A History of Los Angeles Chinatown in the 30’s and 40’s

Written by William Gow (PDF)

The Chinatown Remembered Project tells the story of a generation of Chinese Americans who came of age in Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s. Like others in their generation, young Chinese American men and women lived through the Depression and then served their country valiantly in World War II. Yet unlike other Angelinos their age, these Chinese American youth had to deal not only with conflict abroad, but also with the constant threat of displacement here at home. The construction of the new Union Train station brought with it profound changes to the landscape of the local Chinese American community, beginning in the early 1930s with the destruction of much of Old Chinatown and continuing on with the development of two new Chinese American communities: China City and New Chinatown. For all Chinese Americans in Los Angeles, but especially for the youth, the 1930s and 1940s represent a pivotal moment of change and development.

Those local residents who agreed to share their memories with our volunteers are part of this generational shift that occurred in the Chinese American community in the decades prior to the outbreak of World War II. Nationally, between 1900 and 1940, the percentage of Chinese Americans born in the United States grew from 10% to 50%. Thus for the first time, cities like Los Angeles had a sizable population of native-born Chinese Americans. These young people attended local high schools such as Belmont, Lincoln, and Polytechnic. They joined extracurricular activities such as the Mei Wah Drum Corp and Wah Kue athletic club. After school, they worked in their parents’ stores and attended local Chinese schools. In short, they developed a culture that was uniquely Chinese American.

For the most part, local Chinese Americans in the period prior to 1938 grew up in one of two areas: Old Chinatown and the communities in the vicinity of the Old Plaza, or the City Market Chinatown and the neighboring community of East Adams. Whereas the housing in Old Chinatown was mostly multi-unit flats, those Chinese who worked in the vicinity of the City Market often lived in single-family homes. Indeed, the community of East Adams developed as a bedroom community for people working in the City Market. In contrast, many of the roads in Old Chinatown were unpaved. There were few street lamps and much of the housing was overcrowded. While the number of families was limited, those youth who did grow up in Old Chinatown would play together in the local playground near the old horse stables. A friendly rivalry developed between the youth of these two different Chinese American communities, as Chinese American sports teams, like the Guardsmen and the Wah Kues, were created in their respective communities. This friendly rivalry would continue even after the building of New Chinatown.

Most of our project participants were quite young when the destruction of Old Chinatown began in 1933. As Old Chinatown was dismantled to make room for Union Station, most Chinese American families relocated to the existing 9th Street area or further west to East Adams and San Pedro Street. Meanwhile, two separate competing visions of Chinatown—China City and New Chinatown—were proposed to take the place of the old one. While these young people were not involved in the design of these new communities, almost all of the youth of Old Chinatown were forced to move from their original homes in Old Chinatown to new homes elsewhere. As young teens, many would hold jobs working in their parents’ businesses in New Chinatown and China City. Most have fond memories of both communities.

As the decade wore on, international events would affect the lives of nearly everyone in Chinatown. In 1937, Japanese imperial aggression cast China into war. Locally and across the country, Chinese Americans came together in the late 1930s and early 1940s to raise funds for war relief. As children and teens, the participants in our project took part in events which raised money for the war effort, such as moon festivals, China Nite, and the visit of Madame Chiang Kai-shek to Los Angeles. While many had never been to China, these youth raised money to help relatives or family friends who were affected by the war.

As 1941 came to a close, the United States found itself dragged into a war it had long hoped to avoid. Like others their age, Chinese Americans in Los Angeles served the United States both in the armed services and on the home front. Some were drafted, others volunteered, and, still others volunteered to be drafted. For many of these young men and women, service to their country, whether abroad or on the home front, was a life-changing experience. They entered World War II as teenagers and left the war as young adults. For many returning Chinese American veterans, the GI Bill would provide the means for them to enter USC, UCLA, and other American colleges.

The Chinatown Remembered Project tells the story of this generation of Chinese Americans from Los Angeles who came of age of during the Great Depression, who served their country during World War II, and who, through the creation of clubs and other extra-curricular activities, forged an identity quite distinct from that of their immigrant parents. While the 1930s and 1940s were decade of change for all Americans, for many local Chinese American youth, this period proved to be the zeitgeist that defined their generation.

About the Chinatown Remembered Project

The newly established Chinatown Remembered Project represents the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California’s on-going effort to document the history of Los Angeles Chinatown and the surrounding Chinese American communities as they developed in the 1930s and 1940s. In order to document this history, local college-age youth worked closely with an older generation of Chinese Americans who remembered the period. The older generation of Chinatown residents shared their life histories and memories with our youth volunteers and interns who then edited the stories down into the short video life histories on this website.

The Los Angeles Chinatown Remembered Project has two stated goals. On the one hand, we hope to document the memories of these pivotal decades in local history while we still have the opportunity to do so. On the other hand, we hope to expose a younger generation to the importance of preserving local history. As such, we look on the process of documenting history to be as important as the documentation itself. We see the Chinatown Remembered Project as not only a documentation project, but also as a way to attract a new and younger generation of young people to the important work of historical preservation.

In keeping with these goals, many of the articles on this website were written and researched by local youth: some by our college interns and others by members of the local Los Angeles Chinatown Youth Council (LACYC), a youth group sponsored by the Chinatown Service Center. Members of LACYC were given copies of the interview transcripts and access to the CHSSC Reading Room, and they developed and wrote short articles focused on our local history. These articles were then submitted to the CHSSC and edited by Annie Luong our project youth coordinator and a student herself. Annie revised many of the essays from the original drafts submitted by her fellow youth and prepared them for publication.

It is our hope that the accomplishments of the Chinatown Remembered Project can be expanded in the coming years. The work of this project is only one of many projects currently supported by the CHSSC. From the Portraits of Pride series to our new Chinese American Family History working group, the CHSSC continues to do the important work of documenting the history of our local community.

This project is made possible, in part, by a grant from the California Council for the Humanities as part of the Council’s statewide California Stories Initiative. The Council is an independent non-profit organization and a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. For more information on the Council and the California Stories Initiative, visit www.californiastories.org Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Chinatown Remembered Project do not necessarily represent those of the California Council for the Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.