Chinatown: The Story of an L.A. Icon

East Gate at Chinatown Central Plaza
East Gate at Chinatown Central Plaza | Photo courtesy of Space-wanderer, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

Chinatown is one of L.A.'s most popular tourist destinations, located in Downtown L.A. near the city's civic and cultural center. Travelers may be confused by the "New Chinatown" mural that marks the neighborhood's Central Plaza, but there's a story behind that. L.A.'s first Chinatown was located where Union Station is now. In the early 1930s, the old enclave was razed in favor of L.A.'s major train terminal, and in June 1938 a new Chinatown celebrated its grand opening not far from where the original neighborhood stood. New Chinatown became a significant part of both local and national history - it's the first such neighborhood in the U.S. that was actually owned by Chinese residents.

I had been heading to Chinatown for years to hang out and sometimes DJ at the local venues. In late 2012, I became a resident. After settling into the neighborhood, I started to notice the ebb and flow of foot traffic, which is always at its thickest around lunch and dinner.

A Mecca for Food

Dim sum at Ocean Seafood in Chinatown
Dim sum at Ocean Seafood | Instagram by @imjennim

In Chinatown, a mix of new and old restaurants caters to every palate. You can find dim sum at Ocean Seafood, an extensive selection of soups at Pho Broadway, and tasty banh mi at Golden Lake Eatery

After famed chef and Kogi BBQ Truck founder Roy Choi opened a Chego shop in Far East Plaza in May 2013, the neighborhood's reputation for good eats increased enormously. In the last several years, other foodie faves have moved into the neighborhood, too. Eddie Huang, whose memoir Fresh Off the Boat inspired the TV show of the same name, recently opened Baohaus, also in Far East Plaza.   

Surf and Turf Po'boy at The Little Jewel of New Orleans
Surf and Turf Po'boy at The Little Jewel of New Orleans | Photo by Joshua Lurie

The cuisine in Chinatown goes beyond pan-Asian fare. Folks are lining up for fried chicken at Howlin' Rays. Over at Burgerlords, the grill is fired for both meat lovers and vegans, while Little Jewel of New Orleans serves po' boys in a market full of Southern snacks and drinks that are hard to find in Los Angeles.

Phoenix Bakery on N. Broadway in Chinatown
Phoenix Bakery on N. Broadway in Chinatown | Photo by Liz Ohanesian

Early birds should stop by Philippe The Original, a local institution that's beloved for its iconic French Dip sandwiches, but also serves a mean classic American breakfast. A Chinatown staple since 1938, Phoenix Bakery is beloved for their strawberry and whipped cream birthday cakes. Or, you can go to Wonder Bakery in Central Plaza, for a variety of sweet and savory pastries. Night owls will want to head to Full House Seafood on Hill Street, which is open late into the night.  

Chinese American Museum

“Breaking Ground” exhibit at the Chinese American Museum
“Breaking Ground” exhibit at the Chinese American Museum | Photo courtesy of Michael Locke, Flickr

Food is undoubtedly part of Chinatown's local acclaim, but the restaurants are far from the only reason to visit. History buffs will want to start their trip at the Chinese American Museum (CAM), located just outside of Chinatown at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. The museum is housed in the Garnier Building, the oldest surviving Chinese building in a major metropolitan area of California.

Twin Dragon Gateway

Twin dragon gateway in Chinatown
Twin dragon gateway in Chinatown | Photo courtesy of Chains of Pace, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

From CAM, it's a short walk to the twin dragon gateway on Broadway that welcomes visitors. But, know that you can learn a lot more about Chinatown once you venture into the neighborhood.

Central Plaza

Realm in Chinatown
See photos of Chinatown's past inside Realm. | Photo by Liz Ohanesian

Inside Chinatown's Central Plaza, home decor shop Realm tells the building's story through photos on its walls. Years earlier, this was Hong Kong Cafe, a restaurant that became an important cornerstone in the city's punk rock history. You'll even find a photo of L.A. punk icon Alice Bag hanging on the wall. 

"Chinese Celestial Dragon" mural by Tyrus Wong
"Chinese Celestial Dragon" mural by Tyrus Wong | Photo courtesy of Mural Conservancy

Nearby is the Chinese Celestial Dragon mural originally painted in 1941 by Tyrus Wong. The legendary artist, who passed away in December 2016 at age 106, was renowned for his work in film, particularly as the lead artist on Disney's Bambi.

Bruce Lee statue in Chinatown's Central Plaza
The Bruce Lee statue in Chinatown's Central Plaza is a popular site for photographs. | Photo by Liz Ohanesian

Not far from Wong's mural is a massive statue of Bruce Lee. The late martial arts star once had a studio in Chinatown (at 628 W. College St.), and this tribute to him has become a must-photograph site in Central Plaza.

Art Galleries

Chungking Studio art opening in Chinatown
Photo courtesy of Chungking Studio, Facebook

For years, Chung King Road has been an L.A. art hub. The small courtyard tucked in off Hill Street is home to a number of noted galleries, including Coagula Curatorial and Gregorio Escalante Gallery. More recently, galleries have been moving into other parts of Chinatown as well, like Lei Min Space in Central Plaza and Eastern Projects under the Blossom Apartments on Broadway and College. 

Street Art

Untitled portrait by Vhils in Chinatown
Untitled portrait by Vhils in Chinatown | Photo by Liz Ohanesian

Take some time to check out the street art too, like an untitled portrait by Portuguese artist Vhils (Alexandre Farto) at 759 N. Spring Street. A second mural by Vhils is located a block away at 837 N. Spring St. facing N. New High Street. For a very different style of art, visit Velveteria, located on New High Street, to check out a massive collection of unusual velvet paintings.

Nightlife

General Lee's in Chinatown
Photo courtesy of General Lee's

Chinatown's bar and club scene is small and concentrated in and around Central Plaza. At General Lee's, you can sip craft cocktails, listen to live jazz, and catch local DJs on the decks. The Grand Star Jazz Club, where this writer sometimes DJs, hosts a variety of live band and dance nights. Located on Hill Street across from Central Plaza, Melody Lounge has an extensive beer list and a calendar packed with events.

Festivals

Jason Bentley at Chinatown Summer Nights
Chinatown Summer Nights | Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Chinatown, Facebook

Chinatown hosts block party-style events throughout the year, like the music and food truck Chinatown Summer Nights and the annual Moon Festival. The biggest event, though, is Lunar New Year. Celebrations include the Golden Dragon Parade and Chinese New Year Festival along with the L.A. Chinatown Firecracker bike ride and run. If you're in L.A., these events are a good way to get a glimpse of multicultural Los Angeles.   

Getting There

Metro Bike Share at the Gold Line Chinatown station
Metro Bike Share at the Gold Line Chinatown station | Photo courtesy of vtpoly, Flickr

Those traveling without a car will be pleased to know that Chinatown is easily accessible by public transportation. The Metro Gold Line drops off visitors and residents about a block away from Central Plaza via the Chinatown station. The neighborhood is a short walk from Union Station and is accessible by multiple buses that travel along Broadway and Hill Street. Want to cycle through the neighborhood? Metro also has several Bike Share stations in Chinatown.