When the COVID-19 virus swept the United States in early 2020, so did a surge of anti-Asian hate. Reports declaring Wuhan, China the epicenter of the pandemic brought many to scapegoat Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for the spread of the virus. These groups continue to experience racialized harassment, exclusion, discrimination, and assault today.
Anti-Asian hate is not a new phenomenon. The first Chinese residents of Los Angeles faced similar anti-Chinese sentiments that marginalized their lives through discriminatory laws, racialized harassment, and assault.
The original Los Angeles Chinatown, now known as “Old Chinatown,” developed in the 1860s when Chinese migration to California expanded. Thousands were employed by the rail, fishing, and agricultural industries. Others left to work in the gold fields.
By the 1870s, many Chinese laborers lived in rooming houses and older adobes in Old Chinatown, alongside saloons, gambling joints, and houses of ill-repute frequented by the larger population.
On October 24, 1871, a Los Angeles mob killed eighteen Chinese men. The Chinese Massacre of 1871 was one of the first of multiple anti-Chinese tragedies in the West.
Extreme anti-Chinese attitudes and the rising political power of the labor movement, which scapegoated Chinese workers who were often forced to take less money for the same work, culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law on May 6, 1882. The new law excluded Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. and becoming naturalized.
Beginning in the 1930s, the transportation authority of Los Angeles displaced about 2,000 residents and dozens of businesses when it tore down a portion of Old Chinatown and built in its place Union Station, a central transportation hub.
Chinese American community members led by Chinatown native Peter SooHoo negotiated with the railroad agencies to acquire a site for a new Chinatown. New Chinatown was completed in 1938 and continues to stand. It features architecture that reflects a blend of Eastern and Western design elements.
“This Chinatown is intended to be the center of activity to which all Chinese scattered throughout Los Angeles will be attracted,” Soohoo said.
Many of Old Chinatown’s residents restarted their businesses and livelihoods in New Chinatown. Business owners relied on cultural tourism to boost the local economy.
During the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement brought together underrepresented communities, including Chinese Americans, to fight for civil rights and social equality. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, ending an immigration-admissions policy based on race and ethnicity. The new law allowed Chinese people to more easily immigrate to the United States.
The Vietnam War forced hundreds of thousands, many of whom were ethnic Chinese or mixed Chinese ethnicity, to flee Vietnam. Some settled in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.
The population of Chinatown grew, and the community began to experience overcrowding.
In the mid-1970s, some of Chinatown’s business owners and established families began to migrate to Monterey Park, a city in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles.
Monterey Park was advertised overseas as the “Chinese Beverly Hills” due to good schools, a good housing market, and close proximity to Los Angeles’s Chinatown.Many new immigrants, working class and wealthier bypassed Chinatown, as the economic and population center had shifted to the San Gabriel Valley.
Today, families in Chinatown once again face evictions and displacement. This time, the threat is gentrification. Starting in the 1990s, a new bohemian arts and entertainment scene emerged and revitalized tourism and urban development in Chinatown.
Traditional mom-and-pop Chinese American shop spaces that had been vacated by the population shift were filled with art galleries, design studios, bars and nightclubs, and upscale gift shops. Low-income residents who could not keep up with rising rents left for other neighborhoods, and middle- to upper-class professionals and artists moved in.
“Chinatown gentrification is a process that reflects rising economic investment and sometimes speculative profit,” says Eugene Moy, community historian and member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.
“The new and renewed buildings represent the new generation of people, which can result in new economic directions, and sometimes displacement of residents and long-serving businesses. As you grow older, you look around and think, what’s next—what is new, what is missing?”
The new businesses that attracted Chinatown visitors reflected the cultural tourism reminiscent of New Chinatown’s origins, but have replaced the full-service grocery stores and community spaces that older Chinatown residents relied on, making day-to-day life more difficult.
Dynasty Center is the last community shopping mall in Chinatown with businesses owned by low-income immigrants from Southeast and East Asia. The shops here provide services and sell goods that meet the practical and cultural needs of the community.
In July 2021, corporate developer Redcar purchased Dynasty Center. People became concerned about whether they would be able to remain or be forced to leave.
Although development plans for Dynasty Center remain unclear, community members fear business owners could lose leases, be faced with higher rents, or the building could be demolished and the site developed into new buildings and office spaces.
If the property is redeveloped, the tenants may be forced out — most of which are small businesses that have been in the community for decades. Families will once again face displacement.
One such store is Rainbow, a mom-and-pop store that opened in Dynasty Center in 1994 selling traditional Chinese merchandise. Over the past twenty-eight years, the store’s owners have widened Rainbow’s selection of houseplants for which it is now best known.
Elton Chau is the shop manager whose friendly and knowledgeable demeanor has made loyal customers out of Chinatown’s residents and others who keep coming back for plants and a touch of wisdom regarding recommendations and plant care.
“Our goal has always been to grow our business, even at a slower pace,” Elton says. “We always wanted this growth and expansion to occur in Chinatown, but the future is uncertain.”
The store’s owners want to remain in Chinatown because they believe in the community and have earned a consistent clientele but feel forced to consider the San Gabriel Valley.
Either way, Elton won’t shrink down: “We’re like a plant. We need to be repotted when we grow too big if we hope to thrive.”
“I love to see parents bringing their children to help them find a plant,” he says. “I also love seeing children bringing their parents into our shop to help them find new plants for their new homes.
“Moments like that are heartwarming, and I love cheering them on for their accomplishments and growth.”
Yet Chinatown’s residents are willing to fight. To combat ongoing gentrification, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, an all-volunteer, multiethnic, intergenerational organization, fights for tenant rights and against unfair evictions.
CCED is based in Chinatown and builds grassroots power through organizing, education, and mutual aid.
Last year, CCED started an online campaign, #DefendDynastyCenter, with a list of demands. Developers must not evict any tenant at Dynasty Center. Instead, the center should be preserved as an institution of cultural and historical importance. Rent should be reduced by fifty percent to reflect the ongoing COVID crisis, returning to the rate before the developer’s acquisition.
Charlotte Nguyễn, Janis Yue, and other CCED members are working hard to ensure that business owners will not be evicted and can keep their livelihoods at Dynasty Center.
“My parents were refugees of the Vietnam War, and, prior to that, I have a lot of really inspiring people in my lineage—spiritual activists who protested the Vietnam War,” Nguyễn says. “When I came back to LA and saw how quickly gentrification moved, I immediately felt this sort of trigger in my body of horror and defeat. I felt some sort of ancestral memory activated inside of me, of what my ancestors must’ve gone through.
“I started to listen to that ache, and I see it as a call to really be active in my community, particularly in Chinatown, where I have so many memories of people who look like me.”
“Whether we win or ‘lose’ in the conventional sense, whether we end up saving Dynasty Center as it is, or if people are evicted from it, I think what’s most important is we have chosen to struggle regardless, and that in itself is already an important win,” Yue says.
“The struggle in itself already shows that we are already disrupting capitalism. We are already disrupting gentrification.
“And I think that’s what to center in this fight.”
Jean Young is a Los Angeles-based illustrator and former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. They currently work at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles.