Los Angeles

When I tell people about our round-the-world itinerary, there are always oohs and aah’s for the far flung destinations like Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Gwangju, South Korea. Los Angeles doesn’t fit in that lineup. I was, after all, born and raised in the City of Angels.

Los Angeles at sunset. Photo credit: Karen Kao

La La Land, Lotusville, Shaky Town, El Pueblo. These are all nicknames for my hometown, the most diverse city in the United States. Here, you can surf in the morning, ski in the afternoon, and trip the light fantastic until the wee hours. Or, you can get caught in the crossfire of a gang war, domestic violence and even a race riot.

But I know all this. Can I find something new to write about Los Angeles? I decided to treat this leg of our round-the-world venture like all the others: find local authors. For LA, two writers of very different styles and content led the way: James Ellroy and Lisa See.

Tinseltown

In June 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots erupted. A zoot suit is a pair of trousers —high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed and pegged — with a long coat that has broad lapels and padded shoulders. Zoot suits were particularly popular among Hispanics and other people of color. James Ellroy opens his LA noir novel, The Black Dahlia, with the mayhem that broke out.

By John Ferrell. Image source: Wikimedia

Word hit the papers that the zooters were packing Nazi regalia along with their switchblades, and hundreds of in-uniform soldiers, sailors and marines descended on downtown LA, armed with two-by-fours and baseball bats. An equal number of pachucos were supposed to be forming by the Brew 102 Brewery in Boyle Heights, supplied with similar weaponry. Every Central Division patrolman was called in to duty, then issued a World War I tin hat and an oversized billy club known as a nigger knocker.

James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia (Mysterious Press 1987)

When I was a kid, my parents drove past Brew 102 once a week on our way to Chinatown for the weekly grocery run. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as Chinese. I was convinced that, like all my neighbors and classmates, I too was Mexican.

Lo Sang

Lisa See had a similar experience. She grew up in the Los Angeles Chinatown, a member of the sprawling Fong See family. The Fong side is 100% Chinese. The See side is Eurasian. Lisa See is 1/8 Chinese. When she set out to write a history of the Fongs, she spoke to family and neighbors in Chinatown.

Many of the Chinese I interviewed talked about Caucasians as lo fan or fan gway, as white people or “white ghosts.” Often someone would say, by way of explanation, “You know, she was Caucasian like you.” They never knew how startling it was for me to hear that, because […] I thought I was Chinese.

Lisa See, On Gold Mountain (Rosetta Books 1995)
Life in Los Angeles Chinatown
On Gold Mountain by Lisa See

See taught me a new nickname for Los Angeles: Lo Sang. Technically speaking, I suppose the term referred only to Chinatown as the other parts of Los Angeles were off limits to non-whites. The Exclusion Acts of 1875 and 1882, the numerous attempts to drive out the Chinese, and the race riot of 1871 taught the Chinese to stay inside Chinatown.

But which Chinatown? There have been, over the years, no less than 3 different sites. In 1886, Chinatown was a sliver of land

Bordered on the south by slaughterhouses, on the east by railroad yards and a gas plant, on the north by the fading glory of the old Spanish Plaza, and on the west by the burgeoning Caucasian metropolis.

On Gold Mountain

Family Ties

When old Chinatown was razed to make way for the Union Station railroad terminal, Christine Sterling proposed to replace it with China City. The idea was to create a tourist destination like her other property, Olvera Street. She used discarded sets from the 1937 film, The Good Earth, to recreate a Chinese village fit for tourists.

Los Angeles actress Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong. Paramount publicity photo. Image source: Wikimedia

For a film set in China about Chinese farmers, Hollywood chose to cast Caucasians for all the principal roles in The Good Earth. It was an incident of yellow face that was typical for the era despite the availability of qualified ethnic Chinese actors. It was the one role Anna May Wong coveted and could not get.

Anna May Wong lived in New Chinatown, the one that still stands today. That’s the one I know. My family went there to buy the best strawberry cream cakes in Los Angeles (Phoenix Bakery). It’s where I gave a talk for the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California about my novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle and met the last two living fans of Anna May Wong.

If there is a family connection between Lisa See and me, it runs through Chinatown by way of Hollywood. For good or bad, Hollywood has shaped our ideas about Los Angeles. It might be a look at the Southland’s dark past in the film version of The Black Dahlia. Or into the future of Blade Runner 2049.

Whatever your version of the City of Angels might be, rest assured there are many others that are bigger, better or blacker than that. To borrow from the famous last line in the film Chinatown: forget it, Jake. It’s Los Angeles.

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