Introduction to New Chinatown

Written by Annie Luong  ( PDF)

In 1933, Peter Soo Hoo became interested in building a new and more representative Chinatown as the construction of Union Station came near. At the time, George Eastman planned a new Chinatown with the support of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the City Council. His plan included shops, restaurants, a temple, a theater, gardens, and plazas in a Chinese architectural motif but was too costly to implement. As buildings and businesses in Old Chinatown were brought down and closed for the construction of Union Station, some Chinese headed to the City Market Chinatown. Peter Soo Hoo Jr. stated, “When the merchants in Old Chinatown had orders to move out to make room for the Union Terminal, they did not know what to do … They were handicapped by lack of finances and because of the uncertainty of knowing where to go.”

On the 22nd of April 1937, the Los Angeles Chinatown Project Association and a number of guests and leading citizens including Peter Soo Hoo Sr. met with Herbert Lapham at the old Tuey Far Low Restaurant. The Los Angeles Chinatown Project Association planned fundraising, site acquisition, design, and construction. Money was raised among the Chinese Americans without bank financing or loans.  No land acquisition or construction could proceed without the up-front collection of all required funds. Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson were the architects and the goal was to build sixty-two units over one square block. Three groups of buildings were constructed along Gin Ling Way for the initial phase of the project.

On the 25th of June 1938, Los Angeles’ New Chinatown opened. By 1939, Y.C. Hong had completed his buildings and the East Gate. At about the time, the Seven Star Sacred Caverns and the wishing pool were completed. On the week of the 16th of January 1939, New Chinatown held its Chinese New Year celebration with a press reception at Forbidden Palace. The Mei Wah Girls Drill Team, led by Barbara Jean Wong performed in the parade. The mall developed by Y.C. Hong averaged twenty thousand visitors a week by the second anniversary. The Moon Festival was held on early August 1941 as a fundraiser between new Chinatown, Old Chinatown, and China City to raise funds for war relief in China. Peter Soo Hoo Sr. stated at the time that the Chinese American community’s desire was “to erect a cultural as well as a commercial center for the purpose of augmenting their [Chinese American] social and business life … They want to erase once and for all the erroneous idea that a Chinatown is necessarily a part of the underworld.” [1]

As the communities surrounding City Market Chinatown and East Adams grew, two other Chinese American communities took shape in the shadows of the newly built Union Station. One of these communities, New Chinatown, was the product of a group of Chinese American business leaders headed by Peter SooHoo. SooHoo was an American-born employee of the Department of Water and Power, who had graduated from USC. His fluency in both English and Chinese allowed him to negotiate the difficult racial terrain of pre-war Los Angeles in ways that his immigrant colleagues could not. The New Chinatown he and other community leaders opened in 1938 was in stark contrast to the dirt roads and tenement housing that characterized much of Old Chinatown. These Chinese American merchants and business leaders had a vision of creating a Chinatown that would be clean, well lit, and that could attract tourists from outside the community.

The other new community built near Union Station was dubbed China City. The product of Christine Sterling, the entrepreneur who had brought the city Olvera Street, China City opened the same year as New Chinatown. Featuring stores run by local Chinese, China City also attempted to capitalize on potential tourist dollars. With buildings modeled after the set of the Hollywood blockbuster the Good Earth and featuring outdoor Chinese performances and rickshaw rides, the vision of Chinese American community created by Sterling was in stark contrast to that presented by New Chinatown. Despite its movie set feel, China City provided a valuable sense of real community to the many Chinese Americans who worked there.

[1] Quoted in Edwin R. Bingham, “The Saga of the Los Angeles Chinese.” (Master’s Thesis, Occidental College, 1942), 155.