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A Los Angeles Primer: Chinatown

“A good urban context and the history it represents teach, with a sense of humor, even kitsch how to live.” So, in “Travels in Hyperreality”, writes Umberto Eco, who, despite not necessarily having Los Angeles in mind, nevertheless sets up a pillar of the mental framework needed to consider this city. Much of what appeared here in the early- to mid-twentieth century — the countless unprecedented forms of advertising, the theme parks, the buildings shaped like the products sold within, the freeways — must have at first seemed somehow “unreal,” and calculatedly so. While some of these have since vanished, the intervening decades have seen a steady drip of reality, even mundanity, seep into the survivors. What we might once have held up for ridicule as Los Angeles kitsch, we now barely even notice at all unless we look carefully enough. Take Chinatown: some regularly use and even enjoy it, while most seem to have only the vaguest awareness of its existence. In 1938, the year Olvera Street developer Christine Sterling opened one of its predecessors, China City, everyone would have had an opinion.

“China City must have been a sight to behold,” writes William Gow in the article “Building a Chinese Village in Los Angeles.” “Located near Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, only a few blocks from the nearly completed Union Station, the walled city featured buildings adorned in Chinese-style architecture, a lotus pond, and Chinese rickshaw rides. There was a temple, and replica buildings from the set of the 1937 Hollywood blockbuster, ‘The Good Earth.’ Costumed Chinese American workers greeted tourists, and a Chinese opera troop performed live shows in front of the shop of Hollywood recruiter Tom Gubbins.” What a staggering wealth of kitsch this urban simulacrum of a cinematic simulacrum of a Chinese village must have offered. Alas, one 1939 fire weakened China City, and a second 1948 fire destroyed it. When you walk through today’s Chinatown, you walk mainly through the descendant of New Chinatown, the other late-thirties development that competed with China City to both employ Chinese and Chinese-Americans and provide free-spending Angelenos with a non-threatening Middle Kingdom experience.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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