The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chinatown


The following is an excerpt from an article in the LA Times about the changing face of their Chinatown. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article, which includes more pictures.

A Community's Ethnic Tradition in Transition
L.A.'s old Chinatown of family shops and traditions is grudgingly giving way to galleries and lofts. Even Quentin Tarantino is buying in.

By David Pierson
Times Staff Writer
July 25, 2006

During the day, the faded red lanterns that crisscross Chung King Road in Chinatown dangle listlessly above a row of Chinese antique and trinket shops that have seen better times.But on a recent Saturday night, after the gates on the Chinese shops were pulled down, another Chinatown sprang to life near L.A.'s downtown.

Modern art galleries that have filled Chinatown's storefronts in recent years opened, and the red lanterns were illuminated. A mostly bohemian crowd jostled to view abstract drawings and photographs of Brazilian prostitutes. Amid the fashionably dressed visitors drinking Mexican beer and smoking cigarettes, an elderly Chinese woman scoured the street for empty cans, even accepting ones out of the hands of art patrons.

These days, there are two Chinatowns — one on the rise, the other on the decline.

The old Chinatown — the one established as an entry point for Chinese immigrants, made up of long-standing family associations and shops that celebrate China's traditions — is struggling. The population is aging, merchants are starved for shoppers and the associations can't attract younger members.

The new Chinatown — the one of art galleries, loft developments and trendy boutiques celebrating modern Asian fashion — is booming. It's a community more about style than tradition, created by a mix of white artists and second- and third-generation Chinese Americans who came from the suburbs to form their own vision of Chinatown.

The transformation has been occurring gradually over the last six years but now appears to be shifting into overdrive. Loft conversions, mixed-use projects and luxury apartments are on the horizon. Director Quentin Tarantino has even bought an old theater where he plans to show Asian films.

The situation has created a culture clash. Some old-timers complain about the rowdy behavior of the new patrons. There are periodic flare-ups over art shows that some longtime Chinatown merchants consider too racy. Some elderly residents worry about being pushed out by gentrification.

"They're North Pole and we're South Pole," said Michael Han, a jade cutter whose jewelry store, Win Sun Co., has been a mainstay on Chung King Road for 30 years.

"There's no way for the two to get together. They've got people with nose rings, earrings, all those things. They come in here asking if they can use the restroom. I'm not offended; it's just the trend."

In the back room of his jewelry store, Han was playing a noisy game of mah-jongg with three elderly friends and bantering in Cantonese. The septuagenarian also speaks Mandarin, Taiwanese and Toisanese — a true mark of an old-timer, because some of Chinatown's earliest settlers were from an area in southern China's Guangdong province where it is spoken.

Though he is ethnically Chinese, Han grew up in Burma and left for the U.S. in the 1960s. He landed in Chinatown, like most Chinese immigrants of that time. He fondly remembers the 1970s, its boom period.

"It was so busy I never had a chance to have lunch," said Han. "Jade was very fashionable."

Han's store is on the ground floor of a peach-colored building. He rarely sits behind his glass counters, which display hundreds of jade and gold necklaces, earrings and bracelets. He's lucky to get one customer on some weekdays, so playing mah-jongg in the back room has become part of his daily routine.

Han still sends out 500 Christmas cards each year to the regular customers he's accumulated in three decades of business. Many haven't been to the store in years.

In Chung King Road's golden era, Han's business was one of many high-end dealers in art, furniture, ceramics and jewelry. But by the end of the 20th century, many patrons had passed on, and reproductions of Chinese antiques were being mass-produced.

Most of the merchants' children have college educations and little interest in taking over the stores. Han's son is a robotics engineer and his daughter is a teacher.

Shop after shop has closed on Chung King Road, leaving behind only some of the more well-known businesses, such as F. See On, the Jade Tree and Fong's Oriental Works of Art.

By the late 1990s, property owners were desperate to lease out the empty storefronts, so they took a gamble. They lowered rents and leased the spaces to rising artists, who considered the rents a bargain compared to places like Santa Monica. Over the next few years, the scene took off.Today there are about a dozen art galleries on the street. They have formed one of the most talked-about contemporary art scenes in the world.

Han and other merchants were optimistic when the galleries arrived, hoping they would bring more customers. But they soon realized that the galleries were not going to substantially boost business, in part because many drew crowds only for Saturday night exhibitions.

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