Woman riding rickshaw
Chinatown City pandered unabashedly to
stereotypes, evoking the "exotic" atmosphere
of a Chinese village.  Tourists could take
rickshaw rides and eat Chinaburgers.

Courtesy Lisa See


 Dragon's Den

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Chinese population in the United States was changing, from mostly a bachelor society, to one that included families. The American-born children of Chinese immigrants began expressing themselves through art and enterprise. This second generation sought to balance the old world of their parents with a new world opening up outside Chinatown. Federally-sponsored programs, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), brought students together with nationally-known artists. The growing popularity of Chinese cuisine, along with tourist attractions like China City and New Chinatown, brought new patrons into Chinatown. Some Chinese American youth viewed Old Chinatown with nostalgia, but many looked for opportunities to escape its confines by marketing themselves in Hollywood and elsewhere.

Dragon's Den Attracted a Trendy Crowd
In 1935, Eddy See opened the Dragon's Den Restaurant in the basement of the F. Suie One Company. On the exposed brick of the basement walls, Benji Okubo, Tyrus Wong and Marian Blanchard painted murals of the Eight Immortals and a dancing dragon. An arty crowd, including Walt Disney and the Marx Brothers, came to see the murals and sample the "authentic fare." In an era when Chinese restaurants were known as chop-suey joints, Dragon's Den served egg foo young, fried shrimp and almond duck. Non-Chinese diners during the Great Depression considered these "exotic" dishes.
Dragon's Den.

Courtesy of Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Eddy See and Friends, Dragon's Den.
Eddy opened Dragon's Den restaurant in the basement of the F. Suie 
One Company in Chinatown. With a $600 grubstake, Eddy went about creating a place that would be very different from other restaurants in Chinatown.

Courtesy of Leslee Leong.


The See Gallery Sponsored Chinese American Artists
Eddy See opened a small gallery in the mezzanine of the F. Suie One Company to sell the artwork of his friends, including Tyrus Wong, a student at Otis Art School, and Benji Okubo, a Japanese American artist from Riverside. Okubo met art pioneer Stanton Mcdonald-Wright while studying at the Art Student's League. He introduced McDonald-Wright to Wong and others at Dragon's Den, including Gilbert Leong, a student from Chouinard Art School, George Stanley, Marian Blanchard, and Dorothy Jeakins. McDonald-Wright's interest in Asian art grew because of his acquaintance with these students. He encouraged these young Asian American artists them to look to their heritage for forms and to juxtapose colors without adopting western perspectives.

The End of Old Chinatown
The area east of Alameda, near downtown Los Angeles, suffered from decades in decline before a deal was finally struck in 1931 to build Union Station, a new railroad terminal. The pending demolition of Old Chinatown was one reason the neighborhood was falling apart. Another cause was the exodus of second generation Chinese Americans, youth whose citizenship rights enabled them to secure "outside" jobs and housing. Some were ashamed of the run-down place where their immigrant parents had been forced to live. They blamed discrimination on bad publicity emanating from the media portrayals of Old Chinatown. Hundreds were forced to relocate when demolition began in December 1933, many of them elderly Chinese bachelors.

Filming The Good Earth

In 1932 Irving Thalberg bought the motion picture rights to Pearl Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth, hoping to "establish a clearer and more sympathetic relationship" between the United States and China. However, Thalberg could not bank on Chinese American actors in the starring roles, so he cast Paul Muni as Wang and Louise Ranier as O'lan. Supporting roles featured Ching Wah Lee, Keye Luke and Caroline Chew. Filming took place in and around Los Angeles. When the movie premiered on January 1937, critics hailed it as the most authentic view of Chinese life ever filmed.


The Good Earth. 
Though producer Irving Thalberg sent a crew to China to film scenes for The Good Earth, the film footages were reconstructed in Los Angeles and Northridge.

Courtesy of Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

House Of Wang, The Good Earth. 
China City included The Good Earth movie sets as tourist attractions.

Courtesy of Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.


China City
Christine Sterling opened China City in June 1938 as a tourist site, similar to the Mexican-themed Olvera Street nearby. The attraction pandered to touristy stereotypes of China. It was enclosed within a miniature "Great Wall of China," with lotus pools, temple gongs, curio stands, dance pavilions, and movie sets from The Good Earth. Tourists rode rickshaws and ate Chinaburgers. They loved the atmosphere, as did dignitaries like Eleanor Roosevelt. Movie stars such as Mae West and Anna May Wong were paid to make appearances and promote the attraction. A fire leveled China City in February 1939. Though it reopened amid great fanfare in August, business was never the same.

Peter Soo Hoo made New Chinatown a Reality
Peter Soo Hoo, President of the Chinese American Association, negotiated with Herbert Lapham of 
the Santa Fe Railway Company to purchase land and build New Chinatown.  Soo Hoo formed a 
corporation with twenty-eight men and women, each contributing $500 per share.  One of Southern
California's first pedestrian malls, New Chinatown's brightly colored buildings and tiled pagoda roofs
attracted tourists, shoppers and diners.  The eighteen stores and bean cake factory also served the 
social and economic needs of the community. 

Rendering for New Chinatown.

Courtesy of You Chung Hong and Mabel Chin Collection.

The clean, contemporary appearance of New Chinatown did much to raise the status of 
Chinese Americans in Los Angeles.  Inscribed "Cooperate to Achieve,"  New Chinatown's 
west gate was constructed as a tribute to Chinese laborers who built the railroads of California.
Y.C. Hong erected the east gate in honor of his mother and the self-sacrifices of motherhood.

Tyrus Wong Paint Dragon Mural in New Chinatown.

Courtesy of Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Grand Star Restaurant
 Owner Mama Quon was a prominent figure in Chinatown.

Courtesy of Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.