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LA’s original Chinatown is revealed in trove of salvaged photographs

An online collection at The Huntington of photos from the turn of the 20th century shows LA's Old Chinatown through the eyes of a local photographer.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — LA's original Chinatown was knocked down in the 1930s to make room for Union Station but a box of fragile glass plate negatives from the early 1900s survived the enclave's destruction and reveals a unique glimpse how the local Chinese community saw themselves.

Exactly how the 300 negatives were salvaged is a bit of mystery. They may have been left behind by the photographer whose shop was previously at the same address in Old Chinatown as the antique business of the family of novelist Lisa See, who donated the collection two years ago to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Another possibility is that See's father and grandfather found them among the rubbish left behind when the local residents were forced to abandon their homes and shops.

In either case, the collection of studio shots and street scenes is quite unique because it is almost certainly the work of a local Chinese photographer, rather than that of tourism or insurance photographers, and provides a very candid look at a vibrant neighborhood, said Li Wei Yang, the Huntington’s curator of Pacific Rim collections.

"We know very little about Old Chinatown and who the people who lived there were, so this is all new," Yang said.

Unknown photographer, View at the intersection of Alameda Street and Marchessault Street in Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, ca. 1900. (The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens via Courthouse News)

About 120 of the 300 negatives so far have been carefully cleaned and digitized, and these can now be viewed on the Huntington's website.

Old Chinatown sat at on the eastern side of the Plaza that was the historic center of El Pueblo, the originally Spanish, then Mexican town founded in 1781. After California was incorporated into the United States in 1850, a new wave of Anglo-American immigrants started to change the city's landscape, and the center of commerce and power shifted south toward new business and residential districts.

The area around the Plaza was left to more marginalized groups of locals and immigrants, such as the Chinese laborers who had begun arriving in California around that time. The local Chinese population increased from around 172 in 1870 to about 3,000 at the end of the 19th century.

The community was comprised mostly of men because many laborers and fortune seekers had come to the U.S. without their families and bringing wives over from China was difficult if not impossible because of anti-immigration laws targeted at the Chinese.

Unknown photographer, Chinese cook and waitstaff in a restaurant, Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, ca. 1900. (The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens via Courthouse News)

Like other Chinese communities in the U.S., those in LA were subjected to blatant racism and abuse, including the notorious lynching of 19 men and boys by a white mob in 1871. The anti-Chinese sentiment at the end of the 19th century also resulted in a series of laws to block immigration from China to the U.S.

One of these laws, however, may have been the impetus behind the photography business that has left us with the images of the neighborhood and its residents. The 1892 Geary Act required that Chinese residents carry a legal proof of residence —presumably the first ever photo ID — which made it necessary for them get a headshot or be at risk of deportation if they were caught without the document.

Many of the negatives from the Lisa See Collection are of those headshots, with the sitter staring blankly ahead into the camera.

Unknown photographer, portrait of Chinese American man, Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, 1902. (The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens via Courthouse News)

Portrait photographs may also have been sent to family in China, Yang said. In particular the more elaborate studio portraits may have been meant to reassure those left behind in China that the immigrants were doing well in their new surroundings.

Successful Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs may have enjoyed posing with the accoutrements of social advancements to share their achievements with their friends and relatives.

"Economic conditions at home in China were so much worse that even owning a small business was really striking it rich here," Yang said.

Unknown photographer, Chinese woman sitting for a studio portrait, Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, ca. 1900. (The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens via Courthouse News)

In addition, then as now, Chinatown was also a tourist attraction where visitors could indulge in exotic shopping and sightseeing. The collection includes photos of white men dressed in Chinese costumes and of a white woman posing on a handcart in the street outside.

Unknown photographer, Western woman posing for a photograph on a ceremonial handcart, Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, 1902. (The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens via Courthouse News)

Not all tourism may have been quite as innocent, though. Old Chinatown overlapped with LA's long-disappeared red-light district, and fire insurance maps from the late 19th century show with great detail the locations of the "houses of ill fame," the Chinese gambling halls and even the opium den that could be found within the neighborhood's handful of blocks.

Old Chinatown was mostly left to police itself and was otherwise self-sufficient, according to Yang. During its heyday from around 1890 to 1910, it was home to a Chinese opera, three temples, a newspaper and a telephone exchange. But with restrictions on immigration and prohibitions on Chinese Americans owning property, the neighborhood fell into decline.

The title of Roman Polanski's 1974 noir movie "Chinatown," with the gloomy observation, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," toward the end, invokes the lawlessness and secrecy of the declining Old Chinatown of the 1930s.

At that time, the neighborhood was already condemned and being demolished to make room for the landmark Union Station. Given that the residents were mostly renters because they couldn't legally own property, they had very little standing to fight their eviction from the area. Starting in 1938, LA's New Chinatown arose a few blocks northwest of the Old Chinatown.

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Categories / Arts, History, Regional

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