Old Chinatown brings feelings of family, togetherness

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Every year, I look forward to spending time with my parents, celebrating the day with family-specific traditions. We watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while demolishing scallion pancakes, a Chinese side dish. For dinner, we trade Thanksgiving Turkey for Thanksgiving Peking duck. And at night, we winnow through the Black Friday newspaper ads in search of deals worthy of waking up at 4 a.m.

This year, that vision will look different. Instead of going back to the Midwest, I will be spending my Thanksgiving break in Shanghai, China — my birthplace.

With a 14-hour flight at the end of the week looming, I started wondering what it would be like to have an “abroad at hometown” experience. I’ve been back to Shanghai on numerous occasions since my parents and I immigrated in the late ’90s, but apart from some family I have there, the city lost the connotation of home long ago. In fact, every time upon arrival, displaced from my familiar surroundings, I experience intense culture shock. That’s why, while entertaining the thought of studying abroad, the prospect of spending a semester in China filled me with as much trepidation as anywhere else.

To glean what that experience would be like, and to prepare for my upcoming trip, I visited Chinatown this weekend.

Old Chinatown in Los Angeles is interesting. Tucked between Downtown and Echo Park, the area feels almost desolate — I half expected tumbleweeds to drift through. It’s a far cry from the bustle of the Chinatown in San Francisco or New York City. These jam-packed streets almost bear resemblance to those of China.

In Old Chinatown, there are whispers of the busy community that once was. The buildings, peeling with faded paint, speak to the neighborhood’s storied past as a commercial haven to Chinese businessmen in the late 19th century. At the heart of Central Plaza, there’s a statue honoring Sun Yat-Sen, the father of the Republic of China and hero to many Chinese revolutionaries. But on that Saturday night, more than a century after the neighborhood was founded, only low-grade energy occupied the mostly abandoned Broadway Street.

That’s not to say Old Chinatown is completely devoid of worthy places to visit. My friends and I had dinner at Plum Tree Inn, and immediately upon entering, the restaurant’s atmosphere reminded me of venues where we had our family reunions. The place was occupied mostly by families, and it was clear that sitting down, conversing with close ones, was integral to the restaurant’s experience. All that was missing was a Lazy Susan.

Our dinner spread was a cornucopia of dishes that rivaled the comfort of my mother’s cooking. The first entree, the Plum Tree deluxe, a stir fry of chicken, beef, pork and various vegetables, featured complementary flavors. For a dish that required so much oil, it was surprisingly light yet flavorful. The steamed fish filet, garnished with ginger and scallions, came later, and it was followed by the shrimp noodles. We could have done without the last dish due to the vast portions, but that’s to be expected with any Chinese restaurant.

Chinatown might not have been the most exciting part of Los Angeles, but it underscored the values my parents raised me with. On our way back to the car, we carried on our hours-long conversation started at the restaurant. It was then that I felt more at ease and excited for my impending trip abroad, one without our Thanksgiving customs, but celebrating family no less.

Danni Wang is a senior majoring in psychology. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column “Abroad at Home,” runs every other Wednesday.