The rise of the Chinese community of Los Angeles was an outgrowth of larger United States developments during the 19th century. Chinese males from Canton arrived in Gum Saan (Gold Mountain-the Chinese name for the United States) in response to rumors of quick wealth in the Northern California gold fields, and subsequent recruitment as railroad workers. Theoretically, they planned to return home once they had earned enough money to sustain themselves in China. However, few succeeded in attaining sizable wealth in the gold mines or railroads, due to various forms of labor exploitation and the rising tide of virulent anti-Chinese sentiment, especially by organized labor and the press in San Francisco.
The 1850 census for Los Angeles listed two Chinese house servants-Ah Luce and Ah Fou-as residents and thus represents the origins of a Chinese presence in the city. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, Chinese railroad labor was curtailed, forcing them to seek new avenues of employment.
During the late 1860s, several Chinese laborers were recruited from Northern California to build a wagon road in Newhall, slightly north of Los Angeles. However, the Chinese as a group were banned increasingly from regular wage labor by nativist agitation and government regulation. Thus, by default, the Chinese of Los Angeles came to fill an important sector of the economy as entrepreneurs. Some became proprietors and employees of small hand-laundries, restaurants, farmers and wholesale produce peddlers, while others ran gambling establishments, and other businesses considered "non-competitive," or jobs that were left vacant by the absence of workers in the Gold Rush migration to California.
By 1870 a population of about 200 had settled in a narrow block located on the Plaza's east side and known as Calle de los Negros-parallel to today's Los Angeles Street-across from the Garnier Block. They worked as farm laborers, servants, road builders and small shop keepers. During this period, Chinese became the dominant group in agricultural produce as growers, vendors, and market proprietors. They distributed their produce from carts around the Plaza. In 1888 a hand-laundry was in operation on the site of today's Plaza Substation. Merchants owned stores and sold goods for both Chinese and non-Chinese customers along Main, Los Angeles, Alameda, and Marchessault Streets. For example, in the 1890s William Lee, owner of the Heng Lee Fancy Goods in the Vickery/Brunswig Building, raised his family in the Pico House across the street from his store.
From 1883 to the mid-1910s five Chinese businesses occupied the Agustín Olvera Adobe on the southeast end of the Plaza. Services provided by Chinese herbalists were popular among the non-Chinese community. These herbal stores included Young Wo Tong in the Garnier Block and Tai Wo Tong in the Plaza Firehouse. Although small in number, Chinese professionals in Old Chinatown worked in such fields as dentist, interpreter, attorney, jeweler, and in the movie rental business. Even so, Chinese American community life in Los Angeles was greatly affected by the same anti-Chinese legislation and social violence that characterized San Francisco since the Gold Rush.
In October 1871, the city witnessed its most callous act of racial violence-the notorious "Chinese Massacre." The riot occurred after an Anglo resident was killed after being caught in a cross fire between two rival Chinese Tongs. An estimated crowd of 500 people of all nationalities, including leading citizens, police, and a member of the City Council took part in a violent racial assault on Calle de los Negros. In the end, several homes and businesses were looted, and 19 Chinese men and boys were murdered, including the community's respected Doctor, Chin Lee Tong. The massacre exposed an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia that would accompany Los Angeles urban development in the late 19th century. Following the massacre, federal Chinese Exclusion Acts were passed in 1882. Locally, anti-Chinese legislation was enacted by the Los Angeles City Council, and employers signed agreements not to hire Chinese workers. Yet, despite this climate of hate, the Chinese made even greater efforts to maintain their culture and community, and to make Los Angeles their home.
By the 1880s, as the non-Chinese population gradually moved to other parts of the city, Chinese Angelenos occupied several buildings on three sides of the Plaza and areas to the south and east. By the turn of the century, Old Chinatown reached an estimated population of 3,000 residents. As the largest Chinese American community south of San Francisco, Old Chinatown consisted of eight streets, hundreds of buildings and stores, several restaurants, three temples, eight missionary churches, a Chinese school, and a theatre for Chinese operas. It became the regional urban and commercial center for the Chinese of Southern California. The significance of Old Chinatown was confirmed in 1904 when Dr. Sun Yat-Sen-the "father of modern China"-came to Los Angeles during his world travels to organize support for the Chinese Revolution. However, during this time of Chinese Exclusion and lacking police protection and political representation in matters that affected their daily lives, the Chinese community found it necessary to form their own organizations for mutual aid and protection. The Garnier Block on the east side of the Plaza housed some of the most important organizations in Chinatown, including the Lung Kong Tin Yee Association (the Four Family Association), the Wong Gong Ha Family Association, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association-the umbrella organization of all major Chinese associations. In April 1943, members of these organizations and hundreds of Angelenos gathered in front of the Garnier Block to welcome Madame Chiang Kai-Shek who came to Los Angeles to express her gratitude to the United States for their support of China's World War II effort.
A major setback for the Chinese American community occurred in the 1930s when the decision was made by the City of Los Angeles to build a major railroad terminal over much of Old Chinatown. Through the right of eminent domain, Chinese American residents were forced to relocate to other parts of the city-some to the West Adams district, many to New Chinatown on Broadway while others moved to China City located between Spring and Main Streets. As a result of the construction of the Hollywood/Santa Ana Freeway in the early 1950s, one third of the Garnier Building and all buildings between Alameda and Los Angeles Streets were demolished.
Since then, Chinese Americans have continued to play an important part in the development of Southern California, and are among the largest and most influential populations in the City and County of Los Angeles. This influence is particularly significant in the San Gabriel Valley-the nation's largest suburban Chinese American community. Today, the story of their past hardships, their contributions, and the promise of the future is being told at the Chinese American Museum, -located in the Old Garnier building.