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L.A.'s Newest Place: Thai Town

Community: Six blocks of Hollywood Boulevard today will win official recognition, a key step in a grass-roots drive to revitalize the area and attract visitors.

January 29, 2000|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suspend disbelief for a moment and envision East Hollywood as Bangkok. Images of the Emerald Buddha festoon storefronts. Thai folk music accompanies classical dancers in gloriously colored gowns. Aromas of soothing mint and fiery chilies fill the nostrils.

It is the vision of a determined group of Thai immigrants, and it is slowly taking life in a worn patch of the East Hollywood flats. Today, Los Angeles city officials will officially designate the six blocks of Hollywood Boulevard between Normandie and Western as the nation's first Thai Town.

Banners proclaiming Thai Town will be hung from lampposts; signposts on the Hollywood Freeway will mark Thai Town as a tourist destination. In coming months, statues of mythical figures carved in Thailand will be set at intersections on the boulevard and a Thai lotus garden will bloom near the Western Avenue Metro Rail station.

Today's noontime ceremony, at Thailand Plaza, 5321 Hollywood Blvd., marks a triumph for an ethnic group that began immigrating in sizable numbers to the United States barely 30 years ago. East Hollywood has served as a point of entry for many of the approximately 80,000 Thais living in Southern California--reportedly the largest population outside Thailand.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 3, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Thai Town--A story in Saturday's editions of The Times on the newly designated Thai Town area of Los Angeles misspelled the name of the executive director of the Thai Community Development Center. She is Chanchanit Martorell.

Their progression follows a well-established pattern: Like the Cubans in Miami's Little Havana and the Vietnamese in Orange County's Little Saigon--Los Angeles' Thai community is the latest group to employ a burgeoning population to advance its economic goals.

Like others, the Thais are trying to become more visible by emphasizing a unique cultural identity. They hope to attract such amenities as recreation centers, housing for seniors and perhaps funding for a museum.

But in working so closely with outsiders to shape their emerging community, Los Angeles' Thai leaders are being praised by city officials for trailblazing a different way toward the quintessentially American goal of economic advancement. And they intend for their prosperity to boost the fortunes of their non-Thai neighbors.

"Thai Town will serve as an economic strategy for a part of town that has been neglected," said Nancharit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, a nonprofit social service agency that has spearheaded efforts to create Thai Town. "There are such assets that could be tapped by everyone, be they Thai or Latino or whoever."

Not a few Thais have noted that the idea of Los Angeles as Bangkok makes perfect sense. Bangkok's Thai name means city of angels. Both cities are notorious for heat, pollution and traffic jams. Both exhibit exhilarating vibrancy.

A drive east on Hollywood Boulevard past Western Avenue is like a quick tour through the Americas and Eastern Europe. Guatemalan bodegas abut Mexican cantinas peopled with Russian diners. Armenian children walk to school accompanied by their grandmothers.

But on closer inspection, a theme begins to emerge in the form of elaborate Thai script. At the Bangkok Market, gourmands can stock up on bitter melon and round Thai eggplant. A Thai dessert shop offers preserved jackfruit, Pandan cookies and Kring Krang, crisply sweetened rice.

The large Silom supermarket occupies the middle of a block near Hobart Boulevard, its exterior the rose-hued color of dusk with ornate trimming and a spirit house, draped with colorful garlands and a stone-faced Buddha image, guarding the entrance from destructive forces.

This area has long been a magnet for immigrant groups, and it was the same for Thais who began coming in the 1960s, said Somchai Vongpiansuksa, who owns the popular Palms restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard.

Many Came First to Attend College

Many originally came to attend Southern California universities. There was a Thai market and bookstore on Melrose Avenue near Los Angeles City College, so people were familiar with the area. It was easy to find jobs in restaurants and shops, and real estate was cheap for new business owners.

Vongpiansuksa came over in 1982 and went to high school and college here. He worked as an electrician before inheriting restaurant duties from his wife's aunt.

He is sitting in the restaurant's sunny dining room, a little breathless after feeding a bus full of Indonesian tourists. Vongpiansuksa also gets plenty of locals, who dine on spicy hen soup in jungle curry, deer with green peppercorns and frog with crispy mint leaves.

He says Latinos love the spicy Thai food and make up a large part of his clientele, along with diners of nearly every other ethnicity.

Social scientists say it is not uncommon for a cuisine to form the core of a cultural identity in a foreign land.

Thai food "is a cuisine that has been able to [become] mainstream and maybe through it, other aspects of Thai culture and history will become better known to the people of Los Angeles," said Don Nakanishi, a UCLA professor and director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

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