Urban Cultural Playground: Art, Hollywood, and the Gentrification of Los Angeles Chinatown

by Funie Hsu

This article is drawn from the author's current book project which goes into the topic indepth. The author is also working on a film on the subject.

At the end of Chung King Rd. stands a rundown two-story shop. A mysterious despair seems to seep through the cracks in the window whose inner facing glass is sloppily painted white, as if to conceal the going ons of the workers inside. Metal bars are secured to the shop, not an unfamiliar site in downtown Los Angeles, but significant in this situation because of the rumored sweatshop activity taking place on the other side of the dirty stucco walls. It is more likely that the bars are to prevent people from escaping rather than entering the shop. Several footsteps across the narrow walkway from this store suspected of concealing illegal labor practices is the Black Dragon Society. Co-owned by UCLA art professor/artist Roger Herman, this once abandoned space has now been converted into a trendy art gallery complete with pristine white walls and flamboyant art pieces intentionally put on display to catch the eyes of passer-bys. For a minute, one might forget one was Downtown, such a space seems more fitting of the hip art scene found on the Westside. But the brightly colored lanterns purposely strung overhead and the Chinese characters printed on the nearby shop signs serve as a defining reminder that this latest infusion of western contemporary art is taking place in none other than Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

The Black Dragon Society is one of nine art galleries who have turned to Chinatown to find a prime location for their art showings. The gallerists are now occupying spaces that were once considered rundown, dilapidated, and not fit for establishment. Some area businesses have welcomed the introduction of modern art into the neighborhood, claiming that it has created a revitalization of Chung King Rd., an otherwise quiet street in a town that has seen its share of glory days as well as desperate times. Chinatown has been most often characterized as a tourist attraction where cheap knick knacks and “authentic Chinese cuisine” can be purchased without creating a dent in one’s wallet. However, the City of Angeles’ Chinatown has been suffering from low economic stimulation and a plethora of decrepit housing complexes that are far from meeting city building code regulations. This has kept many tourist and new businesses away. The recent insurgence of vitality brought in by the blossoming art scene has created laudatory commendations for the mostly White gallery owners. Chinatown is now playing host to a community of twenty-something, trend-seeking European American consumers. “Chinatown is becoming increasingly hip as artists and designers flee the yuppification of downtown proper, and take over streets such as Chun King Road, a fascinating alley off Hill Street, that is colored with sleek new design boutiques next to classic post-war Chinese neon kitsch.1 Although generating some positive change in the neighborhood, this newly rekindled interest in the area, known since 1939 as New Chinatown, by hip, young artist types poses an imminent danger to the future of minority working families residing in the area and the cultural representation of the already hyper-exotified ethnic community. The threat of displacement due to gentrification lurks in the Chinatown alleyways like a boogie man waiting to attack the working class residences. These concerns are not unfamiliar to urban communities in Los Angeles.

"Los Angeles is no stranger to gentrification. Since the 1992 L.A. uprising, the steady influx of immigrants and the Clinton economy has helped to create a growing gap between the rich and poor. This has only increased the instability of L.A.'s neighborhoods, forcing changes in (formerly) working class and poor areas all over the city. Silver Lake and Los Feliz have seen rents and home prices skyrocket, and the fallout has begun to claim affordable housing in nearby Echo Park, Atwater Village and Chinatown."2

Like many other ethnic American communities in the United States, Los Angeles Chinatown must prepare to confront the ever present possibility of disenfranchisement posed by neo-capitalist imperialism and a highly racialized consumer society. As the mentality of urban chic continues to be marketed to the counterculture and professional types with upward mobility, White Americans will persist in the exertion of their privileged class status through the historically driven colonization of Chinatown urban space and orientalization of Asian American culture.

The Occupation

In a tone that is evocative of his white privilege and colonial sense of ownership, Roger Herman, co-owner of Black Dragon Society, describes his distaste for the growing popularity of the art scene. “I don’t think Chinatown is as interesting as it could be. It used to be kind of underground. Now these Saturday openings are just a mediocre club. A young artist’s Universal CityWalk.”3 His statement reveals the privilege mentality embedded in two significant realities that are unrecognized by his imperialist mindset. The first being the fact that he speaks of Chinatown in a sentimentality which yearns for the good old days in Chinatown where there was validity to the underground culture. This comment is riddled with a sense of rightful ownership and native belonging to the community, as if the community once belonged to him and the pioneer art gallerists who opened the first shops on Chung King Rd. Secondly, he frowns upon the yuppification of the area while failing to claim his responsibility in establishing L.A Chinatown’s popular art scene. By opening up a business and dealing to financially well off art collectors, Herman created a trend that would be emulated by others wanting to buy into the fashionably modern lifestyle. “Dean Valentine, president of UPN and a big art buyer, stops by. Earlier, Nick mentioned him because he bought Hannah’s [Greely] duck for $7,500…Dorothy Goldean, a well known art consultant, visits with her husband. They put a hold on the second framed work. She will be back in an hour to complete the deal.”4

It becomes self evident that the art galleries in Los Angeles Chinatown serve as a catalyst for the gentrification of the working class neighborhood. Their businesses cater to a specific privileged public who can afford the luxuries of owning original pieces of contemporary art. A couple of the gallerist have expanded their business ventures in Chinatown and opened the Mountain Bar nightclub, occupying the historic General Lee’s Restaurant in touristy Central Plaza. Business signs from General Lee’s are left on display in the front window and welcome the young, upwardly mobile customers trying to buy their way into the scene. The emerging nightlife in Chinatown draws the Hollywood crowd who come, just as they did decades ago, to flaunt their social and economic status by using the neighborhood as their personal entertainment venue. The neighborhood has become nothing more than an urban cultural playground in the eyes of European Americans who have come to utilize the space for their racial roughhousing.

Other business minded individuals have already caught onto the trendy appeal of the neighborhood and have begun to establish their settlements in Chinatown. Famed Hollywood producer/director and infamous orientalist Quentin Tarantino approached the Chinatown Business Improvement District about investing in the old King Hing Theater.5 Rumor has it that the theater will be home to an archive of classic Chinese kung-fu films, the epitome of Eurocentric images of Chinatown. Basketball legend Magic Johnson may be gearing for preparations to undertake a joint business venture with Bond Companies in the development of what is now the vacant Little Joe’s Restaurant on Broadway. “Plans are underway to develop new housing and retail space in Chinatown—in a possible collaboration with former Los Angeles Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson.”6

The influence of the European American artists on the redevelopment and gentrification of the community is reiterated as a proposal for the purchase of Chinatown property is granted to make way for new artists’ lofts. “Steve Riboli, owner of San Antonio Winery just north of Chinatown, is preparing to convert the old Capital Mills site, once a grain mill and silo, into artists’ lofts and studios. At a cost of $2.5 million, Riboli said he will turn the 60,000-square foot building into a mixed-use complex, one-third lofts and two-thirds computer design firms.”7 The connection between the artist colonies and the migration of business capital into Chinatown cannot be more direct.


When examining the revitalization proposals of the key investors in Chinatown, the targeted customer base can be extracted. It would be foolish to assume that the working families had access to the capital needed to reside in any one of the living spaces now being constructed. Although these new residential complexes will help alleviate the housing issue in Los Angeles, they are being created for a privileged few who have historically utilized L. A. Chinatown space to fulfill their colonial demands. Larry Bond of Bond Companies stated in a recent L. A. Times article that,

“We're focused on creating solutions to the housing crisis in Los Angeles and we're also focused on creating innovative developments in neighborhoods of interest… We define neighborhoods of interest as communities with strong local constituencies and architectural interest. We feel that Chinatown contains all these characteristics as well as a great proximity to a significant workforce with downtown Los Angeles just blocks away."8

Clearly, the housing is not being built for the immigrant Latino Chinatown restaurant worker or the sweatshop laborer trapped in the store on Chunk King Rd., but for the managerial, professional class Angelino with a salary paying job downtown. The orientalist and racial consumerist relationship between capitalist White America and Los Angeles Chinatown continues on with its legacy of disenfranchisement and displacement. Cultural consumerism still maintains its stronghold, even when disguised as multicultural respect for ethnic American communities. “The project will also include the construction of a plaza and cultural center to reflect the heritage of the Chinatown community and help draw visitors to the area." 9

Gallery owners on Chung Kind Rd. and those sprinkled through out Chinatown have served as the catalyst for investment bankers and wealthy developers to come into the area in the name of revitalization and community redevelopment. They embody the reality that White constructs of racial identities plays a crucial role in the business dynamics of Chinatown urban development. Critical analysis of the manners in which the cultural concept of “Chinatown” is marketed, bought, and sold in this racialized consumer society reveals that both Asian Americans and Non-Asian Americans alike are guilty of the perpetuation of stereotypes and stigmatism. Although immensely problematic in general, the situation is worsened when the latter comes to commodity this sense of Chinatown-ness because notions of White racial superiority are deeply rooted in such businesses ideologies. This false sense of rightful ownership makes evident the colonial mind set that is directly connected to the gentrification of ethnic communities, especially when marketed as urban revitalization. As Vicky Muniz writes in Resisting Gentrification and Displacement: Voices of Puerto Rican Women of the Barrio, “Revitalization and gentrification have generally been considered beneficial for the cities involved; by contrast, negative consequences have also been identified through a concern with displacement and its deleterious effects.”10 The deleterious effects, when applying this statement to the development of Los Angeles Chinatown, is exposed once the reality of who the city is being revitalized for (White middle class residents with upward mobility) and why (restructuring of the new capitalist marketplace) is established. When confronting these truths, it becomes clear that the working Latino and API families of Chinatown must prepare for a tough battle in order to maintain their ground.

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3Ihara, Nathan. “Boy-Oh-Boy: A burgeoning art movement or something.” LA Weekly magazine.
Nov. 2-8, 2001.
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9Stewart, Jocelyn Y. “Magic Johnson May Back Retail, Housing Complex in Chinatown.” Los Angeles
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10Muniz,Vicky. Resisting Gentrification and Displacement: Voices of Puerto Rican Women of the Barrio.
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