Orient Express

Once sleepy, now hot, L.A.’s Chinatown strives for a balance between newfound prosperity and artistic soul. Alexandria Abramian-Mott reports on a neighborhood influx.

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But while some fear it may turn into another Old Town Pasadena, dominated by high-end chain stores, others are convinced Chinatown can craft its own comeback tale―one in which pioneering artists won't necessarily pave the way for another Prada boutique. "The normal cycle is that artists come, rents go up, artists leave. That's not going to happen here," says Mark McManus, a Pasadena-based architect and part owner of the Mountain Bar, epicenter of the area's creative scene. "The community here is about a reputation economy, not a money economy," he adds, referring to the fact that most of Chinatown's real estate remains family-owned and is carefully conferred to new business owners. The area's old guard agrees. Gim Fong, owner of Fong's antiques shop for more than half a century, says, "This is the first time property has been leased to outsiders, so it's important that people know you."

For Richard Liu, an architect who grew up near Chinatown, the balancing act is part of the neighborhood's essence. In 2002 he purchased a long-abandoned restaurant in Central Plaza and reopened it as Realm, a cleverly updated gift shop where colorful glassware, elegant coffee-table books, and eclectic home accessories replace the usual Chinatown trinkets. "In the '70s, stores here were open after dinner, and the area had life. I want to do anything to bring it back," he says. His collection of vintage postcards offering a colorful history of Chinatown are blueprints to guide him in his restoration efforts. "I want the area to have unified lighting, benches, and planters, as well as later business hours. But I want to avoid gentrification," he adds, echoing almost every business owner, new and old. "It's all about the balance."

 

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