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Dig Los Angeles: Chinatown Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library

Tiffney Sanford, Administrative Clerk, Valley Plaza Branch Library,
Chinatown Branch Library
Chinatown Branch Library

With locations all over the city, and lots of books and other materials devoted to local history, libraries are a perfect springboard for exploring Los Angeles. This is the first in a series of blog posts that digs into local history near a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. First up is the Chinatown Branch, which is surrounded by the remnants of Los Angeles’ earliest communities and multicultural neighborhoods.

Former Chinatown Branch Library location at 536 West College Street
Former Chinatown Branch Library location at 536 West College Street, [2022]. Photo by author. Brochure from Chinatown Branch dedication following expansion, [1983]. California Index/Los Angeles Public Library. Chinatown Branch advocates Dr. Ruby Ling Louie, [top, 1973]. Shades of L.A. Chinese American Community Collection, and Dolores Wong, [bottom, c.1970]. El Pueblo Monument Photo Collection (not pictured: Joyce Law)

The Chinatown Branch has a relatively young history compared to the community it serves. Beginning in the early 1970s, women such as Joyce Law of the Chinatown Service Center, philanthropist/fundraiser Dolores Wong, and community activist/school librarian Dr. Ruby Ling Louie fought for the establishment of a library branch in Chinatown. The search for an initial location was problematic but thanks to their persistence, a branch was opened in 1977 in the auditorium at Castelar Elementary School. The library was immediately popular and quickly outgrew the auditorium. [This brochure from the April 1983 dedication offers a glimpse into the struggles for a branch.] A robust Friends of the Library group, led by Dr. Ruby Ling Louie, raised donations to improve the library and helped fund a permanent location. The library moved into its new home at 639 N. Hill in 2003. The branch has the largest Chinese collection, and materials in English pertaining to Chinese authors and culture, in the Los Angeles Public Library system. The library’s location makes it a perfect springboard for exploring local history within a short walk or drive of the library.

Explore nearby history

A postcard view of a walk down Olvera Street
Historic photo: A postcard view of a walk down Olvera Street, [n.d.]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection; Views of El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument, including the Old Plaza Firehouse, the Italian Hall, Cielito Lindo, Pico House and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles (IAMLA), [2022]. Photos by author

The origins of Los Angeles are celebrated at El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument (aka the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District), just half a mile southwest of the Chinatown Branch. That is where you can visit a 19th-century church (Plaza Church), the oldest firehouse in the city (Plaza Firehouse), the oldest residential building (Avila Adobe), the Pico House (a former hotel built by former California governor Pio Pico in 1869), multiple museums (visit the Chinese American Museum to see the last remaining building of Old Chinatown)—all for free. The resources listed below also offer opportunities to learn about the Mexican, Italian, French, and Chinese communities that lived near the Plaza.

Union Station [Photo dated 1940]
Union Station, [1940]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Don’t miss a visit to Union Station, located across Alameda Street from El Pueblo de Los Ángeles. Dedicated in May 1939, it is the largest passenger railway station in the western United States. The architecture is striking, a mix of Streamline Moderne and Mission Revival. Construction for the building started in 1933 on the site of Old Chinatown, much of which was demolished to build the station. As a matter of fact, artifacts from Old Chinatown were unearthed during expansion of the building for the Red Line (see Greenwood’s book in the Resource list for more information).

Historic black and white photos of Chinatown
Historic black and white photos, clockwise from top left: Looking west on Gin Ling Way, New Chinatown, [c. 1939]. Herman J. Schultheis Collection; New Chinatown’s West Gateway, [n.d.]. Harry Quillen Collection; Hill Street Gate, New Chinatown, [c. 1939]. Herman J. Schultheis Collection; New Chinatown building, [n.d.]. Harry Quillen Collection; views of New Chinatown, [2022]. Photos by author

New Chinatown, which opened June 25, 1938, is a five minute walk north of the Chinatown Branch. The architecture of New Chinatown is beautiful. The library has materials on the history of Los Angeles’ Chinatowns, both Old Chinatown and New Chinatown, as well as Christine Sterling’s ill-fated China City (which burned twice). Although the buildings of the Old Chinatown and China City are gone, you can (virtually at least) visit them through Tessa, the library’s digitized photo collection. In addition to materials documenting the city’s built environment, the Chinatown Branch has several books that contain oral histories or interviews with people who lived in Old and/or New Chinatown.

Exterior view of the River Station in Los Angeles
Historic photo: Exterior view of the River Station in Los Angeles, [n.d.]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection; Views of Los Angeles State Historic Park (including granite cobblestones on the left), [2022]. Photos by the author

Further north, the Los Angeles State Historic Park on Spring Street is a little more than half a mile from the Chinatown Branch. During the last quarter of the 19th-century Southern Pacific Railway’s River Station graced this spot. When no longer needed for passenger trains, the station building became a mission. (Free with your library card: access the November 25, 1940 Los Angeles Times to learn about the station’s history on the eve of its destruction). Cobblestones attributed to the railyard are still visible near the southern entrance of the park. Additionally, a portion of the zanja madre, the 19th-century ditch that carried water from the Los Angeles River to El Pueblo de Los Ángeles, can be viewed from the park’s Roundhouse Bridge. The 32-acre park features several works of public art, views of downtown Los Angeles and will soon host a weekly farmers market. Visit the park’s website for more information.

Local history is made everyday

The Ord and Yale Street Park (left) and pocket park honoring the contributions of Croatian Americans and Italian Americans in Los Angeles located at West Cesar Estrada Chavez Avenue and Grand Avenue
The Ord and Yale Street Park (left) and pocket park honoring the contributions of Croatian Americans and Italian Americans in Los Angeles located at West Cesar Estrada Chavez Avenue and Grand Avenue, [2022]. Photos by author

Library spaces and librarians also serve as resources for learning about neighborhoods and communities today. While visiting the Chinatown Branch I learned about two new pocket parks near the library. The Ord and Yale Street Park, located adjacent to the library, opened in 2021. When I visited, kids were playing on the park’s playground, and several people were running the adjacent Heavenly Stairs up the hillside. The park also has exercise equipment, picnic tables (tip: nearby Philippe the Original, founded by French immigrant Philippe Mathieu in 1908, is a great place to grab a sandwich), plus beautifully landscaped serene surroundings complete with a bubbling waterfall. Another new pocket park is located at the nearby corner of West Cesar Estrada Chavez Avenue and Grand Avenue. A former traffic island has been transformed into a park honoring the contributions of Croatian Americans and Italian Americans in Los Angeles. Plaques throughout the park discuss their significance, and commemorate Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini’s Regina Coeli orphanage which was once nearby. The park is beautifully landscaped and, thanks to the trees, offers shaded benches.

Not only can you discover the history of Los Angeles through the books, maps, newspapers, city directories, and photos available at the library, you can use the library to create a “road trip'' within your town. What part of Los Angeles have you always been curious about? Start at the local library and ask the librarian about neighborhood landmarks. Explore the city, meet people who live in the neighborhood, and check out the historical places you’ve only read about.

Recommended Resources

Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor
Qu, Anna

At 7 years old, Anna Qu was brought from her grandmother's home in rural Wenzhou, China to join her remarried birth mother in Queens, New York. Anna did not speak Mandarin as her step-family did. Only her mother conversed with Qu in Wenzhounese, and then she did so coldly and without the maternal care that Qu wished for. Qu was left to learn English in school on her own and to build a new life within her mother's business, a clothing factory where the "rules at the factory weren't much different from the rules at home."

With little to no guidance, Qu "didn't even understand the frameworks within which [American] people lived, the limits of what they owned." After a disgraceful rebellious act against her mother, Qu was first banished to sleep on an apartment level different from the rest of the family and then was sent back to Wenzhou. Six months later, Qu returned to Queens only to become a worker in her mother's factory. She soon defied her parents again and reported them to child protective services. The mother-daughter relationship continued to deteriorate even as Qu made her way into young womanhood, ultimately earning a master's degree.

This book is written in a propulsive tone, leading the reader into the urgency every young person is fed by—but especially so with Qu, spirited and but with very little family love to gently channel her life force. As Qu establishes herself in the professional world, she also finally finds emotional grounding with her grandmother now immigrated to Queens, there to comfort Anna, big and little.

American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods
Tsui, Bonnie

Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945
Sanchez, George J.

Calle Olvera de Los Angeles
Estrada, William D.

Chinatown and China City in Los Angeles
Cho, Jenny

Chinatown Los Angeles, the Golden Years: 1938-1988

The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871
Zesch, Scott

Chinatown in Los Angeles
Cho, Jenny

Downtown With Huell Howser #106, L.A. State Historic Park

Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles
Faragher, John Mack

Down by the Station: Los Angeles Chinatown, 1880-1933
Greenwood, Roberta S.

Inside Los Angeles Chinatown
Lui, Garding

The Kid

The Last of the Great Stations: 40 Years of the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal
Bradley, Bill

Linking Our Lives: Chinese American Women of Los Angeles

The Lonely Queue: The Forgotten History of the Courageous Chinese Americans in Los Angeles
Smith, Icy

Los Angeles's Little Italy
Gatto, Mariann

Los Angeles's Olvera Street
Estrada, William D.

The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space
Estrada, William D.

Mei Ling in China City
Smith, Icy

Union Station: 75 Years in the Heart of LA: A Series of Essays

Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles
Wild, Mark

Mr. Fong's Toy Shop
Politi, Leo

Pioneers and Entrepreneurs: French Immigrants in the Making of L.A., 1827-1927

Signs of Life: Los Angeles is the City of Neon
Lynxwiler, J. Eric

Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin
Bengtson, John

Anthology: A Collection of Writings by the Youth of Chinatown