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SUN DOWN FOR CHINA TOWN? : FADED Glory : Once a thriving place to dine, browse and socialize, Chinatown is fighting for its economic life. Residents and business owners hope its second heyday is just around the corner.

November 01, 1992|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the heart of the Chinese community shifting to the San Gabriel Valley, a more diverse Chinatown is struggling to stay afloat. A new office tower, a light-rail station and possibly a new school district headquarters may be answers.

As Yiu Hai (Mama) Quon stares at her restaurant's empty dining room, she reminisces about times she spent hours pan-frying chow mein and egg foo young for crowds of hungry customers.

Quon, 93, still whips up tasty meals at the 46-year-old Grand Star restaurant in Chinatown, but now she spends most of her afternoons greeting the restaurant's scant number of customers from a worn vinyl booth near the main entrance.

Her son, Wally, is equally nostalgic. He likes to show off pictures of Charles Bronson, Tony Curtis and other movie stars who used to visit. And he still hands out copies of a 1969 newspaper review that raved about his mother's Peking duck and winter melon soup.

In many ways, Mama and Wally Quon symbolize the old Chinatown that has lived through its heyday and is now trying to carve a new role for itself.

Once a bustling tourist hub and an almost exclusively Cantonese enclave, Chinatown is now a multiethnic and multilingual community struggling to attract enough visitors to keep its shops afloat amid a shaky economy and a continuing shift of Chinese residents and businesses to the San Gabriel Valley.

"Chinatown is losing ground economically, and the businesses seem not to have done anything to recapture it," said Kenneth Yee, an assistant pastor at the First Chinese Baptist Church. "But I think Chinatown will continue to be the focus of educational, spiritual and social services for the Asian community."

Though Chinatown's destiny is far from clear, many hope increased development in the community and in the surrounding Downtown area will restore its faded glory.

Strolling past the mom-and-pop gift shops along North Broadway, Don Toy envisions a Chinatown with stylish condominiums and a variety of restaurants, theaters and stores that would draw young professionals and keep present residents.

"Chinatown has this reputation of being a place only for the immigrant population, but I think it can and will attract young people back," said Toy, director of the Chinatown Teen Post, a nonprofit social services agency. "I think it has tremendous potential."

But crime, a lack of parking, costly real estate, and the population shift to the San Gabriel Valley pose constant obstacles to this community of about 13,000.

More than 158,000 people of Chinese descent now reside in the San Gabriel Valley, with the largest populations in Alhambra, Monterey Park, San Gabriel, Rosemead and Hacienda Heights.

Many Chinese families moved to that area in the late 1970s and '80s because they were attracted to its good schools and affordable single-family homes. Business owners set up shop in the San Gabriel Valley because commercial space is about 50% cheaper than in the Chinatown area, according to analysts.

The First Chinese Baptist Church recently confronted a dilemma that many others in Chinatown face when it considered expanding in the San Gabriel Valley, where more than half the congregation lives. But after more than two years of soul-searching, Yee and other leaders elected to look beyond the economic factors and expand in Chinatown.

"We agonized over it for about two years because you're talking about paying a difference between $50 to $60 a square foot to $120 a square foot in Chinatown," Yee said. "But we decided that we want to be here to greet the immigrants. We want to be there to help them make the transition."

But others note that convenience often takes precedence over loyalty to Chinatown.

Kelly Chan, whose family owns the Phoenix Bakery on North Broadway, remembers when people used to make a special trip to Chinatown just to pick up a box of his almond cookies or a strawberry cream cake.

Today, San Gabriel Valley residents have many Chinese bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores and shops in their own neighborhoods and have no need to come to Chinatown.

"We believe our product is superior, but is ours so much better that if you live in the San Gabriel Valley you are willing to drive half an hour to come to Chinatown when you have a bakery five minutes away?" Chan said. "It used to be that Chinatown was the only place you could find certain items, but now you can get a Chinese dinner just as good, if not better, in San Gabriel.

"Until Chinatown is able to develop its own uniqueness, it's going to be a tough road."

But even though the San Gabriel Valley now claims most of Los Angeles County's Chinese residents and businesses, many say Chinatown still plays an important role as a port of entry for immigrants and as a symbol of traditional Chinese culture.

Chinatown, which was established in the 1870s, originally was east of Olvera Street Plaza at what is now Union Station. New Chinatown, which opened in 1938, was built along North Broadway and Hill Street.

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