Chinatown Walking Tour, Los Angeles

Chinatown Walking Tour (Self Guided), Los Angeles

The only planned Chinatown in the U.S., as compared to other cities where neighborhoods were organically formed by Chinese immigrants, the Los Angeles Chinatown is a blend of Chinese and American architecture. Developed as a tourist attraction in the 1930s, it has its own "Central Plaza," a Hollywoodized version of Shanghai, and features names like Bamboo Lane, Gin Ling Way and Chung King Road taken from the city of Chongqing in mainland China. Designed by Hollywood artists as a "Chinese" movie prop to create an exotic atmosphere, L.A.'s Chinatown gives out the impression of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai or Kuangchou. As one of the first outdoor shopping malls in the United States, it is also rich in exotic sights, smells and sounds of the orient, as well as savory foods and unusual souvenirs. To experience all this first-hand, follow our self-guided walk.
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Chinatown Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Chinatown Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Los Angeles (See other walking tours in Los Angeles)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.7 Km or 1.1 Miles
Author: ashley
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Union Station
  • Chinese American Museum
  • Chinatown Gateway Monument (The Dragon Gate)
  • Far East Plaza
  • Central Plaza East Gate
  • Chinatown Central Plaza
  • Wishing Well
  • Central Plaza West Gate
  • Chung King Road
Union Station

1) Union Station

Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) is the main railway station in Los Angeles and the largest railroad passenger terminal in the Western United States, serving almost 110,000 passengers a day. It opened in May 1939, replacing La Grande Station and Central Station (hence the “Union” name), and was the last of the great American rail stations to be built. Today the LAUS sits on the outskirts of New Chinatown, on the plot of land originally occupied by the Tongva village of Yaanga, believed to have been the largest of the Tongva villages, which later marked the heart of L.A.'s Old Chinatown. As the matter of fact, the original Chinatown neighborhood was demolished to make room for the station, sparking fears that it might "forever do away with Chinatown and its environs."

Originally intended as a transcontinental terminus station for the Union Pacific, Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railways, the LAUS was a major hub for troop movement during World War II. With the advent of air travel, train service declined at depots across the country, including Union Station. As of the 1970s however, the growing use of Amtrak and expansion of local and regional rail revitalized the station as a major transportation hub of Southern California.

Designed in a Spanish Colonial Revival style, the station combines Mission Revival-exterior with Streamline Moderne interior, featuring marble floors, high ceilings and decorative tiles, all of which make it a handsome place and vibrant symbol of downtown’s renaissance. Designated as a Los Angeles Historic–Cultural Monument in 1972, the building was then placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. In 1992 the station was fully restored, and in 2019 celebrated its 80th birthday.

This iconic Los Angeles landmark is well maintained and has a few restaurants and a beer pub on the premises. It often hosts concerts and exhibitions too, and, as such, is a dynamic destination for the arts, entertainment and culture, being more than just a bustling transportation hub in the heart of the city. As a true cultural destination connecting the infinitely varied and wonderful elements, it is also a great place for photography, well worth a visit if you have some extra time in L.A.
Chinese American Museum

2) Chinese American Museum

The Chinese American Museum is a part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, and is dedicated to the history and experience of Chinese Americans in the state of California. This is the first such museum in Southern California, and is located in the oldest and last surviving structure of Los Angeles’ original Chinatown – Garnier Building – that luckily survived after a large part of Old Chinatown was demolished to make way for the construction of Union Station in 1933.

The facility was built in 1890 by Philippe Garnier, a French immigrant and prominent businessman, who designed it primarily for Chinese commercial tenants. In its heyday, between 1890 and 1940, the building served as the unofficial city hall of the Chinese community, housing social organizations, shops, businesses, schools and religious institutions, as well as being the venue for social functions, theatrical and dance shows. It thus bridged the gap between Chinese and American society – playing a critical role in the backdrop of the strong American prejudices against the Chinese in Southern California, especially following the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882-1943. The building was continuously occupied by the Chinese commercial tenants (taking up the ground and mezzanine floors) and Chinatown’s leading social institutions (on the upper level) until the State of California took it over in 1953.

The museum on the premises opened in 2003. Chinese American families and businesses donated their heirloom possessions to it – traditional attire, antique furniture, faded photographs, old letters, audiotapes from elderly Chinese Americans on their memories of growing up in Old Chinatown, children’s toys, etc.

Presently, the museum holds a number of permanent exhibitions on the origins and history of Chinese immigration to L.A., namely: “Origins: The Birth & Rise of Chinese American Communities in Los Angeles”, “Journeys: the story of Chinese immigration to the US with an emphasis on the community settling in Los Angeles”, and “Sun Wing Wo General Store and Herb Shop” recreating the actual store operated inside Garner Building from 1891 to 1948. There are also temporary exhibits showcasing modern talents. Additionally, the museum hosts workshops, events and brings out publications to foster better mutual understanding and cultural appreciation between the Chinese and the Americans.

Opening Hours:
Tuesday – Sunday, 10am to 3pm. Closed on Mondays.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Chinatown Gateway Monument (The Dragon Gate)

3) Chinatown Gateway Monument (The Dragon Gate)

Los Angeles' historic Chinatown has long served as a gateway for countless Chinese and Asian immigrants coming to the United States. Commemorating this historic fact is the Chinatown Gateway Monument, also known as the Dragon Gate, found at the intersection of North Broadway and Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. Funded by the local Teochew-speaking population, the monument symbolizes mutual cooperation and prosperity for the local Chinese community and the city of Los Angeles, and features two dragons poised on a metal framework, ushering in good luck and harmony.

Designed by Chinese-born architect Ruppert Mok, the Gateway was dedicated in June 2001. Mok’s design was said to have come to him in a dream in which he ran across North Broadway and saw a skeleton across the street with two dragons flying on top of it, facing one another, with a pearl right in the middle; the envisioned dragons descended from a cloud.

Painted in the traditional bright gold with red flames at the elbows, the gatekeeper dragons soar 43 feet above ground, set on an 80-foot-wide steel truss welded to eight steel pipes. Aluminum mesh on both sides create the cloud-like effect along with a misting system with nozzles tucked underneath the dragons. The fine spray of water creates the illusion of majestic beasts “flying in the clouds.”

The 3,000-pound fiberglass figures have fins on their backs, scales on the sides of their bodies, and snakeskin on their bellies; the five fingers on each paw represent the highest authority. Their whiskers are 10 to 15 feet long. Each curved dragon measures 35 to 40 feet in length (or up to 70 feet, if straightened out).

The dragons face each other, one looking down with its mouth wide open, and the other looking up with its mouth only slightly ajar. An opaque-fiberglass pearl – representing longevity and prosperity – appears to float between them, held up by a steel bracket. Mok made the taller of the dragons look more aggressive, while the other is more defensive, subtle and protective. Whether they are female or male, is subject to everyone's guess.

If you walk through the Gate, make sure to turn around and look south for a perfectly-framed shot of the City Hall. Brightly illuminated at night since 2004, it offers an ideal photo spot any time of the day.
Far East Plaza

4) Far East Plaza

Built in 1976, the Far East Plaza food mall is one of L.A.'s top iconic culinary destinations, renowned for its mix of old and new school eateries. While situated right in the heart of Chinatown, it houses not only Chinese restaurants but a wide array of joints serving international cuisines, drinks, and desserts too. This two-story place is literally a foodie paradise, fit to quench everyone's hunger, whether you’re a fan of traditional Asian street food or seeking out the next big food thing.

Visitors usually come here for authentic regional Asian bites, restaurant-hop for a taste of everything, or hunker down in line with coffee and ice cream, waiting for service at a trendy pop-up. Communal tables arranged between stands selling knick-knacks serve the many fast-casual options along the corridor.

Here you will find new restaurants creating a lot of buzz in the foodie culture, including Howling Ray's, Chego, Baohaus, Ramen Champ, Lao Tao, Lasa, Qin West, Ramen Champ, and Viet Noodle House.

For a more relaxed, sit down dining experience, head to LASA where they serve Filipino food. If you feel like old school, there's a choice between two of the original establishments here – Thien Huong and J&K. Those craving some Chinese food, can check out Kim Chuy, Qin, or Fortune. For dessert, get an ice cream from Scoops. For your caffeine fix, go to Endorffeine, or if you're thirsty for some exquisite teas, consider Ten Ren.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Central Plaza East Gate

5) Central Plaza East Gate

The East Gate is one of the many famous golden landmarks in Old Chinatown Plaza. This grand entrance is located on the east side of the plaza, on Broadway between West College Street and Bamboo Lane, and is particularly photogenic at night, when brightly illuminated with neon lights, giving out a romantic glow to the nearby shops, restaurants, fortune tellers, and other inhabitants of Chinatown. The very first lighting ceremony of the East Gate took place on the first anniversary of New Chinatown in 1939. This historic event reprized years later, in 1985, when the East Gate was ceremoniously refit following a major rehabilitation and beautification effort by the Chinatown Project of the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Otherwise known as the Gate of Maternal Virtues, the East Gate was erected by attorney You Chung Hong in honor of his late mother. The four character poem inscribed on the gate says, “The spirit of (Mother) Meng and (Mother) Ow.” These women were exemplary mothers in the history of China, and so were appropriately revered by their offspring, as each child in Chinese culture reveres and respects their mother.

As you walk through the gateway, you may recognize some of the settings used in many Hollywood productions, TV shows and commercials. Among these TV shows are Hunter, The Rockford Files, Hart To Hart, Beverly Hills, 90210, and Melrose Place. The motion pictures include Lethal Weapon 4, Rush Hour, 8 Millimeter and, of course, Chinatown.

To the right of the gate is a tower with the Dragon Chasing Pearl mural originally painted in 1941 by Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong. The legendary artist, who passed away in December 2016 at the age of 106, was renowned for his work in film, particularly as the lead artist on Disney's Bambi.

Also nearby is a home decor shop Realm which, years earlier, was the site of Hong Kong Cafe, a restaurant that became a cornerstone in the city's punk rock history. You'll even find a photo of L.A. punk icon, Alice Bag, hanging on the wall.
Chinatown Central Plaza

6) Chinatown Central Plaza

Central Plaza, the nucleus of L.A.'s Chinatown, located off College St. between Broadway and Hill, marked the outset of New Chinatown with its grand opening in June 1938. Because this square is the oldest and most historic part of the neighborhood, it is often, and somewhat confusingly, referred to as "Old Chinatown Plaza".

Home to the Hop Sing Tong Society and several other Chinatown lodges and guilds, the buildings inside Central Plaza, with their typical sloped roofs, carved wood ornaments, and colorful facades, were inspired by the Hollywood version of Shanghai and designed by non-Chinese architects Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson.

Near Broadway, Central Plaza contains a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary leader, first provisional president, and ideological father of the Republic of China. It was erected in the 1960s by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. Also in the plaza is a massive, 7-foot tall, statue of Bruce Lee. Unveiled on June 15, 2013, this is one of Chinatown's must-photograph sites. The late martial artist once had a studio in Chinatown at 628 W. College St.

On sunny mornings you can stroll through the plaza and see seniors playing Chinese chess and mah-jong here, while sipping on tea and socializing. During Chinese New Year or the Autumn Moon Festival, Central Plaza hosts all types of traditional events, from lion dances to lantern festivals. Other notable attractions here include the almost 50-feet high Golden Pagoda and the Seven Star Cavern Wishing Well.

For many decades, the plaza has been a popular tourist spot beckoning visitors to step into the traditional Chinese environment through its beautiful arches. On the long list of craft items favored by local shoppers are porcelain, wood and jade, paintings, art and art supplies, herbs, teas, pastries, books, and many others. Adjacent to the square are 15 stores, seven eateries and a restaurant, plus two bakeries (Wonder Bakery and Phoenix Bakery) and two banks (Standard Savings & Loan and United Savings Bank).
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Wishing Well

7) Wishing Well

Just inside Central Plaza, near the West Gate, sits one of the oldest landmarks in New Chinatown, the Wishing Well. Designed by artist Professor Henry Liu Hong Kay to emulate the natural stone formation, called the Seven Star Caverns, found in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, this well takes its name from that scenic spot a thousands of miles away.

Constructed as the centerpiece of Los Angeles' first outdoor mall, it has drawn dreamers of every description since 1938, vacuuming up their pocket change. The structure represents an amalgamation of the Western concept of a magical well with the culturally seeded Chinese beliefs of luck and fortune. This strange-looking sculptural piece is more of an above-ground waterfall diorama than an underground well, and is made of rough, irregularly shaped concrete, not stones set in a circle, and painted in splotches of red, blue, green and yellow, not natural earth tones.

Within a low brick wall lies a pool of water surrounded by a small hill constructed of foliage and moss. Scattered bridges, shrines, pools and statues decorate winding paths leading to a summit. Dead tree branches are carefully arranged on both sides and strands of plastic ivy are draped over a rear area. A small moat partly encircles the front. Turtles and occasional fish can be seen swimming in it. There are tiny pot-bellied smiling Buddha statues perched on the ridges and peaks, alongside various labeled tin bowls for visitors to toss their coins into in the hopes of vacation, love, health, wealth, beauty, wisdom, and money.

A willow tree at the pool was planted by Anna May Wong, the first ever Chinese American Hollywood movie star.
Central Plaza West Gate

8) Central Plaza West Gate

Marking one of the four entrances to New Chinatown, the West Gate on Gin Ling Way at North Hill Street was the first gate built around the Central Plaza. In 1938, L.A.’s Chinese community gathered at this site to celebrate the opening of New Chinatown after the original Chinatown, about a mile away, was uprooted to make room for Union Station. Gin Ling Way, one of Chinatown’s main pedestrian strips, is named after the “Street of Golden Treasures” in Beijing.

The four Chinese characters displayed across the top of the gate, composed by T.K. Chang, translate as “Cooperate to Achieve.” The red, blue, and yellow neon lights adorning the gate’s perimeter were added later. Color-coordinated with all the red lanterns at night, they create a most spectacular sight.

Initially, the gate was partially made of 150-year-old camphor wood imported from China. This durable lumber has been described as the “smelly cousin of cinnamon”—its odor repels insects. The original pillars later had to be replaced with concrete, though, because of weathering and dry rot. The red color of the gate symbolizes happiness and good fortune in Chinese tradition.

Among the memorial plaques displayed at the gate there is one dedicated to 19th-century Chinese builders, presented by then-California governor Frank F. Merriam, and two others commending architects Adrian Wilson and Erle Webster. The city of Los Angeles declared the West Gate a Historic-Cultural Monument in 2005.
Chung King Road

9) Chung King Road

Just across the street (Hill Street) from the neon glow of Central Plaza lies a tiny alleyway, called Chung King Road. Along with Chung King Court, containing a water fountain in its center, it forms a pedestrian complex in the northwest corner of New Chinatown built in the 1930s and 40s. Only 40 feet wide and bare and quiet during the day – with only occasional someone passing through as a shortcut to Chinatown's main attractions, this street once used to accommodate numerous restaurants, herbal medicine pharmacies, Chinese specialty shops, importers of Chinese art and other traditional businesses, whose owners lived right upstairs, creating a strong sense of community.

By the late 1990s the majority of the long-time residents had moved away to other parts of the city. The left behind storefronts of businesses of the past remained unused for a while, until several of them were turned into art studios and boutiques and other unique businesses. Today, the neglected Hollywood backlot-esque appearance of Chung King Road belies the cultural hipness in the form of new generation of L.A.'s cutting edge art galleries set up behind the worn facades, transforming the area into a frenzy of activity during Saturday night openings with throngs of art enthusiasts flocking in to check out the latest exhibits on view. Many of cutting-edge artists reside right here, in the area, making it a thriving live/work community. The area's tenants constantly change, though, as the artists tend to come and go.

With its nearly weekly schedule of art gallery exhibition openings, Chung King Road is now one of the centers of art and nightlife in Downtown L.A. The annual events include Chinese New Year and the Golden Dragon Parade, The Moon Festival, KCRW's Chinatown Summer Nights, the closing party of LA's Design Week and the Perform! Now! Festival. Many of the storefronts have maintained their original signs and facades, so it's still worth walking through to get a sense of the area's former vibe.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

Walking Tours in Los Angeles, California

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