By Steven Wong, Curator and Artist
L.A.’s Chinatown is changing. If you don’t believe me, you may not have noticed Walmart has moved in. It is perhaps needless for me to note the obvious, but change is inevitable. So, regardless of where you stand politically on Walmart (they happen to fund the organization I work for); it needs to be said that Chinatown has always been a fluid yet resilient community. But it is this change that reminds me of the necessity to document and archive our communities’ stories, histories, and experiences.
After being displaced from its original location to build Union Station, Chinatown relocated to its current location in 1938 with a master plan that was designed to bring in outside influences. Then, its economy and livelihood depended on tourism, in a time when it was difficult, if not prohibited, for Chinese Americans to work and live outside of Chinatown. Chinatown has a history of outside interaction that is built into its very architecture.
Before Walmart, “gentrifying” artists and galleries concentrated on Chung King Road (myself included). Before the height of the Chinatown art scene in the early 2000s, there was Firecracker at the Grand Star, the underground Hip-Hop club that was launched in the late ‘90s. These are my popular experiences and memories that I have had with Chinatown. But before Firecracker there was the Punk scene at Madame Wong’s and the Hong Kong Café in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s; and long before my time, there were the tourists and the Hollywood elite in the ‘40s and ‘50s who visited Chinatown as a cultural playground and tourist destination.
But those Chinatown histories and memories catered to outsiders. Beyond Chinatown’s mythologies, façade, touristy plazas, galleries, and clubs — are the less visible, but more vibrant communities made up of residents, workers, Castelar students, church and temple members, family/district association members, b-ball players at the Alpine Rec, and those who work for, and are served by, social service and social justice organizations. These communities are the ones that need to be remembered and their stories are the ones that need to be told.
Again, things change. But someone needs to remember these shifts.
Less fluid are my memories and the history of Chinatown. My memories of visiting Chinatown in the ‘70s and ‘80s are not of the L.A. punk scene, but rather regularly visiting my great aunt in a tiny apartment on Broadway before shopping Yee Sing Chong, one of the few Chinese grocery stores at the time. I remember helping pick out preserved eggs caked in what I then thought was black mud, sometimes coated with sawdust. Today, these same eggs come clean and individually wrapped in shrink-wrapped plastic or in thin cellophane bags.
- Rockett and Zoe on Chung King Road in Chinatown
My most cherished memories of living in Chinatown in 2000 are not attending the gallery openings nor attending Firecracker (sorry Darryl!), but regularly bringing my son and daughter, Rockett and Zoe, the half block from our home to the corner grocery, Hong Sang Lung. I would get the neighborhood gossip from proprietor Marvin Lee while having him tally my hand-written tab, before returning with milk for the kids, canned coffee and a donut for myself.
I wish Rockett and Zoe were old enough to retain those memories of our visits to Hong Sang Lung, like I did with my parents to Yee Sing Chong, but they have already forgotten. If and when they go though our family archives, they will find photographs of themselves and their community in Chinatown. Our family archives will reinforce that Rockett and Zoe were, and are still are, part of the Chinatown community. If and when they are able to go through the archives of Visual Communications and the Chinese American Museum, they will know that their experiences in Chinatown is part of a much larger story of the Chinese American experience, the Asian American experience, the American experience.
If the cherished memories of the next generation include shopping at Walmart with their family in Chinatown, then yes, things will have changed. But again, all things change — except for our personal memories and collective memories that are protected in our collections and archives. But as long as those future memories of Chinatown are of a diverse, thriving, ethnic, cultural and economic community, who am I to judge?
Tell us how you made your mark!
Did you grow up, or do you currently live in an ethnic enclave? If not, how diverse is your neighborhood? Email us with your thoughts and photo (if you wish) at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll post it on the VC Facebook page.
October is American Archives Month. This post is one of a series of blog posts that Visual Communications will present of Asian Pacific Americans who have made their mark on their communities and history.