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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  • Mark McManus (third from left) and staff at the high-design Mountain Bar.

    Mark McManus (third from left) and staff

    Lisa Romerein

    Click to Enlarge

Today, scenesters and longtime residents pass one another in Central Plaza, the pagoda-overloaded square where brightly painted two-story buildings with carved brackets and flamboyant tilework form an amusement-park version of Chinese architecture. Drab, red-linen restaurants with no air-conditioning mingle with cool, concrete-floored galleries like Flux. A walk along Chung King Road, where most of the galleries are clustered, creates a split screen of now and then: Graduate-student types set up art installations in one storefront while retired residents play mah-jongg under fluorescent lights in the next. "It's relaxed, not high-speed, and we all know each other. I like it the way it is now," says artist and Black Dragon Society gallery co-owner Roger Herman of Chinatown's half-rejuvenated state, in which the curio shops and the cutting-edge boutiques unite under a canopy of sun-faded paper lanterns.

 On gallery nights, which happen about every six weeks, Chinatown's streets and plazas flood with an art brigade imported from all parts of L.A. But even when the galleries are filled to capacity―sometimes with as little as three or four objects on display―there's always the din of TV and cooking noises from second-floor apartments, which remain home to some of the community's 15,000 mostly Chinese and Southeast Asian residents.

 

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