Like the kay snake still sold as an analgesic in herbal medicine stores along North Spring Street, Los Angeles' Chinatown is shedding its old skin.
What is emerging is a colorful new organism--a revitalized community that not only has experienced the pull of two cultures--the ancient Chinese and the new American--but has absorbed the shock waves of social and economic change brought about by global politics.
Although "City of the Chinese," is its official Cantonese translation, Chinatown has become a multi-ethnic Asian community.
The polyglot neighborhood, once a block long, now stretches from Dodger Stadium on the north and Alameda Street on the east, to Sunset Boulevard on the south and Figueroa on the west. The Los Angeles City Planning Department estimates that 4,600 people live in Chinatown proper.
Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, figures another 25,000 have spilled over into nearby Lincoln Heights and Echo Park, with Chinatown their commercial and social center. Still more come to Chinatown to shop, do business and socialize, he says.
Chinatown has grown in size and diversity. The repeal of the Alien Quota Act in 1965 brought to the homogeneous Cantonese enclave a stream of immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Then, after the Vietnam War, Los Angeles saw a massive influx of Indochinese refugees. Many Vietnamese of Chinese origin, as well as some Thai, Cambodian, Laotian and ethnic Vietnamese immigrants flocked to Chinatown.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported there were about 8,000 Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles in 1960, 19,000 in 1970 and 44,000 in 1980. In the 1980 census, the first that counted Vietnamese-Americans separately, there were about 13,000 Vietnamese-Americans in Los Angeles. Ensuring Continuity
Hiram Kwan, 65, like many of Chinatown's old guard, traces his family's roots in America to the last century, and before that to Canton in southern China.
Kwan became an immigration attorney, law professor and businessman. He typifies those of his generation who partook wholeheartedly of mainstream American life while dedicating themselves to ensuring the continuity of a traditional community in Chinatown.
After serving in World War II and working as a federal prosecutor under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kwan says, "I felt I wanted to do more for my community." He began a private practice and, besides assisting newcomers with immigration procedures, he helped them set up businesses, often by pooling their modest resources into hueys , cooperative investment groups.
He also founded the 500-member Los Angeles branch of the 1,500-year-old Quan Kwong Yee Family Assn. In the association social hall, elderly men and women play cards and Mah-Jongg during the day and take advantage of 35-cent dinners each evening.
Until recently, such organizations, financed by private donations, functioned as the primary social and welfare institutions in Chinatown. Each family association is made up of relatives and descendants of people from certain villages in China. Some two dozen traditional family, fraternal, welfare and trade associations in Chinatown form a federation called the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn., which used to function as a sort of combination city hall, courthouse and United Way for local residents.
But Chinatown has outgrown many of its old ways. As Chinese-Americans created new ethnic centers around Southern California, Chinatown's tourist business began slipping. Meanwhile, its new businesses, many owned by newer immigrants, flourished.
Still, Kwan says, young and old continued to pay homage to Chinatown by celebrating holidays, birthdays and weddings there. "It's a hub for Chinese culture," says Irvin R. Lai, a businessman and national president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. "People still come here to do their financial business, see the doctor, visit friends."
Dunson Cheng, president of Cathay Bank, believes the Indochinese immigrants have greatly benefited Chinatown. "They have opened up the majority of new businesses," he says. "They contribute a lot to the vitality of the neighborhood."
Vitality is important to Chinatown banking, which has been a growth industry. "Twenty years ago, there was just one Chinese-American owned bank in Chinatown," Lai says. "Now there are about 20."
Cheng points to a boom in construction as a sign of the health of Chinatown's commercial future. "It's bound to attract even more businesses," he says. He cites such major commercial developments as the Bamboo Plaza, Dynasty Center and the B.C. Plaza.
But even with their business acumen, the newcomers' arrivals have not been without discord and their integration into the community has been gradual.
William Lew Tan, an attorney active in civic groups, says that different styles of doing business have produced clashes. "It requires an extensive educational process to understand each other," he says.