Directly adjacent to Los Angeles State Historic Park in downtown L.A., where Penske Media will hold the LA3C Festival Saturday and Sunday, Chinatown is a must-visit neighborhood, full of fashion designer studios, stores, galleries, trendy restaurants and tea rooms.
L.A.’s original Chinatown dates to the late 19th century, but was demolished to build Union Station. Visitors can learn about the fascinating history of the original community, including movie star Anna May Wong, the latest trailblazing woman to be celebrated by the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters program, at the Chinese American Museum. It’s symbolically housed in the last surviving structure of the original Chinatown, the red brick Garnier Building at 423 Los Angeles Street.
What’s known as Chinatown today debuted in 1938 with the grand opening of Central Plaza, located about a mile east of the museum, off College Street between Broadway and Hill. The pedestrian mall with a dragon gate, designed in a Chinese style and strung with paper lanterns, quickly became a destination for food and souvenirs that fed the growth of the community.
Today, the roughly square mile neighborhood is a mix of old and new, with traditional dim sum alongside indie shops.
“We have new businesses coming in, new fashion brands opening brick-and-mortar…” said Linda Sivrican, owner of Capsule Parfumerie (441 Gin Ling Way), which moved into Central Plaza last year. “There’s still a lot of traditional businesses being respected and honored. But a lot of the kids are coming back and they are bringing something new,” she added, referencing the hot-button topic of gentrification, as more high-rise condos move in and generational tastes shift.
The retail store sells her range of fragrance lines, including Parallax Olfactory’s Nimbus, the scent of falling meteors, which was the 2020 winner of the Art and Olfaction Awards, Artisan category, and Fiele’s “A Flower for You” by self-described “gangsta gardener” Ron Finley, with notes of Hawaiian sandalwood, Madagascar vanilla and Egyptian Rose. New for holiday are her first room sprays — Japanese Hinoki, South African Geranium and Egyptian Petitgrain. The shop also hosts custom fragrance-making classes.
Sivrican also owns the nearby Sesame L.A., (936 North Hill) which specializes in small batch and Asian-inspired pantry items, including Woon stir fry sauce, Smaak hot sauces, Fishwife smoked fish tins and Deux Cranes x Sesame L.A. black sesame chocolate bars, alongside ceramics, kitchen accessories, cook books and children’s books like “The Rise and Fall of Jackie Chan,” by Kristen Mai Giang. It’s a great place to assemble a gift basket.
In the same building complex, Pearl River Deli (935 Mei Ling Way) features chef Johnny Lee’s changing menu of creative next-gen Chinese dishes including Hainan chicken rice, char siu with noodles, pork bao and charsiu scramble sandwiches. The restaurant is low-key and funky; guests order at the counter and sit amongst walls papered with Chinese language movie posters.
Across Hill Street, Chung King Road is full of galleries, like Tierra del Sol (945 Chung King Road) which features art by people with developmental disabilities, and is presenting “10 x 10,” a lively group exhibition of submissions from program participants.
Another spot worth visiting is the Charlie James Gallery (969 Chung King Road). The contemporary art gallery is showing “Riding the Three-Headed Serpent,” an exhibition by Chicago-based artist Luis Alvaro Sahagun Nuño, featuring baroque 17th-century Spanish style portraits layered with resin beads, sea shells, crystals and family photos referencing Mesoamerican indigenous healing practices to counter the trauma of colonization, white supremacy and systemic oppression.
Around the corner, Syndicate (969 Hill Street) has a great selection of new and pre-owned sneakers and streetwear, not far from Brain Dead Studios’ brand headquarters.
Another creative hub is Mandarin Plaza (979 North Broadway), a business and retail center that’s home to indie fashion brands Come Tees and Giu Giu knits, and food destinations like Angry Egret Diner.
“There’s been a lot of racism around Chinatown during COVID[-19], and a lot of people stopped shopping IRL, but it feels really good to celebrate that we’re still here,” said Zoe Latta, cofounder of Eckhaus Latta who recently hosted a Saturday marketplace with 30 local vendors at Mandarin Plaza, where she has her store.
The bicoastal brand’s retail store at 980 North Broadway stocks its men’s and women’s denim, bamboo raglan knitwear, comic print baby T-shirts and pony hair toadstool mules. Eckaus counts Hari Nef, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Susan Cianciolo and others among its arty fans.
“There’s a lot of energy here in the apparel space…Rachel Comey has a production office up top, Hansel from Basel hosiery brand is here, there’s photographers and graphic designers, a painter across the way,” said Al Verik, cofounder of House of Paa (970 North Broadway), of the vibe. He has his retail, studio and e-commerce in one, selling the brand’s classic clothing and accessories, which are understated but considered, including proprietary linen/nylon blend “grainstop” shirt jackets, windbreakers and track pants.
Next door, L.A. accessories brand Building Block (970 North Broadway, Unit 104A) has its studio and store. Sister founders Nancy and Kimberly Wu started the brand in 2011, selling minimalist, double-sided square leather and wood frame bags, smooth letter box bags, bucket bags and sleek rucksacks that are intended to appeal as objects as much as fashion items. “It’s been refreshing to be part of this community, and I feel a certain type of pride being first-generation Chinese American and revitalizing a certain part of Chinatown,” said Kimberly.
For a bite, Steep L.A. is Samuel Wang and Lydia Lin’s modern tea room, focusing on premium teas and mixers like oolong cream soda. There’s a small menu of food, including dishes like mapo tofu, noodle soup and osmanthus basque cheesecake. In the evenings, it turns into a tea-driven cocktail lounge, Steep After Dark, which began as a pandemic pop-up but is now here to stay. It’s a sign of the revitalization that continues to move the area forward.
The newest kid in the neighborhood is Kkco (990 North Hill Street), the first retail destination for the masculine-meets-feminine brand designed by Kara Jubin, who spans sport and dressy with her line of layered asymmetrical organza dresses, printed utility wrap dresses, polar fleece jackets and harnesses. “There’s something very special about Chinatown,” she said, mentioning camaraderie, which can be rare in a city as sprawling as L.A.