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Los Angeles’ Chinatown is still one of the most vibrant ethnic communities in the country and holds the title as the first Chinese enclave in the United States “owned” by Chinese Americans. But the Chinatown that we know today may not have existed if it hadn’t been for a woman named Christine Sterling.

Sterling (1881-1963) was a Los Angeles socialite (a.k.a. wealthy white woman with time on her hands) who had a passion for local history. She once remarked: “Los Angeles will be forever marked a transient, Orphan city if she allows her roots to rot in a soil of impoverished neglect.”

Her first major undertaking was to rebuild L.A.’s Olvera Street into the Mexican-themed marketplace and tourist attraction that it still is today. In 1926, the thoroughfare known as Olvera Street was little more than a mud alley and a bunch of collapsing buildings. An appalled Sterling spent the next four years pressuring city officials and business leaders to revitalize the region to reflect the city’s Mexican heritage and influence. She was successful and work began on the new Olvera Street on November 7, 1929 with laborers conscripted from a local jail. Even the stock market crash just a week earlier didn’t dampen Sterling’s plans.

But even though Sterling championed Olvera Street as a way to preserve L.A.’s rich Mexican roots, she didn’t consider consulting the Mexican American community in any substantial way. Like many “liberal” whites of the time, she took a more paternalistic approach to the ethnic community she was helping to preserve by denying them a real voice.

Although Olvera Street was and is a romanticized version of Mexican Los Angeles, it still managed to preserve the city’s history. For example, the Pelanconi House, L.A.’s first brick building, was preserved and restored (home to one of the neighborhood’s most popular Mexican restaurants), and Mexican American merchants soon stepped in and infused the street with their more “authentic” traditions.

But most interesting may have been the case of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros who was commissioned to paint a large fresco that would figure prominently above Olvera Street’s shops and restaurants. But the conservative Sterling and city officials were most likely unaware of Siqueiros’ “radical” leanings and were shocked when his mural, entitled La America Tropical, was unveiled and showed an Indian peasant crucified on a cross while an American eagle kept watch—the artist’s protest against American imperialism. The mural was promptly covered by (literal) whitewash and wasn’t re-discovered until the 1960s and has now been restored.

But Olvera Street gave Sterling a taste of what she could do to “help” the city’s “voiceless” ethnic communities and she next turned to L.A.’s significant Chinese American population. When the building of the new Union Station threatened to displace the residents and merchants of the original Chinatown, Sterling (now known as the “mother of Olvera Street”) once again sprang into action to create what would come to be known as China City–the Chinese equivalent of Olvera St.

Sterling declared that “the Chinese need a Chinatown” and drummed up support from business leaders like the L.A. Times’ Harry Chandler. But once again, she solicited nothing more than token input from the Chinese American community. Non-Asian Hollywood movie set designers were hired to give China City the proper “Oriental atmosphere” complete with 25-cent rickshaw rides.

When China City opened in June 1937 just blocks from the original Chinatown, most Angelenos were taken with the results of Sterling’s vision. That is except the city’s Chinese Americans who felt justifiably excluded from the creation of what was to be their own community.

So the Chinese, under the direction of businessman Peter Soo Hoo, developed the “alternative” New Chinatown—basically Chinatown by and for Chinese Americans—which opened a short distance away on June 25, 1938. In 1939, Sterling’s China City suffered another setback when a fire pretty much destroyed everything. The cause of the fire is still unknown to this day although the popular theory was that it was arson started by angry Chinese Americans.

But that did not deter Sterling. China City was rebuilt from scratch. However, another mysterious fire ten years later destroyed Sterling’s dream for a second time. China City was no more and New Chinatown would grow into the Chinatown we still know today.

Although Sterling’s form of paternalistic racism is just as problematic as the more direct, less-subtle version, I have to say there’s something about her passion and persistence that I admire and that qualifies her as an Original Offender. And it may have been inadvertent on her part, but if it weren’t for Sterling, America’s first Chinese-owned Chinatown might not have come into existence.

(via Picturing Los Angeles by Jon and Nancy Wilkman)

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for this blog…did you take the chinatown tour (and I don’t mean that in a snarky way) or you just knew this info?

  2. @Bill, nope, learned about it while reading up on L.A. history.

  3. glad to see this, P. I cover Sterling and Olvera St. and sometimes mention China City when I meet visitors. LA’s history is neglected.

    Just returned from UK. Was wonderful to go again. They celebrate their history, warts and all, religious strife, beheadings, Cromwell’s cavalry in churches, good stuff that gives people background. Peeps there from man in street to lofty can speak to their history.

  4. Not meaning to defend Sterling too much because I share much of your opinion, but contrary to belief, Sterling was not a wealthy socialite who championed a cause because she was a “liberal” philanthropist.

    According to former Los Angeles Times’ writer , Cecilia Rasmussen, Sterling was born Chastina Rix in Oakland (not San Francisco, which is also widely reported) in 1881. She had some formal education in Oakland and had been married twice.

    “With her second husband, Jerome Hough, she had two children,” Rassmussen writes. “By 1920 the family was living on Bonnie Brae Street near downtown Los Angeles. Hough abandoned the family and soon died, leaving Christine a widow without means. By 1928, she had changed her name to Sterling.”

    In 1926, Sterling saw the Avila Adobe while walking downtown looking for a job. She got the idea of revitalizing Olvera Street as a means for her being able to make money and have a secure job (which was a pretty innovative idea). She drafted a proposal and pitched her idea to Los Angeles Times’ publisher Harry Chandler, who also saw dollar signs.

    The original pitch was to attract “white” investors by promoting the Avila Adobe as a headquarters for American military leaders during the Mexican War, but she gained more support when she started embracing a “little Mexico” theme, although her perspective was still extremely geared toward bringing in Anglo-tourists.

    And the rest is history. She formed a non-profit and ran Olvera Street and attempted to make even more money with “China City.” However, she lost a fortune on the latter and ended up living the last of her life at the Avila Adobe after she sold her stake in Olvera Street to the State of California in the early 1950s.

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  6. Christine Sterling preserved Olvera Street, but in after years she did considerable damage to the history of the area. The Plaza had been where several different ethnic neighborhoods converged–Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and French, mainly. Sterling presents a couple of traits, typical of the era, which have proved disastrous from the perspective of preservation. First, remember that bit of Old Chinatown that hung on by its fingernails until 1953 wedged in between Alameda Avenue and the east side of the Plaza? Christine Sterling didn’t like Chinese people very much, especially the poor working folks who still lodged in the Lugo House, read the newspapers posted in Ferguson Alley, and dined in the cheap restaurants? It was she who led the push to take down the Lugo House and its neighbors, the whole space now occupied by a parking lot, access routes for the freeway, and a pointless bit of landscaping whose awkward siting makes it essentially useless. The early to mid 20th Century was a time when planners generally considered nothing more important to the lifeblood of a city than parking lots. Sterling was at one with this view. In 1953, most of the buildings still standing in the neighborhood were padlocked and removed from any possible use that might have made the neighborhood work. Any remaining residents and merchants were sent packing.

    I don’t want to blame Christine Sterling for things that have happened since here death, but I think she was a significant factor in setting the tone which continued to decimate the area’s architectural history to the end of the century and beyond. I first started paying attention to the area in the late 1970s, but even since then historic buildings that used to be described in the historical park’s handouts have been demolished, almost always to make way for more striped asphalt. The vast, sprawling parking region — it seems much to big to be called a “lot” now runs from the freeway north to Cesar Chavez, and from Main Street to North Broadway. Oh sure, the historic Plaza Church and Brunswig complex are still there, but against all that asphalt they remind me of a big box store.

  7. As I read the blog, I struggle to contain my visceral response to a writer who uses contemporary standards to harshly judge people who worked almost a century ago. The blogger is adept at distorting the facts just enough to remain credible while presenting Sterling’s work in the worse possible light. The claim that Sterling failed to consult Mexican or Chinese Americans in her projects is fabricated from the blogger’s imagination who neglects to mention how dearly the Chinese and Mexican merchants valued the leases they held at the two projects (as the merchants of Olvera street will testify today). Characterizing Sterling as a “socialite (a.k.a. wealthy white woman with time on her hands)” is both racist and a lie.

    To appreciate Christine Sterling, one must consider the time she worked –the roaring twenties and the depression era. Most people led provisional lives. Woman had just gotten the right to vote in 1920 and it was illegal for blacks to own property north of certain streets in Los Angeles. It was an era when DW Griffith created monstrous sets and created films like BIRTH OF A NATION, glamourizing both slavery and the KKK, as well as films like BROKEN BLOSSOMS featuring an interracial love story. No one should apologize for Griffith or the prevailing racism and sexism of the day, but we should strive to understand the era in which both he and Sterling lived.

    While it is fair to characterize Sterling’s efforts as romanticized views of Mexican and Chinese culture, one must keep in mind the entertainment culture of the time. Sterling’s projects should be viewed as places primarily for entertainment and recreation rather than historical preservation. She did strive to preserve the historic heart of Los Angeles and to turn a dilapidated alley into a place of civic pride. But to criticize Sterling’s failure to accurately present a Mexican Pueblo is like criticizing Disney’s Castle for failing to accurately depict the Middle Ages. Radio was the dominant form of entertainment, sparking the imagination regarding exotic lands. Film was in period of dramatic growth, moving from the silent era to “talkies”, presented in venues like the Mayan and Chinese theaters, places romantically designed to take the viewer on an exotic adventure and away from the bustle of the twenties and the economic challenges of the Great Depression. Olvera Street and China City fit in this context, extensions of the emerging movie industry, romanticized film sets and play grounds, not museums.

    Christine Sterling’s efforts to further multiculturalism are worthy of both criticism and applause, but don’t discount the effort without considering the culture in which she lived. Characterizing her as an “Original Offender” is an unfair, reserved by those bent to see the worse in people –especially white people. I prefer to consider the time and place a person lives, the dignity of their humanity, and the sincerity of their intentions.

  8. @Robert You should actually look under the Original Offenders category (http://youoffendmeyouoffendmyfamily.com/category/original-offenders/) to see that for us that term is a positive thing. We call ourselves the Offenders as the point of what we’re about is to embrace the spirit of pushing the envelop and the “original” Offenders we pay tribute to are those that came before us that we respect and admire–warts and all.

  9. Philip, thanks for the clarification. It certainly puts a different spin on your article about Sterling. I hope you appreciate how the irony can escape people searching the net for information and landing on your website. All the Best!