A History of LA’s Chinatown

Hello, Human. Glad to have you here. In this post I’m going to talk about my time exploring Chinatown, Los Angeles, but, first, I want to ramble about my recent thoughts.

Lately, I’ve been thinking romantically about our humanity. How did we get here? For what are we meant? What is the meaning of life? I’m not asking these questions out of concern, mind you, but out of romance, curiosity and the love I have for my life. The idea that we have no idea; I mean, it seems strange, because I somehow can’t help but feel that we are connected to far greater truths that exist all around us and within us, but which don’t often meet our eyes. I think this thing – power, energy, whatever you want to call it – lies in our intuition and I’ve read fascinating books by authors from all over the world, such as: Castaneda, Zealand, Diamond and St. Clair, who all talk about this thing and in different ways.

For example, in the book I’m reading now titled “The Secret Lives of Color” by Kassia St. Clair, the reader is brought on an incredible voyage of our “humanity”, during which, at some point, we discover light and how powerful an instrument it is in designing our meaning of things.

Color is an idea – I am a believer in this, because when I studied linguistics, I learned that my cultural/societal idea of the color “red” was nothing like it is in Greece, for example. In fact, I was reminded of this discovery at a part in St. Clair’s book, where she writes about her time studying the original “Homer” and how its descriptions of animals, like a sheep, were described as violet or purple. The point of her making this was to explain that the idea of color is not universal and that even light can shape our understanding and meaning of life around us.

This also reminded me of my time reading “The Allegory of the Cave” by Plato. Plato explains how light and the absence of it illustrates an object in different ways; i.e. an object in the shadows of the cave looks different than when it is outside of the cave and emitted by light. In fact, I’ve seen the same concept in my travels and while learning language.

As you know, I am new to Los Angeles – well, yesterday, I took this incredible opportunity to tour the Los Angeles food industry from the inside out. I toured DTLA restaurants with a food sales rep who sells wholesomely grown foods to restaurants, hotels and grocery stores, etc. I visited many places, from five star hotels to little hole in the wall type restaurants and more. During, I took note of the people who frequented each place and those stooped outside. I pondered about everyone and everything around me, such as: “oh that lady has a lovely pair of shoes” to “oh wow, the price for that meal seems outrageous” to other things. Then, at some point along the journey, we stopped at a red light for what seemed like forever. At that street corner, there was a homeless woman in a broken down wheelchair wearing tattered and dirty clothing. She was sucking on five suckers at one time – a bushel of suckers. A man approached her and started talking with her. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but she seemed to be answering his questions; nodding her head for “yes” and “no” and that sort of thing. I had this feeling that he was asking about her safety. He also didn’t appear well to do himself (I could be wrong about this, but it was my judgment of his clothes and how he appeared to have not cleaned himself in some time). Nonetheless, he seemed genuinely concerned about this woman, which I took from the expressions on his face and I knew a caring dialogue was happening between them, because when the man turned to leave, the woman offered him one of her suckers directly from her mouth.

For many reasons, including this interaction, my thoughts and awareness of things that day, well, reminded me of how very little I truly see because of where I stand in “The Allegory of the Cave”. Food for thought.chinatown los angeles

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chinatown los angelesNow, about my time exploring Chinatown, Los Angeles.

Last week was a busy week for me. I like busy weeks. I had friends visiting from Albuquerque the entire week and, so, I was out and about for most of it. On Tuesday, my friends Ruben and Caroline visited and we explored DTLA, which I’ll write about in a separate post. Then, on Thursday, my friend Adria visited and, we explored Hollywood and Chinatown, Los Angeles. Then, on Saturday, I took a road trip to San Diego with new friends and laughed my ass off for nearly its entirety. Now, I am catching up to writing about my recent adventures, which I take my time doing, because it’s a lot of reflection and remembering, which is why I enjoy it so much.

I met Adria in January, while still in Albuquerque. I discovered her via a person we both know who turned me onto her photojournalism. Adria is extremely talented; she has worked for some of the USA’s most influential publications, but most of all, her stories are important measures of where we are in humanity; they ask questions and present answers via a thought provoking visual experience. Her profound work has made me question the bigger systems in American life as I know it, for example. Since becoming a fan of Adria’s work, I reached out to her on Instagram to connect and learn. Thus, we hung out for a day and talked for what seemed like no time at all, but was really forever. We’ve kept in touch ever since.

This May 17th, Adria was visiting LA for a documentarian project she is working with a friend about the American Dream and what that means to different people. In the short time she was here, she hit me up to hang and that’s exactly what we did. I wanted to explore a part of the city that was new to me, but important in the making of its diverse experience, so I suggested Chinatown, Los Angeles. I did a quick research and came upon this self guided walking tour. It seemed like the perfect itinerary; including a bit of history, culture and spirituality.

Whenever I travel to DTLA, I usually take the number 28 bus, but this time I decided to drive. Bus commute for each round is $1.75. I live on Olympic Blvd, which goes east to west and vice versa and all the way through the city. It’s a great place at which to start your adventure, because it goes through Koreatown, Downtown and Chinatown, Los Angeles, which provides for a pretty diverse experience.

We parked at 777 N Broadway Parking, which has a killer deal of $5/day. That’s cheaper than anything I’ve seen in Los Angeles, thus far. It was a central walking distance between all of the attractions we set out to explore, too. Our first stop was the Chinatown, Los Angeles Central Plaza.chinatown los angeles ca

chinatown los angeles caThe plaza was exceptionally Chinese except for a burger burn joint at its south end. Since this was the middle of a workday, there wasn’t a lot going on, which is one of the best ways to enjoy LA; it’s so unusual when you see so few people out and little ambiance noise in the middle of a city with nearly four million inhabitants. There was a slight breeze this day too, so the paper lights that were strung between each of the ornate buildings ruffled like paper does in the wind. Little shops were open and sold Chinese stuff, like: goldfish keychains, rings carved of jade, constructible wooden dragons and lovely hair pieces made of bright jewels and gems.

We entered a music stop at one point, too, and awed at a Guzheng – an ancient stringed instrument from the Warring Period.

Then we sat by the plaza’s large gates where a statue of Sun Yat-sen is situated. He was the first president of the Republic of China and held a tremendous role in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China.

At some point, we saw someone walk by with a delicious shake. Our mouths watered. The image of that shake haunted us a while later, but since that person was no longer around for us to ask, I decided to inquire recommendations from kids, who were the plaza janitors, taking a break. They started by telling me not to eat the Chinese food here, to which I said, “Really?! One would think that Chinatown, Los Angeles is the best place to find authentic Chinese cuisine.” Then, one of the girls responded by saying she had had one too many bad experiences, so she doesn’t bother anymore. Then they told me that the delicious shake probably came from the burger joint, which actually made a lot of sense – after all, I’ve never known Chinese food to be all about big frothy milkshakes. I guess that’s more of an Americana thing?

Nonetheless, Adria and I didn’t want to waste our Chinatown, Los Angeles experience eating anything but Chinese cuisine, so we decided that the first Chinese restaurant we’d see that was packed with Chinese-speaking patrons, that we would eat there. It is always a good rule of thumb, especially in my experiences as a traveler, that truly authentic places are frequented by those authentic of that culture – which you can sometimes identify by the language patrons are speaking. The more we explore each other’s cultures, aesthetics and cuisines and celebrate each other for our different qualities, the more we are likely to appreciate one another and no longer fear thy stranger. I understand that it is conditioned in us to fear out of ignorance, but we can reverse these perceptions by becoming learned, plus, you just never know what you’re missing out on if you aren’t willing to try newness.

I think we should celebrate one another for our differences as beautiful, rather than divide ourselves, which at this rate, we’re doing the latter.chinatown los angeles ca

chinatown los angeles caWe continued our self guided tour and came upon a five tier pagoda that was a restaurant reading “Hop Louie” on its front. After a simple research, I found that it was originally the Golden Pagoda Restaurant when it was erected in 1941. During the 1930’s through 1940’s, the Chinese American community went through great efforts to design a new Chinatown, Los Angeles that blended both Chinese and American architecture. This pagoda was a product of that effort. Furthermore, the Chinatown, Los Angeles Plaza was designed by former Hollywood film set designers, which is why it seems so tantalizingly exotic – (exotic from my Western point of view).

Then we made our way to N Hill St., heading south, which passes Chinatown, Los Angeles’ Castelar Elementary School. Castelar is one of three LA Unified schools offering a Mandarin-immersion dual-language program. We couldn’t help but notice that the students playing in the school’s massive outdoor area were predominantly Asian. It was special to see that there were non Asians attending the school, as well, and we couldn’t help but note that maybe this was an incredibly unique experience for the student body. When you’re that young, you pick up on so much regarding the diversity around you, because you’re geared for curiosity. I remember being this way with regards to the diversity I experienced as a military kid. There is nothing more diverse than the US Military, in my opinion. As kids, we were fascinated with one another and just as it wasn’t weird or offensive for me to ask a kid why he had different eyes, skin or hair from me, it wasn’t weird for kids to ask me the exact same questions. The older we’ve become, the more sensitive we are to one another’s differences and it’s unfortunate that this curiosity has come to be understood as insulting and ostracizing. I am talking about a totally different thing than bigotry.

Anyway, we noticed that some kids were lined up in rows and taking commands from the teacher in what seemed like a game. The kids stood in position, holding their right arms up for a very long time, which looked tiresome. I am not sure what game this is, so if anyone has an idea, please share in the comments below.

One block south and we made it to Alpine St., which was rather quiet and sunny. The large clouds parted just enough to allow a beam of light to shine down. Citrus trees grew at the north corner and clothing was hung across balconies to dry in the sun and wind.chinatown los angeles los angeles california usaWe continued walking west and eventually came upon the Thien Hau Temple – the Taoist Temple of Chinatown, Los Angeles. The gorgeous temple’s outside was extremely ornate, with small alabaster dragons perched at each side of its large entrance. In the middle of the courtyard was an altar with hundreds of burning incense. The inside of the temple was swatched in red everything with hints of gold. The place just felt right to be in. I will be honest with you, I don’t always feel this way when I visit certain churches, for example.chinatown los angeles caIn the middle of the altar was a large sitting statue of a golden Goddess, her name: Mazu. She was born in 960, according to legend, to a fisherman and his wife. Mazu had one brother who was also a sailor and, so, as her family and many villagers in her community would set sail, she would dress is red and stand at the bank of the shores to guide them back to land, no matter the weather. I noticed that at the feet of Mazu were many gifts; baskets of fruit, silk clothing, bracelets and jewelry made of jade, emeralds and pearls. They were offerings.

To the left and right of Mazu were two generals, one with a red face, the other of gold. Guna Yu was the red faced general. He was explained as the epitome of loyalty and righteousness. He earned this meaning by holding a pivotal role in the takedown of the Han Dynasty and the establishment of the Shu Dynasty. The gold faced general is Fu De and is a god of wealth and merit. He is said to have administered affairs for villagers during times of drought and famine. Taoists worship him for wealth and well being.chinatown los angeles

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chinatown los angelesAround the temple were nameplates – at least they seemed to be nameplates. I do not know their meaning, but if someone does, please share in the comments below. I saw other things about the temple that I cannot explain (please see the above pictures), so, reference to them and their meanings would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

On our way out, we met a man named Michael. He was exuberant and friendly, and was adamant to tell us about the temple and how he came to be there. He asked us if we had questions, which we did, but quickly our conversation changed lanes and soon we were talking about mysticism and shamanism and its tie to ancient cultures. Michael was reading the book: “Mystic, Shaman, Oracle, Priest”, written by Michael Saso. He explained that it was a resource in a study he is putting together that connects the dots between ancient cultures and the modern day, in which our understanding of our innate powers within us are shrouded by systemic machines meant to distract us from reading our own bodies. I found everything Michael spoke of to be extremely interesting, because I’ve met many people in my life who speak of the same thing.

For example, while I lived in New Mexico, I met a fantastic woman by the name of Renee who is the daughter of the former chief of To’hajiilee: Leon Secatero. Her father studied ancient cultures and indigenous peoples, discovering their medicinal remedies were closely shared despite geography and that the languages spoken in each of these places were more or less very close to his native language, and furthermore, he discovered that these indigenous cultures also spoke of connecting with their ancestors through communicative portals. You can read about it here, if you don’t believe me.

I’ve also spoken with relatives in Ukraine who believe in shamanism – rare people with magic knowledge; these shamans are called molfar. My relatives spoke of how they witnessed, with their own eyes, molfary controlling the weather and curing people of their ailments, like cancer.

The list of spiritual experiences in my life goes on and I won’t keep you here about them, but they do make me wonder and even believe that some part of them could be very true.

We ended this enlightening conversation with apples and ripe peaches from the blessed altar and, so, made our way to Kim Chuy’s Restaurant, which is at the heart of Chinatown, Los Angeles.

The restaurant was open and inviting and the menu posted out front had my stomach growling with hunger. I enjoyed a spicy shrimp, beef, pork, dry noodle soup and Adria had egg rolls and, what I think I remember was, spicy chicken shrimp with noodles. We were just about the only non-Chinese speaking patrons in the whole place, which we took as a fantastic sign that we were the closest to authentic Chinese food that we could get in Chinatown, Los Angeles. I honestly thought the food was to die for and highly suggest you try it out if ever in the area. Come to find out, people rave about it being authentic on Google reviews, too.

Adria and I talked about many things during this dinner, like about: peer pressure, today’s society, the far left, the far right, how sensitive we are to one another, where humor can have a role in breaking down the seriousness of life that has some serious things about it, of course, but really isn’t that serious. I enjoyed that I was able to talk so freely about my concerns for humanity and where I spend my energy in regards to this. I was also grateful for Adria to point out where I could repurpose that energy on more effective things.

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los angeles capitol recordsWe eventually wrapped up shop in Chinatown, Los Angeles and made way for Hollywood where we explored the rest of the night. Hollywood is such a photogenic place – so many people, so many variety storefronts and silly US humor in all of its crudeness. On our way exploring the stars, we were stopped by a young gal selling a promo for $5 shots at Tipsy Tails Inc. We thought we might as well be spontaneous and give it a try… even if it was an over the top tourist trap. Lo, we sat at the bar and met two pairs of folks: one spunky duo from Wales and another quieter pair of brothers from Manchester. Adria and I asked each pair what their itinerary looked like while in the USA and it consisted of Las Vegas, San Fransisco, Hollywood, a bit of NASCAR and maybe a cowboy or two. It always interests me to learn what people wish to experience in the USA, especially when they are not from here.

Alas, we ended the long day with a short drive back to my place where we sat, finally, and enjoyed a bit of silence together. I was rather exhausted after this day, as well as it was an accumulation of a very busy week, but I was happy and grateful for the new experiences and to hang out with Adria.

I’ve since written Michael from the temple and hope to learn more from him about his studies, and if the time is right for it, I might write about what I learn here.

Until then, I plan to visit Chinatown, Los Angeles again, but, with Andriy, possibly sometime this week. I want to know: have you been? What do you recommend I see? Do you know someone in and knowledgable of the area and who would like to give us an exclusive tour? I would buy that person lunch in exchange for their knowledge and insight.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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