LA's Old Chinatown ponders a future with Wal-Mart

May 20, 2012 - 5:30 PM
Changing Chinatown Los Angeles

In this April 10, 2012, photo, a man looks at the buffet line at a restaurant in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. When Walmart announced plans to put one of its sprawling outlets in Chinatown, alarms were quickly sounded by people fearful that a chain superstore would destroy the character of one of the nation's oldest, largest and most historic Chinatowns. These days New Chinatown, as it was called then, finds itself increasingly surrounded by multi-ethnic neighborhoods and high-density residential developments like the building that would house the Walmart store on its ground floor. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — On the surface, a big Wal-Mart store might seem out of place in the midst of the old-fashioned curio shops, the little dim sum eateries and the colorful lanterns and pagodas that make up one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States.

But then so does the Catholic church that offers Sunday Masses in Croatian. Or the one that performs them in Italian. Not to mention the imposing statue of French hero Joan of Arc that stands just a stone's throw from the one of modern China's founding father, Sun Yat-Sen.

When Wal-Mart announced plans earlier this year to open one of its outlets on the fringes of Old Chinatown, alarm bells went off in some quarters. The local city councilman pushed successfully for a moratorium on opening large stores in downtown, although Wal-Mart got around that by pulling its permits before the ordinance took effect.

Several business owners, meanwhile, expressed concerns that Wal-Mart, known for its cheap prices on everything from tires to toys, would put them out of business and lead to the destruction of the area's ambience.

Overlooked in much of the debate was that Chinatown wasn't always Chinatown. Over the years, it has also been Frenchtown and Little Italy, and a portion of it was once home to a Croatian community. Evidence of the latter is 102-year-old St. Anthony's Croatian Catholic Church, located just up the hill from where the Wal-Mart would go.

More recently, Chinatown's population has seen an increase in Hispanics, who now make up about a quarter of the square-mile area's 11,000 residents.

It's a square mile that displays the city's famous diversity and multicultural history to a remarkable degree, says Los Angeles writer Lisa See, who has drawn extensively from her own family's Chinatown history for such books as "On Gold Mountain" and the 2009 best seller "Shanghai Girls."

"We as a city, I think, don't pay much attention to that history or that diversity, but once you cover it up it's gone for good," added See, acknowledging she frets about the impact a generic Wal-Mart will have on the culturally rich area where she spent hours as a child playing in her family's store.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steve Restivo says the store won't be one of those gigantic supercenters the company is famous for but a much smaller "neighborhood market" about one-fifth the size. Those markets typically sell groceries, fresh produce and such other items as pharmaceuticals, deli foods, stationery and dry goods.

He noted the store, scheduled to open next year, is going into a building that has been vacant for years. The Chinatown location was selected, Restivo said, after Wal-Mart determined the area was lacking in stores that sell fresh food.

Whatever the store's impact on Chinatown, it won't mark the first time downtown's Chinese community has been reshaped or reinvented.

Old Chinatown, as it's now known, was actually New Chinatown when it welcomed the public on June 25, 1938, with a gala party attended by, among many others, Hollywood's first Chinese-American movie star, Anna Mae Wong.

Often overlooked in accounts of that opening day, however, was that New Chinatown was built from the ground up to replace OId Chinatown, which was razed to make room for another LA landmark, historic Union Station.

An entire neighborhood of thousands of people occupying buildings dotting more than a dozen streets was packed up and moved lock, stock and wok to the middle of what was then Little Italy and Frenchtown.

"They had no property rights, so it was easy to move them," Fenton Eng, administrator of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, says dryly, adding that laws allowing Chinese immigrants to become U.S. citizens and own property were still several years away.

As the Chinese moved in, the Italians and French moved out, although remnants of their time there remain, including St. Peter's Italian Catholic Church and the statute of Joan of Arc that stands just outside Pacific Alliance Medical Center, which until 1989 was known as French Hospital.

From behind the counter of K.G. Louie's, the large curio shop his grandfather opened during that 1938 celebration, Donald Liu sees still another change coming. The younger generation of Chinese families like his, the ones that built Chinatown, are moving on to Monterey Park and several other Asian-majority suburbs just east of Los Angeles.

"And I see more Hispanic folks moving in, especially at the school across the street," Liu, 62, who still lives in Chinatown, said between ringing up sales on items like small jade and wood carvings and other Chinatown memorabilia for the tourists.

Across the street and down an ally known as Chung King Road still other changes are afoot. Several art galleries, some with lofts and most all featuring contemporary work by non-Asian artists, have moved onto the alley during the past 10 years.

"It's slightly turning into an artist-gentrified type of community," says Eng.

Not that he, Liu or others who know the area's history are worried about its Chinese cultural heritage disappearing entirely.

"I think it will remain the Chinese cultural center of Los Angeles," said Liu. "Anytime there's a demonstration or celebration, it takes place here."

He and others do worry that Wal-Mart could drive out many of the small businesses, including scores of tiny shops run by recently arrived ethnic Chinese immigrants from countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. They hawk everything from T-shirts and CDs to cheap underwear and shoes.

"If Wal-Mart opens, a lot of small stores will close," said Ocean Li, who operates a tiny herbal shop not far from where the Wal-Mart would go. Jordan Ma, who runs a small gift shop around the corner from the Wal-Mart site, says the same thing.

"But whatever they do, they'll do," he said. "The people don't have a voice."

The Chinatown Chamber of Commerce has given its blessing to the project, noting Wal-Mart will bring scores of permanent jobs to the community and might also drive traffic to surrounding businesses.

"I personally don't buy the argument that it will bring new people to Chinatown or help to revive Chinatown," says See, whose family history in Old and New Chinatown dates to the 19th century and whose relatives still have stores in Chinatown, although not close to the Wal-Mart.

"I think when people go to a place like Wal-Mart or Costco it's a destination in and of itself, and by the time you walk out the door after you're done you're so exhausted you just need to go home and lie down on your couch," the author says.