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Selling the Taste of Chinatown

Organizers of weekend festival hope food will revitalize the area, bring back visitors lost to sites in the San Gabriel Valley.

June 16, 2004|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Chinatown, once the center of Chinese culture in Los Angeles, has been overshadowed for more than two decades by the San Gabriel Valley's wealthy immigrants and the perceived authenticity of their cuisine.

But the neighborhood north of downtown wants to reclaim the status it held for generations. And in a culture where people greet each other by saying, "Have you eaten yet?" Chinatown leaders say it's fitting that they are fighting back with their best weapon -- food.

Their first attempt to regain the crowds will be the Chinese Food Festival this weekend. Organizers are promoting braised chicken feet and stir-fried fungus rather than American favorites such as pork dumplings and fried rice.

"Every year, there is a New Year's parade and Miss Chinatown pageant," said Michael Woo, a former city councilman and one of the festival's organizers. "What's different is we're using food as a community asset, a magnet to draw people in and look at Chinatown in a different way."

That new vision, organizers say, is a Chinatown establishing itself as a historic landmark for tourists and Angelenos to visit: a neighborhood that offers a diverse interpretation of Chinese culture.

A taste of that rich culture will be on display this weekend, when dozens of restaurants from the historic community -- whose inception 66 years ago was partly inspired by the demand for Chinese food -- will showcase their gastronomic delights in an outdoor lot next to the Chinatown Gold Line station. Restaurateur Tommy Tang and other accomplished chefs will give cooking demonstrations.

Aside from attracting tourists, organizers are hoping that Chinese residents from the San Gabriel Valley, including Monterey Park and Walnut, will rediscover the neighborhood.

To do so, they have to show that non-Chinese visitors are willing to be adventurous and try more exotic dishes. Chinese traditionally hold an aversion to the Americanized cousin of their cuisine, organizers say.

"We're asking the restaurants to add more exotic dishes they think Americans are afraid to eat," Woo said. "Many restaurants will alter their offerings to satisfy the non-Chinese palate. Though many non-Chinese want the real thing, they want to know what the chef's specials written on the wall are."

The notion of authentic Chinese food is complicated. Food differs in Taiwan and all 22 of China's provinces. The fare in Chinatown originated from Guangdong province of southern China, which encompasses Hong Kong. Chefs in the United States translated it into American Chinese food, which highlighted sweet and sour flavors (General Tso's chicken), fried foods (crispy wontons) and fortune cookies, an item as foreign to people in China as a brioche.

Those seeking a truly authentic Chinese experience will miss the point of Chinatown, said Carl Chu, author of "Chinese Food Finder," a guide to restaurants in the Los Angeles area.

"To dismiss Chinatown as an anachronism doesn't do it justice," Chu said. "The reason it was created was politics and policy that precluded Chinese from integrating into society. But you see the way the food sort of seeped into mainstream culture and American cuisine. It's part of Americana."

The impact on American culture is what makes Chinatown so important for new immigrants, festival organizers say.

"The amazing thing is, many of the more recent arrivals are completely unaware of the history of Chinese Americans in L.A. You can't get a sense of it from the San Gabriel Valley," Woo said.

True as that may be, persuading connoisseurs of Chinese cuisine to resist the San Gabriel Valley is a daunting task. The region is home to 240,000 Chinese residents and 2,000 Chinese restaurants, including the celebrated Sea Harbor Seafood Restaurant in Rowland Heights and Din Tai Fung dumpling house in Arcadia.

By comparison, Chinatown has 80 restaurants and 15,000 residents, many of whom are Cantonese speakers with roots in south China and Vietnam. The San Gabriel Valley has largely remained the domain of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants who speak Mandarin.

But Chi Mui, a San Gabriel councilman, said Chinatown remained relevant to Chinese residents of the San Gabriel Valley thanks to the 26 family associations based there. The organizations served as the de facto government in Chinatown's early days and still asserts influence.

"There's a lot of going back and forth between the two communities," Mui said. "The associations all meet in Chinatown and have meals together."

Another sign that Chinatown is still regarded as a symbolic center came in March, when thousands of protesters gathered off Broadway to denounce the results of the recent Taiwanese presidential elections.

Nevertheless, festival organizers are getting their message out in the Chinese-language media, imploring residents to come to the event and learn more about the region's original immigrants who laid the groundwork for future generations, and also to give Chinatown's cuisine a chance.

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