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Surfliner to Chinatown

Pacific Surfliner to Chinatown

Exploring Chinatown

Past and Present

Los Angeles Conservancy Tour

April 17, 2016



Robin Bowers

Text and Photos by Author
The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent.

    Spring was here again and time for another walking tour from the Los Angeles Conservancy. The Conservancy presents a tour in the spring and another in the autumn. Bruce Scottow, Education Outreach Coordinator at the LAC put out a call for a few more hands to help with the tour. Help was needed for the afternoon shift. So I volunteered to help. As Chinatown is close to LA Union Station and Amtrak was awarding double rewards points at this time, why not take the train to LA and walk to Chinatown and help with the tour.

    Checking the Surfliner timetable, I saw that train # 565 from San Diego stops in Santa Ana daily at 8:56 AM with arrival in Los Angeles at 9:50 AM. This would give me time to walk the tour, have lunch at Philippe The Original, and arrive at my duty station at 1:00 PM.

#565 pic7555     

Train # 565 arrives in Santa Ana on schedule. This is the lone single level consist operating in Southern California.


These cars ride very well but because the doors are manually operated, not ever door opens at each stop like the Superliner bi-level cars.

    We arrived on time in Los Angeles and I was off to do a little exploring. Sitting a few tracks over was the northbound Coast Starlight # 14 due to leave in several minutes.


My ride to Los Angeles.


Northbound Coast Starlight awaiting departure at 10:10 AM, with arrival in Seattle tomorrow night at 8:12 PM.


Boarding on the Coast Starlight on Track 10.


An excellent reason to ride the Starlight is the first class lounge parlour car. Sonoma Valley was today's car. 

    Number 14 pulled out on time at 10:10AM and now it was time to walk through the station and on to Chinatown.


Alright you ivory ticklers, entertain us.


Ticketing room.


Waiting room looking toward the tracks and platforms. Little gift shop has been removed.


Union Station front.

    Walking to N. Alameda St and then up to Cesar Chavez Avenue and then west on Cesar Chavez to North Spring St to my first stop. The King Hing Theatre.


King Hing Theater, 647 N. Spring Street.

    The 375-seat King Hing Theatre, originally named the Sing Lee Theatre, opened in 1962. It was designed by Gilbert L. Leong, a native Angeleno and the first Chinese American to graduate from the USC School of Architecture. The theater was a popular destination for the community, helping to make Spring Street a thriving local hub between the 1950's and the 1970's. The King Hing Theatre showed Chinese language films and hosted live performances, including Chinese operas. It stopped operating in 2001.

    This was the first stop for tour goers. Inside a program was presented to give some history and background of Old and New Chinatown. Among the speakers were Sara Lann, Director of Education, LAC, plus a docent from the Chinese American Museum, and then  former council member Mike Woo. Some notes from the program.


Full house in attendance for start of tour presentation.

        Wedged between Elysian Park to the north, and Lincoln Heights and Echo Park to the east and west, Los Angeles' Chinatown spans a little less than a mile. Along with iconic symbols of classical East Asia-tiled roofs, red lanterns, and wishing wells-exists the history of one of Los Angeles' oldest neighborhoods.

    The streets and parcels that formed the community's center were plotted in L.A.'s first official city survey in 1849, one year before California became a state. No other area of the city, except downtown, was mapped out before this location. Photographs taken in the mid-to late nineteenth century show modest houses surrounded by wooden fences, separating wide lots from their neighbors and the dusty road.

    What is now know as Chinatown wasn't the first in Los Angeles. The first permanent settlement of Chinese immigrants centered around El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the city's birthplace. Most of these residents were miners and laborers, men from the Guangdong province who traveled to California in search of better opportunities. Many found employment working on the railroads.

    From the outset, Chinese Americans faced discrimination on a systemic level, evidenced by the jobs they were allowed to have, the places they were allowed to live, and  the spats of violence their community endured from others. Still, Chinese immigrants continued to settle and prosper in Los Angeles. This first Chinatown became a thriving hub of Chinese residences and businesses complete with schools, temples, theaters, and restaurants. But the denial by city officials of public services to the Chinese, such as sewer systems, paved roads, and electricity, created a health risk. A proposal to raze the neighborhood in favor of a new railway terminal to be built on this site was issued in 1913; over the next decade, anti-Chinese sentiment and excitement for Union Station led to the neighborhood's ultimate destruction. At the time of what is now known as Historic Chinatown's condemnation in the 1930s, there were close to 3,000 Chinese Americans living in Los Angeles, most of whom faced displacement.
    Today's Chinatown was born as a destination as well as a community. Its founders envisioned a place that would serve and protect local Chinese American residents, as well as draw visitors to partake of its unique offerings. For many tourists, Chinatown's cuisine was the biggest draw. When Chinese American migration to the San Gabriel Valley began in 1970s, many of the massive dim sum palace restaurants moved with them. The ones that stayed struggled to keep afloat through decades of economic decline.

    In recent years, Chinatown had attracted new business and development that has brought new visitors to the area. An influx of art galleries, along with young, trendy eateries, offer new options alongside Chinatown's established shopping and dining institutions.

    And speaking of trendy eateries, it was lunch time. So I headed to Ord Street and then down to Philippe The Original. I left the presentation a few minutes early to try to beat the crowd to the lunch counter. Yes it was crowded, but the wait was only a short ten minutes before I could order my beef stew, coleslaw and lemonade. I sat in the little room with the model railroad display. Another reason to eat at Philippe's.

    After my nice repast it was time to start touring. Walking out the door and turning right, I went up Ord St. to my next stop at Ord and Broadway.


Broadway and Ord Street.


map courtesy of  Los Angeles Conservancy.


Garibaldi Building, Northeast corner of Broadway and Ord Street.
1906, R.B. Young


Covington Building, Southwest corner of Broadway and Ord Street.
1913, Hudson & Munsell

    The Garibaldi and Covington buildings, located in the heart of what was once Little Italy, are among the last intact commercial buildings associated with Italian ownership in the neighborhood.
    The Garibaldi Building housed S. Peluffo & Sons grocery for many years. Italian immigrant Stephen Peluffo was one of the city first wholesale grocers and also owned a winery. The Covington Building likewise catered to businesses owned by Italian immigrants. Both buildings had apartments on their second floors.

    Continuing on Ord St. to Hill St. At Hill turned right and headed north to Alpine Street then left Alpine to Yale Street. Going up Ord Street would mean a steep climb up the hill. The Alpine Street was a gentle climb.

    After turning left, I could see my next stop. The Thien Hau Temple, 756 Yale Street. 2005.

    Thien Hau Temple was built by the Camau Association of America, a benevolent association that serves immigrants from Vietnam along with other East Asian populations. A Taoist temple, Thien Hau Temple is dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of the sea and patron saint to sailors and fishermen. Many residents of Chinatown came from communities in southeastern coastal areas of China, which, along with Vietnam, have strong ties to the ocean. Other shrines in the Thien Hau Temple are dedicated to the warrior Guan Yu and earth god Fu De.

    Chinatown saw waves of immigrants from Taiwan and Hong King after the repeal of the Alien Quota Act in 1965. After the Vietnam War, a flood of Indochinese refugees including Vietnamese of Chinese origin as well as ethnic Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Thai Immigrants arrived, growing Chinatown's population and diversity. Today, the culture of Chinatown is a more inclusively Asian one, as seen in institutions such as Thien Hau Temple, where people from multiple backgrounds come to pray.


Thien Hau Temple, 756 Yale Street, 2005














    Leaving the temple I walked back to Alpine and then back to Hill Street. Going north on Hill Street, I arrived at the next stop.


Pacific Alliance Medical Center
531 W. College Street
Originally the French Hospital.

    Constructed by the French Society, the French Hospital was founded in 1869. It offered healthcare and medical services to French American citizens and newly arrived French immigrants, as well as to the greater community regardless of nationality, race, religion, or gender. Now known as the Pacific Alliance Medical Center (PAMC), it is the second-oldest hospital in Los Angeles. Still on its original site, PAMC has been remodeled several times, most recently in the 1960s. A visible sign of the hospital's history is the statue of Joan of Arc at the corner of Hill and College Streets, a reminder of the French community's presence in the neighborhood's early days.


    Continuing north on Hill Street is my next stop: West Plaza.

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West Plaza, Hill Street between Bernard and College Street.

     Located across Hill Street from the Central Plaza, the West Plaza was developed after World War II and opened in 1948. The design of the complex features Chinese elements, such as green tile roofs with upturned eaves, and a wishing well. The overall aesthetic of the West Plaza is more modern in style and more subdued in decoration than Central Plaza. It was intended to cater to the neighborhood rather than to tourists. Across Hill Street is the West Gate.


West Gate.

    Two of the most iconic structures in Chinatown are the welcome gates leading to the Central Plaza on either end of Gin Ling Way. The West Gate (on Hill Street) was erected in 1938 as part of the initial development of the Central Plaza. Its traditional design included 150-year old camphor wood from China. The Chinese characters translate to "Cooperate to Achieve."

    Continuing north on Hill Street to Bernard Street and arrived at my appointed duty station. I had arrived a little early and the site captain Cindy said it was OK to take off and come back in 30-40 minutes. I decided to walk down Broadway. I was going to do it later on the way home but now I could get inside the Cathay Bank while it was still open. I walked down Broadway to Alpine Street and would return taking time to return.


Cathay Bank
777 N. Broadway
1966, Eugene Kinn Choy & Associates

    Cathay Bank was born of necessity: in 1962, Chinese Americans in Los Angeles faced discrimination by financial institutions and businesses that often denied them loans and other banking services. Founded by prominent businessmen in the Chinatown community, Cathay Bank was the first Chinese American bank in California and the first to specifically address the needs of the rowing Chinese American population. Its commitment to equality is reflected in its motto: An Open Door to All. Cathay Bank has since opened branches throughout the nation and world.

    Cathay Bank was designed by Eugene Kinn Choy. A graduate of USC's School of Architecture. Choy became the second Chinese American to join the American Institute of Architects. Other buildings of Choy's in Chinatown include Broadway's Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) and the Jin Hing Jewelry Store on Bamboo Lane. Like the CCBA, Cathay Bank is a hallmark of Modern design combined with traditional Chinese architectural elements. Choy's use of the International Style of Modern architecture is augmented by the four Chinese characters running vertically down the front facade of the building, while the roof evokes the classical wood roofing of Chinese structures. Choy specifically incorporated these details to honor the request of Cathay's founders, who wanted the banks design to reflect their cultural heritage. The convergence of traditional Chinese custom and modern innovation seen in Chouy's work is an apt reflection of the Chinatown community.

    As no photography was allowed, I have no pics of inside. One interesting item were the counters where you stand to fill out your paper work before heading to the teller window's,  embedded in the counter's top was an  abacus. There were several in the lobby. Were they the earliest binary computers? The bank hostess were handing out nice tote bags. I asked if there were any free samples included. But Alas, No photography, No free samples. But of course I left in a huff and walked up Broadway.

    My next stop was a quick walk through and look see.
Tin Bo Inc,
841 N. Broadway.

   One of many excellent herb stores in Chinatown, Tin Bo carries a wide selection of teas and herbs, including what are considered the "big three" health supplements in Chinese medicine: ginseng, reishi mushrooms, and deer antler. They are believed to improve energy levels, body function, and longevity. Chinese medicine and apothecaries such as Tin BO were a part of Chinatown from its earliest days: Chinese companies imported specialty herbs for their workers, and Chinese groceries often stocked medical ingredients alongside food items.

    I walked to the next block and the location of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.


Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
925 N. Broadway
1951, Eugene Kinn Choy & Associates

     Formally organized in 1890, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), was formed to promote and protect Chinese Americans on both social and political fronts. It continues to pursue this mission today, representing nearly thirty family and district associations.

    The CCBA relocated to its current home, designed by Eugene Kinn Choy, in 1951. This unique civic structure exemplifies the East Eclectic style of many buildings commissioned by New Chinatown businesses and institutions.

    The next stop was a sweet one.


Phoenix Bakery
969 N. Broadway
1977, Gilbert L. Leong

    The Phoenix Bakery opened on New Chinatown's Central Plaza in 1938. It originally supplied the community with Chinese pastries that were difficult to come by in the U.S. The logo of  a boy hiding a pastry box behind his back was created in the 1940's by Tyrus Wong, who also painted the Central Plaza's dragon mural: the logo was modeled after one of the children in the extended family of bakery owner Fung Chow Chan. With more business than it could now manage, the bakery opened its current location in 1977. Still owned and operated by third-generation Chans, the Phoenix Bakery continues to produce hundreds of its trademark whipped cream and fresh strawberry cakes every week.

    Across Broadway at 970 N. Broadway is the Mandarin Plaza. As I was running short of time I didn't visit this site. It was now time to return to my duty site and check in at the Gee How Oak Tin Association, 421 Bernard Street. Also on Bernard Street are two homes next to the Association.


415 Bernard Street.


411 Bernard Street.
Chinatown Heritage and Visitors Center.

    These two working-class homes harken back to Los Angeles' early development. The one-story frame cottages are rare surviving examples of the type of residences that once made up the neighborhood. Distinctive features such as roofs with shallow eaves, decorated gables, simple porches, and wood clapboard siding exemplify the Queen Anne Style of the late nineteenth century. The homes were built by Alsatian immigrant Philip Fritz, a carpenter for the Bridges and Buildings Department of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

    There were three houses constructed on adjacent lots over a seven year period;  411 Bernard (which now houses the Chinatown Heritage and Visitors Center) was the first built, in 1886. A second house was built in 1888, but was moved to another location in the 1930s due to street widening, and has since been demolished. 415 was built in 1892. The three homes were often rented to railroad workers when not being used by the family. Philip Fritz' three children and their families lived in the homes at various times. Philip Fritz' granddaughter, Louise, was living in this house, (411) until her death at 101 in 1992.

    Currently owned by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, the buildings house a research collection, bookstore, artifacts, and displays related to local and national Chinese and Asian American history.

    Now it was time to check in with the site captain at the Gee How Oak Tin Association, 421 Bernard Street where I was assigned to welcome tour goers to the second floor main common room area.

    In the nineteenth century, Chinese men in Los Angele created a number of family associations to provide support, protection, and social ties within the community. With discriminatory immigration laws severely limiting Chinese women's ability to immigrate, the associations offered meals, healthcare, and camaraderie for immigrant men working in a strange new country.

    Formed around surnames identifying common lineage, family associations offered new immigrants assistance with job placement, housing, English lessons, financial counsel, and funeral services. They also offered the opportunity to connect with fellow countrymen through activities ranging from mahjong games to charity work.

    The Gee How Oak Tin Association is one of approximately forty family associations in L.A.'s Chinatown that continue to serve the local population as well as new arrivals from China and Southeast Asia. Inside the Association building's common room hangs a picture of the ancestor believed to be the common link to the various families that make up Gee How Oak Tin: the Chans, Chens, Chins, Trans, Woos and Yuens. Photos documenting multiple generations of these families ring the walls. Gee How Oak Tin (meaning "Most Filial") is an international organization, and, according to its members. one of the largest in the United States. The L.A. Chinatown chapter comprises 400 to 500 members-including women, who were officially allowed to join more than a decade ago.

    This building was built in 1949 for and by the Association and was deigned by Eugene Kinn Choy, an important Chinese American Architect.


Emperor Shun, circa 2318 B.C., who was a descendant of Huang-Ti, the "Yellow Emperor" of Ancient China (3000 B.C.).


Offering for association's members common ancestor.


  A few mahjong game pieces.

    I had a great time welcoming tour goers plus getting help from association's members that were on hand to answer questions and talk more about the Association and the decorations. I met many people including a fellow Fullerton meet up train rider and photo travel writer Carl Morrison. He was taking the tour with several friends and having an enjoyable time learning about Chinatown. 

    Soon it was 4:30 PM and time to close up. Reports were that the tour was a big success. Over 800 people were learning about and enjoying Chinatown. They were looking, buying, and eating everywhere. A happy time was had by all.

    Leaving 421 Bernard Street, I walked down Broadway heading for the Gold Line Chinatown station. Walking past the Central Plaza, I was spotted by Bruce S., who asked me if I had seen the inside of the Y. C. Hong Office Building. I hadn't but wanted to, Bruce said I could join one of the last tours of the building. As this was a NO photography allowed building I have no inside photos.


Y. C. Hong Office Building
445 N. Gin Ling Way
1939, Webster & Wilson

    Carved brackets and rafter tails, Chinese-influenced ornamentation, and a neon silhouette makes this building a prime example of the East Asia Eclectic style exemplified in New Chinatown's Central Plaza. Yet the upstairs office of lawyer You Chung Hong make it truly special.

    The son of a Chinese immigrant who worked on the railroads. Hong was the first Chinese American to pass the California Bar exam in 1923 and before he graduated from USC's law school. He specialized in immigration law and devoted his career to Chinese American civil rights, which led him to testify before the U.S. Senate and to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court. Hong worked on thousands of immigration cases, always championing the Chinese American population he served. An active member of the community outside of his professional career, Hong contributed greatly to New Chinatown. He served as one of its founders and commissioned multiple buildings on Gin Ling Way, including his office building.

    The upstairs tour included the reception area and Mr Hong's corner office which is almost the way it looked when he used it. In one of the several rooms included in the suite was a display by his granddaughter, Celeste Hong. She remembers her grandfather and had several pictures of her and her grandfather. He died when she was around nine years old. It certainly added to the tour to have person connected and related to the owner and builder. Celeste is also a volunteer at the LAC and I have been on several committees with her. 

    The buildings around the Central Plaza were designed with shops on the first level and living space above. Brightly painted facades and clay-tiled roofs gave a welcoming charm to the neighborhood.

    Today, Central Plaza serves much the same purpose as it did then: shops and businesses are still owned by many of the original founding families, and the neon lights added shortly after the buildings' completion create a festival feeling at night. Also at the Plaza are statues of the first president of the Republic of China, Dr.Sun Yat-sen, and action star Bruce Lee.


Moon over East Gate.


The elaborate East Gate (facing Broadway) was dedicated on the one-year anniversary of the Plaza.
Commissioned by Y.C. Hong is honor of his mother, it is known as the Gate of Maternal Virtues.


Blimp over Dodger Stadium and the Y.C. Hong Office Building.

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Where I stopped to eat before heading home.

    Leaving Central Plaza, I walked down Broadway to College Street. At Broadway and College is located the Bank of America.

b of a 7648

Bank of America
850 N. Broadway
1972, Gilbert Leong and Richard Layne Tom

    The first major national bank to move to Chinatown, Bank of America decided to open a branch there only after watching the success of Chinese-American-owned banks such as Cathay and East West Bank. Architect Gilbert L. Leong incorporated classical Chinese architecture into the Modern structure through features such as an imported jade-green tile roof. Leong built many iconic structures in his childhood neighborhood, including East West Bank (where he served as a founding director), the Kong Chow Family Association and Temple (931 N. Broadway), and the the Chinese United Methodist Church (825 N. Hill Street).

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Chinese Methodist Church.
825 N. Hill Street.
Gilbert L. Leong

    I continued downhill on College Street to the bottom and to the elevator to whisk me up to the Metro Gold Line Station  platform. On the other side of the street are the stairs to the elevated platform. Arriving at the platform stop, I only had time for one photo before a rail car was blocking my view. I could have stayed and waited for a later train as I had some time before the Surfliner left Union Station. Be sure to tap your metro card before riding up in the elevator.


    The painted buildings to the left are part of the Blossom Plaza project. When completed there will be a level walkway from the Metro Station on to Broadway, thereby eliminating the steep climb up College Street to Broadway. It occupies the site of the former Little Joe's Restaurant, 900 N. Broadway, 1888, B.J. Reeves.

    In 1928, Little Joe's Italian American Restaurant was established on the corner of Broadway and College Street. It occupied an 1888 building that had once been a grocery. The business remained in the Nuccio family, second-generation owners of the original grocery until its closure in 1998. Several years later, the building was demolished. Now, the site is home to the Blossom Plaza project, a $100 million residential-retail complex that includes townhouse-style apartments as well as affordable housing units.The appealing five-story buildings were inspired by Chinese architecture and herald a revived interest in the neighborhood.

    Before I knew the history of Chinatown, I always wondered why there was an Italian restaurant in the middle of Chinatown. Now I know.

Capitol Milling Company
1231 N. Spring Street
1884 addition, Kysor & Morgan
1889 addition, Kysor, Morgan & Walls

    Despite the clearly legible "Est 1883" painted on the side of Capitol Milling Company's building, parts of the brick structure have been standing for much longer. The brick mill produced flour from 1855 until 1998, when the company was sold and the building acquired by San Antonio Winery. Capitol Milling harkens back to the agricultural industry that once flourished in the area. Los Angeles was still a rough Mexican outpost of approximately 800 people when water from the ditch that provided early settlers with water, the Zanja Madre, powered Capitol Milling's water wheel. The company (known first as Eagle Mill, the as Deming Mill) would eventually be named Capitol Milling by owners Jacob Lowe and Herman Levi, German American Jews who purchased the mill in 1883. Capitol Milling stayed in the Levi family until its closure in 1998, making it the longest-running family-owned business in Los Angeles.

    It was a very short ride from Chinatown and Los Angeles Union Station. The original Metro plans had no stop in Chinatown. They neither planed nor wanted a stop so close to LAUS.  The locals were able to show Metro the error in their thinking. Now the Metro Gold Line Chinatown stop is one of three stations designated as "landmark" stops by Metro (in addition to Southwest Museum and Memorial Park).

    Upon arriving at LAUS with about three quarters of a hour till Pacific Surfliner train 1790 departed, I waited in the waiting room. A wonderful room and a great place to people watch. I was keeping track of the arrivals and departures boards. Train 1790 left San Luis Obispo, CA at 2:00PM with arrival in Los Angeles at 7:20 PM. The southbound trains going through Los Angeles to San Diego, CA tend to be heavily occupied, and Sunday afternoons and nights are the busiest. So I wanted to be on the platform when the train arrived and ready to grab a seat. The census was about 70% filled. The horn sounded and we were pulling away from the platform as the clock struck departure time. After 36 miles and one hour I was walking in the Santa Ana parking structure to my auto. A quick trip on the freeway and I was home.

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     And a special thanks to the Los Angeles Conservancy.
     Data used in this report was obtained from their booklet: Exploring Chinatown: Past and Present Tour, April 17, 2016.

    The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent.

 Comments are appreciated

    Thanks for reading.