This past summer in Los Angeles, a friend suggested a visit to Chinatown. My primary awareness of that neighborhood came from the 1974 Roman Polanski film of the same name, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The inspiration for the film was a drought caused by the Water Wars of the 1930s, when a fierce political battle for water rights broke out between the city and farmers. Today, Los Angeles is facing a housing drought. As in the film, its consequences are being played out in Chinatown.
An event was taking place in the neighborhood that evening—Chinatown Summer Nights. It was organized by the Chinatown Business Improvement District (B.I.D.), a group meant to support LA Chinatown small businesses. But not everyone agrees this is what they are doing. The Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (C.C.E.D.) suggests that the B.I.D. does not serve “the largely working class and immigrant population of Chinatown, [but] rather the interests of gentrifiers, developers, & property owners.”
The action centered on Chinatown Central Plaza, and entering the area I was immediately hit by a wall of people and light and noise. The plaza consists of pagoda-style buildings illuminated with colorful neon trim. Red paper lanterns hung shimmering. An energized mass of people had gathered around a large stage to watch D.J.’s spin remixes of old hits. Britney Spears’s “Toxic” melded with “Circle of Life,” from Disney’s The Lion King. Visitors had come from all corners of this sprawling city. It had the feel of a county fair crammed into a few city blocks. In front of the stage, a group held up a banner proclaiming, ABOLISH BIDS BID = Private Cops!—a reference to the B.I.D. having hired private security officers.
Along one side of the plaza was a group of brightly lit food trucks with lines spread out before them, including Kogi Korean BBQ, the food-scene-defining Korean-Mexican-fusion truck from the chef Roy Choi. On a wall were emblazoned the words A Best Seller Movie by Jackie Chan RUSh Hour Was Shot Here.
If you didn’t mind crowds, it was hard not to have a good time. But any semblance of Chinese culture, or even anything to do with the history of Los Angeles’s Chinatown, was vanishingly small. Summer Nights was not so much helping Chinatown’s traditional small businesses as enabling new businesses to set up shop here. What was going on?
Los Angeles is facing a housing drought. Its consequences are being played out in Chinatown.
The next day, as I visited the neighborhood in the daylight, the situation was clearer. Walking through the dragon-adorned gate, the first thing I saw was a brand-new apartment building advertising its pool and gym. It stood across the street from a faded, brutalist high-rise, outside of which elderly Chinese Americans sat with their walkers.
This pattern was repeated across the neighborhood. New, amenity-filled-apartment complexes from prominent developers such as Trammell Crow, a man once proclaimed the largest landlord in the country by Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, and Tom Gilmore, one of downtown L.A.’s real-estate kingpins, rose up right next to Chinese mom-and-pop stores that sold knickknacks, knockoffs, and shoes without their counterparts.
The area has been home to working-class immigrants for its entire history, dating back to the 1880s, but the wave of new investment has caused rents to soar and longtime residents to leave, and precipitated the opening of new stores that don’t cater to the original populace. In 2019, the neighborhood lost its last supermarket—the 40-year-old Ai Hoa Market—even as The New York Times declared in a 2021 headline that Chinatown is L.A.’s “most exciting” place to eat, due to the arrival of social-media-savvy food destinations such as Amboy Quality Meats, a burger shop.
It’s not just in Los Angeles. The same pattern is unfolding in Chinatowns across the country. Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown has only 300 Chinese-American residents left within its boundaries as of 2015, while Manhattan’s Chinatown has seen its Chinese-American population reduced by roughly a third since 2000. Professor Paul Ong, the director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, puts this displacement down to urban renewal and gentrification.
Many of the original residents have re-settled in nearby suburban areas such as New York’s Flushing and Sunset Park, Boston’s Malden and Quincy, and Virginia’s Fairfax County, creating new Chinatowns. In Los Angeles, Chinese movement has been to the San Gabriel Valley, the home of Monterey Park, the very first suburban Chinatown. Originally known as the “Chinese Beverly Hills,” it has now become infamous as the site of the recent Lunar New Year mass shooting. That tragedy seems unlikely to slow the exodus.
Walking back through Chinatown Central Plaza, I found a side plaza that I’d overlooked during my nighttime visit. It consisted of smaller buildings in the same picturesque Chinese style, adorned with faded Chinese-language signs advertising their wares. However, behind the antiquated signs, the stores were actually much newer: a natural-wine store, a flower shop, and a handful of one-room art galleries.
This was all very stylish, so stylish that Ed Sheeran shot the music video for his chart-topping hit “Sing” here. However, the disconnect between the traditional Chinese ornamentations and the new inhabitants made the area feel like the brick-and-mortar embodiment of vintage thrifting. The new stores were appropriating the immigrant character of the buildings’ original tenants.
“It’s a cool, hip, ethnic place,” explains Vivi Le, a local Chinatown resident and anti-gentrification activist with the C.C.E.D. “Low-income immigrant folks made it cool and hip or ethnic, not because they wanted to but because they had nowhere else to go.” The developers, she says, simply see Chinatown “as an opportunity.”
Phoenix Bakery is a neighborhood stalwart that opened in 1938. It’s best known for its strawberry whipped-cream cake. The co-owner, Kathryn Chan Ceppi, says that Chinatown has been in decline for many years. “We’re hoping to see it come back to life. But we’ll see what happens.”
She’s in favor of anything that can bring in more business, whether it be the B.I.D. or C.C.E.D., but notes that she has yet to see the difference the new apartment buildings are making for her business. The only reason she’s managed to stay here is that her family owns the building. “If we would have had to pay rent, we would have had to shut down,” she says.
Nearby, the recently redeveloped Los Angeles State Historic Park has new developments crowding against it. At a time when the city faces a major housing crisis, developers are choosing to put their splashiest new projects here, slowly but surely eroding Chinatown’s past.
“If the developers want to make things hard,” Le says, “we want to make things hard back. We want to take back power. They have power in money, but we have power in numbers.”
Quentin Cohan is a writer and filmmaker