LOS ANGELES — The story of Chinatown is a story of many things — of gentrification and the ongoing housing crisis, the development of the freeway system, US immigration policy, and the current wave of anti-Asian violence, tracing back to the Chinese Massacre of 1871, to name a few. But Stories and Voices from LA Chinatown (co-presented by the Huntington Library, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Public Library) reminds us that, like all histories, Chinatown’s story is one that is fundamentally about people.
The exhibition focuses on the creation of New Chinatown, which was built in 1938 following the destruction of the original neighborhood, and presents interviews with notable figures involved in and impacted by the founding of New Chinatown alongside archival documentation. The result is less of a comprehensive overview or historical analysis and more of an assortment of collective memories.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlas showing New Chinatown (1950) (Los Angeles Public Library Map Collection)
Speaking more loudly than any of the testimonials is the ephemera itself: photographs, immigration papers, architectural plans, home videos, and even menus and invitations. Seeing Chinatown through these first-hand documents, with such detail and specificity, immediately dispels the cliché that it has come to occupy in the cultural imagination.
Electrical Products Corp. (artist unknown), neon lighting concept for New Chinatown (ca. 1936) (© courtesy Federal Heath Sign Co., LLC, the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)
An example is a rendering for a neon lighting concept, by Electrical Products Corporation, for the new neighborhood’s main landmark, Central Plaza, commissioned by community leaders Peter SooHoo Sr. and Y.C. Hong in the 1930s. The use of neon as a deliberate marketing strategy is an eloquent expression of how cognizant residents were that Chinatown was conceived of as a tourist destination catering to Western expectations, a Disneyfied simulacrum of Chinatown. “The goal was to follow what was currently popular. And if people really were interested in Oriental, Asian kinds of things, then that’s what we’ll give them … People said, okay, well, we will sell Chinese art and culture and history,” explains the former president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance and ex-urban planner Eugene Moy in one of the video interviews.
Mei Wah Drum Corps Lantern Parade (1940) (Los Angeles Public Library, Harry Quillen Photo Collection)
The archive’s images reveal a Chinatown that was both more glorious and more destitute than any of the romanticized narratives passed down about it. On one end of the spectrum is a glamorous snapshot of actress Barbara Jean Wong leading the Lantern Parade with her white go-go boots and “Shirley Temple” smile (as her cousin Pat SooHoo Lem fondly remembers ) — an illustration of the intergenerational struggle between the desire to maintain Chinese traditions and the youthful zeal for American culture. On the other end is the story of struggle, discrimination, and hard-won respect, exemplified by the photos and videos showing the beginnings of Chinatown arising from hand-hewn logs atop the empty lot of a former brick yard, as well as the legal documents advocating for the rights of Chinese Americans left by immigration lawyer Y.C. Hong, the first Chinese American lawyer to become a member of the California Bar. The exhibition offers an illuminating glimpse into the founding of Chinatown as a coalition of immigrants supporting one another — dealing with the same issues of identity, invisibility, and acceptance that Asian Americans are still struggling with today — and reminds the viewer that Chinatown, at its core, is a story about the United States.
Y. C. Hong outside his immigration law office in the Central Plaza (1940s) (the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)
Stories and Voices from LA Chinatown wraps somewhat too neat of a bow on the story of Chinatown, leaving the viewer itching to learn more (What came before? What came after? What is left unsaid?), but perhaps it only provides impetus for others to fill in the gaps in history by gathering their own records and start documenting their own stories.
Stories and Voices from LA Chinatown is currently on view online via the Archive Alive series, presented by the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens; the Library Foundation of Los Angeles; and the Los Angeles Public Library.