In its heyday, Empress Pavilion fielded an army of 100 employees that brought the restaurant to life at dawn; a crew of 20 prep cooks chopped vegetables, wrapped dumplings and crimped shumai.
When doors opened at 9 a.m., a squadron of waitresses armed with steam carts fanned out across a vast 600-seat dining room, hawking tins of black bean spare rib and har gow in three languages. The wait to get in could last two hours.
Empress Pavilion -- behind on rent and struggling to find customers -- closed earlier this summer, the latest blow in Chinatown’s three decades of slow decline. Today the aging community has the feel of a museum. Grimy storefronts gather dust, abandoned by second- and third-generation locals and ignored by a shrinking trickle of tourists.
But a new Chinatown is emerging -- one that is less Chinese.
The neighborhood is seeing a new wave of development that is decidedly more mainstream. Developers are building more than 500 new housing units, some hoping to lure downtown types north of the 101 Freeway. A Walmart Neighborhood Market and Starbucks are slated to open this year. Dim sum palaces and gift shops are giving way to single-origin coffee, artisan pasta and pan-Asian cuisine.
A long-delayed residential and retail development broke ground in May. But its latest design has shed the Asian architectural flourishes that traditionalists say is the mark of Chinatown.
The owner of the complex that housed Empress Pavilion is hoping to lure a new dim sum restaurant, but he also hopes to bring in some Thai businesses.
Some see a model in Little Tokyo, which has remained a Japanese enclave while attracting a diverse array of businesses and visitors.
“Why shouldn’t we have a multicultural Chinatown?” asked George Yu, president of Chinatown’s business improvement district. “Why shouldn’t we have a good cup of [Starbucks coffee]? Little Tokyo has two of them, and no one says anything about that.”
People have been writing Chinatown’s obituary for decades now.
It began in the early 1980s, when booming Chinese enclaves in the San Gabriel Valley drained Chinatown of people and business. Monterey Park was declared the new Chinatown, and since then the epicenter of Chinese American life in the Southland has moved steadily east.
In the 1990s, an influx of Southeast Asian immigrants brought some new business to Chinatown, but the area’s economic trajectory remained unchanged -- even after the Gold Line light-rail station opened.
Census data shows that the area’s overall Asian population has been steady over the last decade, with the population of Mainland Chinese declining by just 4%.
But the feel of the neighborhood is starting to change. Bars serving craft beer and boba and snacks and restaurants are surfacing amid a sea of dilapidated gift shops and souvenir stores. Starry Kitchen, a pop-up pan-Asian restaurant, has set up shop inside the Grand Star Jazz Club. General Lee’s, a century-old Chinatown restaurant closed for two decades, reopens as a bar in August with a design by the same firm responsible for Culver City’s Akasha and Hatfield’s in Hollywood.
And on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, the Jia Apartments, a 280-unit residential development, will open later this summer with a Starbucks and an artisan pasta restaurant on the first floor. Blossom Plaza, a $95-million project, will add 237 new units and several new storefronts when it opens in 2016.
Many of the new units are aimed at downtown Los Angeles’ fastest growing demographic -- young professionals. Chinatown doesn’t have Spring Street’s bars or the loud glamour of L.A. Live, but the neighborhood is no longer eerily silent after sunset.
At Far East Plaza on any given weeknight, thumping bass beats rattle the windows of ginseng stores and Chinese gift shops until 11 p.m. Chego, chef and Kogi creator Roy Choi’s new restaurant, began serving up multicultural rice bowls in June.
Inspired by Chicago hot-dog stands, Chego’s interior consists of a curving steel counter, a cashier and a drink machine.
Below a vintage camera hanging from a peg, an Eric B and Rakim record leans against a wall. Picnic tables are clustered in the plaza outside.
Choi’s first taste of dim sum was at Empress Pavilion, and he compared the restaurant’s closing to “a death in the family.”
But it was also inevitable.
“Their food never changed,” Choi said.
The restaurant attracts a younger crowd that looks much like downtown’s -- skinny jeans, complicated haircuts, a mixture of ethnicities and a preponderance of beards. That demographic is Chinatown’s future, Yu said.
“If we bring in the mainstream which our children are a part of, and make Chinatown relevant to that, you’ll see the second and third and fourth generations returning like they used to,” Yu said.
Far East Plaza used to be a crossroads of Chinese cuisine known throughout the U.S. Restaurants such as Monkee Seafood brought lines of customers that stretched into the street. Mandarin Deli, in the space now occupied by Chego, was one of the first places in the city to serve soup dumplings, or xiao long bao. But that was a different time -- there was no Monterey Park, Yu said.
Yu’s new hopes for the area look something like Chinatown Summer Nights, a recurring summertime street festival that drew 28,000 people on a recent weekend.
A stream of Metro Rail riders filled Chinatown’s Central Plaza, snacking at food trucks and browsing local shops and crafts tents.
Some of Chinatown’s older merchants have mixed feelings about the neighborhood’s new direction -- and about Chego’s rice bowls.
“To me it was kind of heavy,” said Ron Louie, the co-owner of K.G. Louie gift shop in nearby Central Plaza. “I think I should probably give it another try.”
Louie, 74, and his brothers have traded shifts to maintain the business their parents started in 1938 through Chinatown’s many evolutions -- but they can’t keep it running forever. Louie’s daughter has her own career and isn’t interested in working at the 75-year-old art-supply and gift shop.
“We’ll be doing this until the last one is left standing,” Louie said.
Louie and the other members of the Los Angeles Chinatown Corp., the founding property owners of Chinatown, consider themselves the keepers of Chinatown’s traditions. They take pride in Central Plaza’s curving roofs and glowing neon outlines. But even they acknowledge change is inevitable -- today many of them have a 626 area code, that of the San Gabriel Valley.
“We try to keep things the same,” said Larry Jung, president of the corporation. “But it’s difficult.”
The corporation held its 75th-anniversary banquet in June. As they had in the past, organizers had planned to have it at Empress Pavilion, but the restaurant closed a month before the dinner. They relocated it to Golden Dragon Restaurant.
“Demographics have changed. Expectations are different. It’s not the old neighborhood any more,” Jung said.