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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

August 30, 1993|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

Corroded Chinese coins, ivory dice, fan-tan markers and opium pipe bowls--objects by the thousands, left behind 60 years ago--are helping to piece together the history of the city's first Chinatown.

The cache of artifacts from Los Angeles' long-vanished "Old Chinatown" were left behind by the Chinese railroad workers, vegetable peddlers, merchants and their families who were evicted when the neighborhood was razed to build Union Station in the 1930s. The treasures were unearthed four years ago during construction of the Metro Rail subway.

The city's Chinese community, which today numbers 70,000, began to develop in 1859, when laborers were brought in to build a wagon road near Newhall and later the railroads. By 1890, the population had grown to about 2,000, concentrated in about 43 acres bounded by Alameda, Macy, Lyon and Aliso streets.

By the turn of the century, Chinatown's narrow, unpaved, dimly lit streets and alleys had become a residential and commercial community. Within its confines were about 200 buildings, including a Chinese opera house, a school, restaurants, three temples, a newspaper, its own telephone company and a produce market.

In spite of the newspaper and phone services, the most popular medium of communication for 50 years was a brick wall on Alameda Street. Ads, notices and the Chinese newspaper were posted. It served as Chinatown's town square, where people could meet and chat during the day. *

Most residents of the crowded ghetto lived behind stores or in flimsy boardinghouses with little heat or ventilation.

Chinatown also attracted the city's non-Chinese, who would go to eat in the Chinese restaurants. Some of the city's businessmen sometimes availed themselves of Chinatown's less savory attractions--gambling, whorehouses and opium dens. Opium smoking was a rich man's pastime, costing about $1.50 a day.

Immigrants paid rent to the family of rancher Juan Apablasa, who owned most of Old Chinatown. By 1913, the family was taking in a then-hefty $4,000 a month from Chinese tenants, according to a June, 1949, account in The Times.

The threat of relocation began in 1915, when the city proposed a new terminal on Apablasa's property for three separate railroads: the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe--hence the name union.

It took almost three decades of legal battles among the city, the railroads and the Apablasas, but finally officials evicted about 3,000 Chinese residents. Some old-timers held out, even after their water and power were cut off.

Twenty-eight Chinese men and women soon pooled their money, gathered their belongings and created another enclave nearby, on vacant railroad property between Bernard, North Hill and College streets and Broadway.

To get around laws barring land ownership by non-natives, the group, later known as "the founders," formed a corporation through their native-born children and bought railroad property, with the covert help of Herbert Lapham, a sympathetic railway agent. On June 25, 1938, they opened New Chinatown, with 18 stores and a bean cake factory.

But the city had its own alternative for the displaced Chinese. The same month New Chinatown opened, a tourist attraction called China City opened at Ord and Spring streets. China City, like Olvera Street, was the brainchild of civic activist Christine Sterling.

*

A set designer from Paramount collaborated in its conception, and movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille donated props and costumes from the 1937 movie "The Good Earth." Although the Chinese community was grateful, members of the corporation in New Chinatown thought the theatrical display with serpentine streets and rickshaws was foolish and impractical.

They were right. The "Celestial Empire" of China City was destroyed by fire 11 years later and never rebuilt.

The Metro Rail area being excavated behind Union Station represents about a quarter of Old Chinatown. Some of the relics found in a 2 1/2-acre site are on display on the sixth floor of the old Rapid Transit District building at 425 S. Main St.

Today, Union Station, the hub of Los Angeles' public transportation, sits atop more such buried treasures and long-ago streets.

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