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Chinatown Redux

New Life for the Heart of an Old Community

January 12, 2003|GINNY CHIEN

Chinatown today clusters around parallel stretches of North Hill Street and North Broadway above Cesar E. Chavez Avenue downtown. But during the late 1800s, the city's Chinese immigrant community shared acreage with Olvera Street and the Italian immigrant quarter near where Union Station now stands. The Garnier building was Chinatown's unofficial headquarters.

The Garnier's service to Chinese American Los Angeles came full circle last month with completion of renovations on the 1890 Romanesque Revival building. Now vacant, it will reopen on Los Angeles Street this fall as the city's new Chinese American Museum, bringing new life to an edifice that flourished as a civic, retail and social center for Chinese Americans until the mid-1900s. "The building served an absolutely vital function," says Jean Bruce Poole, retired historic museum director of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, where the structure is located. "People ignored the Chinese and often militated against them, so they needed their own support system."

Philippe Garnier, a French immigrant who served as director of the Farmers and Merchants Bank, built the Garnier as income property. Stores leasing space on the ground level included Sun Wing Wo, a general merchandise emporium that operated for more than five decades; Young Woo Tong, a Chinese herbal medicine shop; and the Lung Foo Hing grocery. The upper level, which the Chinese believed to be nearer to the gods, housed guilds such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn., and a temple whose congregants practiced a folk religion blending elements of Buddhism and Taoism.

Community members flocked to the Garnier for social activities such as dances and gaming. "This was a time when Chinese people were asked to show their health certificates if they wanted to go to public swimming pools," says Suellen Cheng, curator and executive director of the Chinese American Museum. "They had to have a place where they can relax, maybe meet friends on the weekends."

With construction of Union Station during the '30s, however, many businesses slowly migrated to Chinatown's current environ. The state procured the Garnier in 1952 and evicted the remaining tenants. One-third of the structure was razed to make room for the 101 Freeway.

Sensational stories swirled about the Garnier, fueled by the sometimes illicit gambling that had occurred at the site. One bit of apocrypha concerned a supposed tunnel system beneath the building. (A passageway connecting two basements was dug up by the state in the 1960s to lay down utility lines.) "The stories are not true," Cheng says. "By the time the tunnel was made, the Chinese were already gone."

Dispelling such myths will be an objective of the museum, which plans to feature re-creations of old storefronts and artifacts from everyday life. Architects have retained features of the original blueprints, including exposed brick walls and century-old wood-plank flooring. A now-gone second-floor Chinese-style balcony is being re-created.

Before museum plans were finalized, city officials considered turning the structure over to the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts theater company. But Poole couldn't bear the thought: "They would've gutted the inside, so I made a noise about it. Historic preservation is about trying to use the space much as it was before. The museum is a wonderful way to bring the building back to life."

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