Chinatown interchange meets and what defines a neighborhood

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When I think of Chinatown, I think of the exchanges and the muffled music of half a dozen portable radios, televisions and smartphones starts playing in my head.

If you listen closely, you can make out the chatter of Vietnamese and Cambodian variety shows, 80s Cantonese pop songs, and Mandarin TV news in the weird, still air of the exchange encounter. It’s an appropriate soundtrack for Chinatown’s many immigrant diasporas, strangely desperate and nostalgic.

Exchange meetings, which contain the majority of Chinatown businesses, are facing a redevelopment. For decades, they’ve lured immigrants from all over Southland with a product that translates into any language: cheap deals on clothes, housewares, luggage, toys, gifts and everything else. that fits in a shipping container.

Two women hold hands while shopping at the Dynasty Center in Chinatown’s swap meet district.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Once covering an entire block, the Chinatown exchange meetings have been reduced considerably since I wrote about them four years ago. The model arms dealer who I bought a “The Last Samurai” sword replica for $ 20 is gone, but his inventory remains, after performing a bizarre merger with that of a nearby toy store. There are no more choppy spinners in every store – evil eye charms, key chains and ornaments seem to be the current trend.

The lady who proudly modeled her silk dresses in the video we filmed to accompany the story is also gone, replaced by a woman who smiles a lot less. A Taiwanese clothing salesman who once ran two stores has been relegated to one store.

Time and the pandemic have left the corridors of the exchange meeting riddled with closed companies; nearly half of the vendors have left. A few months ago, Redcar Properties bought more properties in the swaps, and although no one has received an eviction notice, the sellers say they have little hope of being able to stay. The real estate development company previously bought and transformed the neighboring swap meet, the Shops, into an architectural office space.

    People buy at the Dynasty Center

On Friday, people shop at the Dynasty Center in the Chinatown shopping district.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The possible rearrangement of swaps, which once held the majority of Chinatown businesses, raises philosophical questions about Chinatown.

What is a neighborhood, really? What are its components or vital organs? Where is his heart, his brain, his lungs? Is it about people, places, buildings, businesses, land, all of that, part of it? Is it something more dogmatic, like an official designation of the city on urban plans, a sign, an additional line in your address? Or is it amorphous, like an identity or an idea?

The reason I’m asking the question is that all of these changes raise a bigger question about Chinatown: how do you know when it’s gone?

Over the next few years, affordable housing agreements that allow the region’s seniors to pay below-market rent will expire, opening the door to redevelopment and a dramatic decline in the region’s ethnic Chinese population. Between 1990 and 2020, the region’s Asian population grew from 68 percent to 54 percent, while the region’s white population grew from 1 percent to 10 percent, according to census data.

It is well known that the owners of the recent Chinatown exchange meetings are looking to sell their property.

Chinatown’s last full-service grocery store, Ai Hoa, closed two years ago after Redcar took over, and its last hospital in 2017.

And across Chinatown, low-income residents are fighting to stay in their homes as developers raise rents, issue eviction notices and seek redevelopment. The land under Chinatown has become too profitable for the community of Chinatown to exist above.

And the story of Los Angeles’ Chinatown is unfortunately not unique. I’ve been to Chinatown all my life, and over the past few years I have made a habit of visiting Chinatown wherever I go.

Something about me is elated by the discovery that no matter whether I’m in Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Detroit, I can always spot the characteristics of the diaspora: a frozen calendar sponsored by a Chinese bank on the wall, the golden storefront of ‘a familiar Chinese association or newspaper. It’s like a piece of house that follows me around the world.

In Kolkata’s Chinatown, I met a community of tanners and leather restorers and Chinese who spoke Bengali and English but not Mandarin. There were no gift shops or swap meets – only tanneries, temples, and restaurants. The restaurants served a chop suey drowned in the sauce and spicy like curry. I visited the local Chinese school, which was built over six floors with a temple at the top, but the number of students has declined so much that the ambitious development is now largely unused.

In Vancouver, Canada, I found a deserted Chinatown existing mostly in historic signs and placards.

In Yokohama, Japan, there was a Chinatown that existed primarily as a tourist destination, where the baozi was shrink wrapped in six packs and the dim sum format was all you can eat, ordered through iPads instead. as carts.

Chinatown in Yokohama was also in decline, and so were all of the Chinatowns I visited.

But every Chinatown has also been a powerful example of resilience. It is a home away from home, for people who have been forced to leave their homes. And the commonalities that I find in Chinatown are powerful reminders of how all immigrants are linked in their struggle to find and create a home.

    An exchange worker helps a woman in a mask

An exchange worker helps a customer on Friday in Chinatown.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

No place in Chinatown for me embodies better than exchange, where homeland resentments and language barriers are ignored in order to conduct the business of survival. Chinatown executives can complain about their dilapidated state and the waste created by the exchange, but they are one of the few remaining places where immigrant entrepreneurs can shoulder the cost of running their own businesses.

Long Ta, a Chinatown jeweler I have become familiar with over the years, founded his business in trading when he was in his 20s and now has various properties nearby. He thinks Chinatown will be there for at least 30 years. I found his estimate to be very optimistic, but as one of the last Asian landowners in his neighborhood, he probably knows it better than I do.

“With change, there is always good and bad. We want to maintain our culture, but we also want to move forward, ”Ta said.


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