Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"It's Chinatown"


Hello Everyone:

Today we go from national to local matters. Recently yours truly came across a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times and just had to share it.  The story, writing by Frank Shyong and titles "Chinatown's swap meets once opened a door to the American dream.  Now, their future is uncertain," looks at how a once important economic hub for Chinese immigrants is giving way to the sleeker shinier malls as second- and third generation Chinese-Americans move out to the suburban cities of the San Gabriel Valley.  The swap meets once offered small storefronts and cheap rent, giving newly arrived immigrants a way to own a business, save up money for their children's future, and master the English language. You can almost substitute Chinese for any immigrant community and the story would be the same.  It is always a sad to see a path to upward mobility fall to gentrification but unfortunately, the case of the L.A. Chinatown swap meet is just once of the many instances of a way of life fading away. 

We start with the tale of Jimmy Ho, a clothing merchant. By 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon Mr. Shyong visited him, Mr. Ho only made of a few sales. As he warmed his mid-day meal, Mr. Ho told the reporter, 

Minutes, hours, days can pass without making a sale...You just can't make a living in Chinatown anymore.

Frank Shyong writes, "When they were established nearly 30 years ago, Chinatown's swap meets were important economic lifeboats for immigrants finding their way in America...But as tourism to the neighborhood declined and online retailers and Chinese commercial center in the San Gavriel Valley siphoned away customers, the swap meets froze in time."  Today, you are more likely to find two-decade old toys and novelty items.  The stall owners report that business is slow and not likely to pick up. However, the winds of change are blowing through the swap meets. 

Recently, portions of the meet were sold, taken over by a creative office space and proposed mixed-use residential complex tailored to Downtown Los Angeles millennials. No doubt, the posh wine bars, coffee houses, and restaurants looming in the horizon, "accelerating a neighborhood transformation that brought hipsters flocking to Far East Plaza and upscale units at the newly opened Blossom Plaza apartment complex."

Many of the swap meet owners do not envision themselves as part of the neighbohood's burgeoning gentrification process.  "If the meets were sold, Ho said, he would simply retire."  Mr. Ho added

We have enough to eat, to have a house, to live, make car payments, that's enough...We don't have ambition for more.

Jimmy Ho's food is ready, takes it over to his wife's shop, unconcerned about thieves of missed customers.

The Chinatown swap meets are made up of four casually connected retail centers: the Shop, Dynasty Center, Saigon Plaza, and Chinatown Plaza.  These four place create "an intricate commercial warren, along one of the most densely developed block in Chinatown."

Frank Shyong returned to the meet to observe it in full swing.  He reports, "Around noon or on the weekends, the swap meets are alive with the sound of stall owners bargaining their way to the American dream a few dollars at a time."  The meet has a reputation among certain immigrants and working-class families as the place to score a bargain and socialize in their mother language.  Take the example of Lizette Dejesus.

Ms. Dejesus, of West Covina, loves coming to the meet, even though there no more Filipino shops.  She told Mr. Shyong, "the meets make her feel as if she's back home in Manila shopping in the open-air divisor is Market."  On the day our writer spoke with her, Ms. Dejesus was enjoying a frosty glass of sugarcane juice as she browsed the markets with her children, one of whom was holding a brand new toy.  Lizette Dejesus told Mr. Shyong,

It's way cheaper than you can find anywhere else...And it kind of reminds you of home.ˆ

Yours truly understands the sentiment.

For immigrants from Southeast Asia, the meet is an attempt to recreate the sounds, as well as the sights of Viet Nam and Cambodia.  Amid the mounds of unsold merchandise, a cacophony of Vietnamese pop music, Cambodian political talk shows, and Chinese-language news programs blare from radios and televisions, "the soundtrack of the swap meets' many diasporas."  The stall owners, are refugees from the Vietnam War, the killing fields of Cambodia, or the Communist takeover of China.

Frank Shyong describes the swap meet, "Dynasty Center, created when a developer renovated and combined two single-room-occupancy apartment buildings, contains mostly Chinese and Vietmanese people, while Saigon Plaza is a mix of Cambodian and Vietnamese.  Chinatown Plaza contains more than 20 businesses owned by member of a single extended Cambodian family family, and behind Saigon Plaza, the Shop, a two-story shopping complex has a mix of Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodians."

He correctly observes that these are some of the smallest business that are being trampled by online retailers.  The stall owner typically buy their mass-produced merchandise for nex-to-nothing prices from overseas manufacturers or in DTLA, then sell them at a small markup.  The one advantage the stall owners have over a retail behemoth, like Amazon, is that they over a few products not available on the e-commerce's website.  Once, there were over 300 vendors at the swap meets, accounting for an approximate 70 percent of entrepreneurs in Chinatown.  Today, that number has dwindled to half of that-"though they still represent a majority of Chinatown's business owners."  

The facilities, like the business model, has aged.  For example, the Shop's water damaged tiles have been replaced with mismatched colors.  In Saigon Plaza, canvases are randomly draped over the metal girders to create a roof covering, obscuring the building's original architecture.  Dynasty Center is roofed in blue tarp, casting an eerie glow along the storefront lined corridor with their shuttered doors, eagerly awaiting new tenants.

Some of the merchants fault the Internet. Others lay blame on declining tourism in Chinatown.  At some point, they blame each other.  Mr. Shyong observes, "Nearly all the shops sell clothing, toys, cellphone cases, luggage or Chinatown souvenir, and the stall owners sometimes fight over customers, causing such a ruckus that management has to intervene"

The majority of the merchants struggle to fully grasp and be part of the forcing reconfiguring Chinatown.  They keep up on news reports about the re-emergence of the area as popular foodie stop, a revival that has yet to affect their part of the neighborhood.  One their daily commute, merchants pass monolithic residential developments that rent for about $2,000-$3,000 a month. They scratch their heads in amazement at how anyone can afford the rent.  

Zhou Xie, a qipao (a tight fitting traditional Chinese dress) vendor told the reporter,

We don't have English, so we don't have those dreams.  

The ornate dresses usually sell for as low as $15, "the price of a chicken sandwich and a lemonade down the street at Howlin' Ray's in Far East Plaza, where business owners seem to have no problem with foot traffic."

In nearby Saigon Plaza, Harry Ng sell five t-shirts for $10, about half of the price of one t-shirt in a clothing boutique next to Roy Choi's food establishment, that also has no problem with foot traffic.

Many of vendors say they lack the finances to renovate their businesses to attract the more upscale people renting the new apartment and too learn enough English to communicate with the newcomers. Some continue, retirement is on the horizon.

Mr. Ng, and his Vietnamese compatriots, are refugees who have accepted struggle as part and parcel of American life.  Mr. Ng resignedly said,

This is what America is...Some get Rick, some stay poor.

At her bed linen store in the Shop on the weekday Mr. Shyong visited, merchant Cynthia Lu watched the corridor for potential customers from Gold Line train screeching to a full stop at the stop across the street.

Frank Shyong reports, "A few years ago, when the swap meet behind Saigon Plaza was sold and renovated into office space, the gate that connected her shopping complex to Saigon Plaza was closed."  The walkway was deemed illegal because the gate opened onto a city street, however it and other informal walkways between the plazas have persisted for over a decade.

Ms. Lu lamented,

Customers don't know to find us anymore.  They don't want to come this far.  Sometimes I don't see a customer all day...

Alpine Center, another connected swap meet was purchased a few years ago by developer Izek Shomof, the owner of several DTLA properties.  Mr. Shomof plans to construct "...a seven-story, 122unit mixed use apartment complex geared at luring downtown millennials.  A wine bar is proposed for the property across the street from the Shop, one of three Chinatown wine bars proposed for Spring Street alone."

Cynthia Lu added,

We don't have money, so we don't have power to control everything...They have money, so whatever they want to do, we can't do anything about it...

Frank Shyong spoke to Dynasty Center building manager Song Jackson who said, "Still, though stall owners say they struggle, they wouldn't rent the spaces if it weren't profitable...Ms. Jackson said that she's observed a Mercedes-Benzes in the staff parking lot, however lately the staff car park has been populated with late model Japanese cars.  Even some of the business owners believe the swap meets are outdated.

Chinatown Plaza jewelry store owner Long Ta told Mr. Shyong,

People around here don't want change...And the problem is that they just want to die and give it to their children who might not even want it.

Mr. Ta and his family came the United States as Cambodian refugees.  His first job was washing dishes at a Chinses restaurant in Michigan at the young of thirteen.  He had to stop working in restaurants after he fell asleep at the wheel and nearly died in an accident, due to working so many long shifts.  mr. Ta resigned himself,

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