If you think about spending a day in Chinatown, perhaps not much more comes to mind than bargain shopping and Chinese food grubbing. But a closer exploration of Chinatown will reveal the unique places that make it much more complex and interesting.
Conveniently close to campus, the area is replete with idiosyncrasies and an overall hipster-meets-ethnic atmosphere. Chinatown might be a tourist attraction for its concentration of Chinese stores and restaurants — not to mention the fact that films like Rush Hour and Starsky and Hutch were shot there — but it has a personality all its own, separate from this surface image. So amble along Chinatown’s streets to come across everything from diverse art to fun boutiques.
Even within the most popular spots of Chinatown lie a few hidden gems, especially in the Central Plaza. The plaza first came to life in 1938, one of the first malls in the United States and the first American Chinatown. Decades later, the plaza serves as a great place to stroll beneath paper lanterns, purchase a fun trinket or sit with a laptop and a cup of coffee.
A smörgåsbord of small stores provides large amounts of surprisingly fun and cheap buys but you can also find more than the typical paper fan to take home as a souvenir. Since 2007, Flock Shop on Broadway Street has provided one-of-a-kind objects for those looking for something not churned out from a factory. From flasks to clothing, it offers neat products made by artists. The store also showcases art; earlier this month the store featured an opening night for artist Alex Chiu that included free ice cream and beer.
If you are hungry but want a more relaxed environment than a packed Chinese restaurant, Via Café on Gin Ling Way offers an alternative atmosphere. The cafe serves Vietnamese food, from egg rolls to noodle soup, but plenty of customers relax at the outdoor tables with a coffee or beer in hand. The cafe is open until 10 p.m. seven days a week and offers free Wi-Fi, making it an alternative study spot of sorts — or at least a different place to battle procrastination.
Chinatown also offers plenty beyond the locales inside the plaza. The area thrives within the context of the arts, providing an art walk for anyone willing to scope out the many galleries, both obvious and hidden. If you walk all the way down to Hill Street, for example, you’ll come across a couple of galleries nestled inside a larger, two-story building.
On the bottom floor is Sam Lee Gallery, a quaint space that you might miss if you weren’t specifically looking for the blue sign above its door. Lee, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history, has worked in various galleries and now focuses on contemporary art. The current exhibition, Tennis Courts, showcases the photography of Los Angeles-based artist Frick Byers and runs until the end of March. The small gallery proves welcoming and easy to walk through, and Lee might be on hand to greet you and to offer his expertise.
Upstairs, you will discover L2kcontemporary, another hidden space that proves equally friendly. The gallery currently displays Jim Keville’s Fetish Feel, an exploration of the act of creating. The artist sculpted the shape of the grip of his hand, creating small ceramic sculptures with varied painted surfaces. There are plenty of other galleries around the area, and you can check ChinaTownLA.com to see a list of the galleries and their websites for opening reception dates.
The Undiscovered Chinatown Walking Tour provides a more guided exploration of Chinatown. The tour takes place every first Saturday of the month from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and costs $20 for adults — RSVP required.
Whether you pay for a tour or create your own, Chinatown offers plenty to anyone willing to roam its streets. ChinaTownLA.com contains a list of all the businesses in the area so you can plan out your day. Without spending a lot of money, you can take advantage of the relaxing, quirky atmosphere. The area provides a getaway from typical L.A. sights, an alternative space for an inevitably interesting day or night.
Eva Recinos is a junior majoring in English. Her column “Nook & Cranny” runs Mondays.