Introduction to Old Chinatown

Written by Annie Luong   
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In 1870, a group of approximately 200 Chinese were situated on Calle de los Negros between El Pueblo Plaza and Old Arcadia Street. Initially, Old Chinatown was composed of mostly men, many of whom were employed as laundrymen, market gardeners, road builders and ranch workers. As Old Chinatown flourished, it expanded eastward from the Plaza across Alameda Street and grew to a population of three thousand. However, as a result of the 1913 Alien Land Law, Chinese, who were already prohibited from naturalized citizenship, consequently were also prohibited from land ownership. Many settled and became tenants on Juan Apablasa’s widow’s grazing grounds and vineyards.Between the 1890s and the 1910s, Old Chinatown continued to grow eventually taking up fifteen streets and alleys and included one hundred building units. A Chinese opera theater was opened along with three temples, a newspaper, and a telephone exchange. As the number of women gradually increased, more families and children became residents of the community. Church missions, community organizations, and Chinese district associations formed, and Old Chinatown became an attraction for American tourists.By 1910, the population began to decrease as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented more people from migration and the creation of the City Market Chinatown led others away. Business declined as stereotypical media images of opium dens, gambling houses, and tong warfare discouraged respectable visitors from Old Chinatown. Rumors of relocation and redevelopment led many landlords to fail to maintain or improve their properties. Housing conditions worsened, but many residents remained.Peter Soo Hoo Jr. describes Old Chinatown as having “very few street lights…the streets did not seem to be asphalt-covered, but bumpy with potholes. Despite this, people seemed to be very upbeat. They were a tight knit group event though living under tenement conditions.” David Lee recalls, “the streets were paved in 1929, 1930, I think. Before, it was still dirt and rock.”On the 12th of December 1913, the Apablasa family sold the Old Chinatown property for $310,000 to Southern Pacific Railroad. The leases on the property had expired. On the 7th of November 1914, all of Old Chinatown lying east of Alameda Street was sold for over two million dollars to L. F. Hanchett. The San Francisco capitalist initially planed to convert the area into an industrial warehouse district while a new Chinatown was being developed. But as his plan lost credibility, he instead began to plan for a railroad terminal. By the late 1930s, most of the area that was known as Old Chinatown would become Los Angeles’ Union Terminal, or Union Station.