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)