, property owners were desperate to lease out the empty storefronts, so they took a gamble. They lowered rents and leased the spaces to rising artists, who considered the rents a bargain compared to places like Santa Monica. Over the next few years, the scene took off.

Today there are about a dozen art galleries on the street. They have formed one of the most talked-about contemporary art scenes in the world.

Han and other merchants were optimistic when the galleries arrived, hoping they would bring more customers. But they soon realized that the galleries were not going to substantially boost business, in part because many drew crowds only for Saturday night exhibitions.

At times, the two cultures cannot appear to be further apart. Wounds are still fresh from a controversy last year, when one gallery displayed nude paintings of men having sex. Locals were outraged. The gallery agreed to obscure its artwork by frosting its storefront windows.

The remaining Chinese merchants obsessively count the new galleries, looking for the familiar clean whitewashed walls and studio lighting. They peer inside the spaces and struggle to comprehend the meaning of the abstract art and the prices the pieces demand.

“What is it?” asked Alex Cheung, owner of an antiques store, jabbing his finger at a newspaper clipping showing a tub of steaming tar used for an art installation at a nearby gallery several years ago.

“It’s so weird,” said his wife, Lily, surrounded by amber-colored Chinese furniture and blue-and-white porcelain in the couple’s store. “I once saw a hand-carved wooden flower for $20,000. It was just hanging on a wall. Maybe we should get into modern art?”

Later, Roger Herman, an art instructor at UCLA whose Chinatown gallery is in a former kung fu studio, visited Cheung’s store. Herman was looking for more of the same ivory necklaces he had bought there before.

“He’s a dying breed,” Herman said of Cheung, who at 56 has run the store more than half his life.

Herman and his business partner, Hubert Schmalix, have begun collecting rare Chinese pottery but say it is hard to find in the new Chinatown.

“Too many art galleries now,” Herman said.

“Are these galleries here for the long term?” Lily Cheung, 50, asked Herman.

“I think so,” Herman said. “I think the galleries have reached critical mass.”

The Cheungs have reason to be nervous. They used to have twice the space, but the landlord raised the rent when more galleries came calling. So the immigrants from Hong Kong canceled the lease on a space next door. It has been taken over by art dealers from London and Berlin.

“I’m lucky to have a few old clients, but we’re still struggling,” Alex Cheung said, standing behind his counter. On the wall behind him is a framed black-and-white photograph of him shaking hands with the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

Herman said he is keenly aware that he helped create the scene that now is pushing out merchants like the Cheungs.

“I wish we had more art dealers from China here,” Herman said as he paid and prepared to leave.

Alex Cheung walked out onto Chung King Road and stared at the lanterns and a tan-colored loudspeaker screwed to the wall across from his shop.

“We used to have Chinese music play on the street,” he said. “It’s very sad. They stopped it when the art galleries came. Their heart isn’t in it like us.”


If there’s one place where a visitor can simultaneously witness Chinatown’s demise and promise, it is Central Plaza.

The square offers ample postcard fodder with its neon-tinted gate off Broadway, stone wishing well, pagoda and curved tile roofs.

Storekeepers, many of them the owners of the buildings they work in, spend hours behind their counters, often selling not much more than soda and noisemakers.

Across the way, the street scene bursts with life.

There is Via Cafe, an always busy Vietnamese diner that’s popular with artists; Ziyi Art in Fashion, a gift shop owned by a recent Miss Chinatown contestant; and Munky King, a devilishly decorated art-toy store that sells rare pieces by underground artists from Asia to America.

Roger Hong, who until last year owned the buildings those businesses are in, has spent much of his time pushing for new blood in Chinatown.

“We felt that the children who left Chinatown would come back if things were more trendy,” Hong, 63, said over dim sum at Empress Pavilion. “Chinatown doesn’t have to perpetuate an identity of being a self-protective enclave. They have to change.”

Hong’s family has deep roots in Chinatown. His father was famed immigration attorney You Chung Hong, the first Chinese American to pass the California bar exam. He became a pillar of the community when Central Plaza was opened in 1938.

“There’s no need for Chinatowns anymore,” Hong said. “It’s not a place just for the underprivileged anymore.”

Perhaps the most stylish store in Central Plaza is Realm, a home accessories business nothing like the neighboring trinket shops. The wares are trendy and often expensive. Some offer a modern twist on Asian culture, such as the cocktail glasses bearing Andy Warhol-like impressions of Japanese Emperor Hirohito.

Realm is the vision of Richard Liu, a Chinese American architect who sees the store as a metaphor for what Chinatown should become. He’s part of the new generation of younger Chinese Americans who say they want to change Chinatown’s image as a sleepy place where one can get cheap food and bargains on kitschy items such as back scratchers and silk robes.

“We need to break out of thinking that Chinatown is dirty, cheap and crowded,” Liu said. “People should go to Beijing and Shanghai today and see how different it is. There’s state-of-the-art architecture, merchandising and technology. This has to be represented here.”

Liu, a 49-year-old USC graduate, grew up in Silver Lake. He moved into a former bank building in Central Plaza four years ago, when the gallery scene was in its infancy.

Liu is sensitive to the complaints of old-timers that Chinatown is losing its Chinese identity. But he sees his store and others as introducing a fresher look at Asian culture: “For this area to survive, we needed people who were willing to come in and sacrifice their time to try something new.”

Something new definitely is occurring. On weekend nights, Chinatown’s narrow walkways are filled with young people of many ethnicities.

Downtown loft developers have caught the vibe. “Chinatown is one of those best-kept secrets,” said Kate Bartolo, senior vice president for Kor Realty Group, which is planning a development.

On a recent Saturday night, Central Plaza’s main square was rented out for a non-Chinese wedding, the first of its kind at the location. Seniors at the Hop Sing Tong Benevolent Assn., accustomed to playing Chinese checkers and mah-jongg, instead pulled out chairs and sat in the courtyard. They watched with curiosity as party-goers in suits and gowns chomped on bok choy and pot stickers and listened to a DJ spinning records.