In the mid 1930s, after the City of Los Angeles planned to destroy downtown’s original Chinatown to make way for Union Station, many Chinese residents and businesses began to look for a new neighborhood to relocate to. This lead to the brief incarnation of China City in the late 1930s.
Around 1935, Old Chinatown community leader Peter Soo-Hoo, Sr. met with Christine Sperling, the person responsible for adapting Olvera Street into a Mexican themed shopping district. Sterling envisioned a new China City tourist district in downtown Los Angeles that played to popular Chinese themes. Soo-Hoo hated her idea, so he decided to pursue his own development project at another site.
Soo-Hoo and Sterling became bitter rivals which intensified after construction began on their competing Chinatown projects. Sterling scoffed at Soo-Hoo and his supporters by telling the press, “What do they want? An Oriental Westwood Village? Let them build [New Chinatown] if they think they can get away with it, but I think it will fail.”
Soo-Hoo, in return, argued that the Chinese-Americans were best suited to design and build a New Chinatown. He also predicted that Sterling’s Chinese tourist trap would fail.
In July of 1938, Sterling’s China City opened near Olvera Street, between Spring and Main and Macy and Ord Streets. Surrounding the business district was a miniature “Great Wall of China” with its front entrance on Main Street.
Tourists were treated to lotus pools, temple gongs, curio stands, dance pavilions, entertainers and movie sets from The Good Earth. Sterling’s new project was a big success, with movie stars making appearances as well as a special visit from Eleanor Roosevelt.
Soo-Hoo’s New Chinatown opened three weeks later. Not only was Soo-Hoo’s New Chinatown funded, owned, and operated by Chinese investors and businesses, it provided homes for displaced Chinese, while Sterling’s did not. New Chinatown also reflected a more authentic Chinese culture and clientele.
The competing business districts factionalized Chinese residents. China City’s shopkeepers and workers were grateful for the opportunity to find work in Sterling’s business district and were happy with the influx of celebrities and tourists. New Chinatown’s shopkeepers and business owners, however, felt that China City’s vendors mocked their culture by offering rickshaw rides and selling “Chinaburgers.”
In the end, Soo-Hoo’s New Chinatown prevailed.
In February 1939, a suspicious fire (most likely arson) burned much of China City. After making repairs, Sterling reopened it in the summer of 1940. However, the rebuilt tourist center was not as successful as its previous incarnation.
China City enjoyed modest success until 1948, when another suspicious fire broke out, destroying much of it. After the second fire, Sterling threw in the towel and turned her full attention back to Olvera Street. China City quickly fell into ruin and was eventually torn down.
The Mei Wing Co. Imported Art Goods store in China City, circa late 1940s or early 1950s.
The Chinese Junk Cafe once existed at 733 N. Main. This particular entrance was located just inside the entrance to Christine Sperling’s China City. Photo was probably taken in the 1940s, possibly early 1950s.