Los Angeles Chinatown is located just north of the Music Center, City Hall, El Pueblo de Los Angeles at Olvera Street, and Union Station, so it's easy to fit in a visit while seeing other Downtown Los Angeles attractions. If you're coming from another part of the city, the nearby Chinatown metro station on the gold line is a convenient entry point to avoid driving in.
Chinatown encompasses less than a square mile bordered by Main Street to the East, Yale Street to the west, Cesar Chavez to the south, and Bernard Street to the north.
Also known as New Chinatown, the current neighborhood was relocated in 1938 from a few blocks east where the original LA Chinatown was razed to make way for Union Station. The only remaining building from the original Chinatown is the Garnier Building, now located within El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Site, which is home to the Chinese American Museum. It's about a block southeast of the current border of New Chinatown and helps to round out an experience exploring the neighborhood with the historical backdrop of Chinese Americans in Los Angeles.
Chinatown Gateway Monument (The Dragon Gate)
The Chinatown Gateway, also known as the Dragon Gate, is located on Broadway, just north of Cesar Chavez Avenue. Designed by artist Ruppert Mok and installed in 2001, it illuminates at night in bright colors, making it an ideal photo spot at all hours of the day.
If you're entering this way, the shops don't start until half-way up the block on Broadway. You'll find Chinese herb shops, markets, and plenty of souvenirs.
You can drive through the gate or walk north from the Civic Center/Grand Park metro station. It's also just a few blocks west of the Union Station metro stop along Cesar Chavez. If you walk through, make sure to turn around and look south through the gate for a perfectly-framed shot of City Hall.
Tile Mural on the Plum Tree Restaurant
The Plum Tree Inn restaurant is as famous in Chinatown for its delicious Schechuan cuisine as it is for the historic tiled mosaics affixed to its walls. These handpainted murals have graced the neighborhood for decades, and the original artists (or artists) aren't even known.
The three images, from left to right, are called, "Picture of Viewing Waterfalls in Summer Mountains," "Palace in Heaven," and "Four Beauties Catching Swimming Fish." They are believed to be the largest tiled mosaics painted in this style outside of China. You can see them just one block from the Chinatown metro station, at Broadway and West College Street.
The East Gate of Central Plaza
The East Gate is the grand entrance to the Central Plaza, also known as the Gate of Maternal Virtues, and was commissioned by attorney You Chung Hong in honor of his mother's memory. This photogenic entrance is located on the east side of the main plaza, on Broadway between West College Street and Bamboo Lane.
To the right of the gate is a tower with a painting of a dragon by Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong. Just inside the gate is a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Chinese revolutionary, first provisional president, and ideological father of the Republic of China.
Old Chinatown Central Plaza
Central Plaza was the first part of "New Chinatown" to be constructed and dedicated in 1938. It is the only planned Chinatown in the entire U.S., as opposed to other cities where neighborhoods were organically formed as Chinese immigrants moved in. This heart of New Chinatown is officially called Central Plaza, but many refer to it, confusingly, as "Old Chinatown," since this square is the oldest and most historic part of the entire neighborhood.
The buildings inside Central Plaza, with their characteristic sloped roofs, carved wood ornaments, and colorful facades, were inspired by the Hollywood version of Shanghai and designed by non-Chinese architects Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson. It was a precursor and inspiration to other themed shopping areas, like Universal CityWalk and Downtown Disney.
The Central Plaza is the nucleus of Chinatown, and on sunny mornings you can stroll through and see seniors playing Chinese chess and mah-jong while they sip on tea and socialize. If you happen to be in Los Angeles during Chinese New Year or the Autumn Moon Festival, Central Plaza hosts all types of traditional events from lion dances to lantern festivals.
The West Gate of Central Plaza
The West Gate, with its neon Chinatown sign, was the first gate built around the Central Plaza. The inscription at the top of the gate reads "Cooperate to Achieve" in Chinese characters. The neon-covered West Gate is even more spectacular lit up at night, color-coordinated with all of the red lanterns. If you enter the plaza through the East Gate, just continue through toward North Hill Street to exit under this ornate doorway.
Just inside the West Gate is the Wishing Well, one of the oldest landmarks inside of Central Plaza. Designed to emulate the Seven Star Caverns in southern China, you can toss your coins into these waters to wish for love, health, or prosperity.
West Plaza and Chung King Road
Across Hill Street from Central Plaza is West Plaza, and a tiny alleyway called Chung King Road. West Plaza was built about five years after the Chinese were granted the right to become citizens and own property in 1943, quickly turning into the "authentic" Chinatown where the residents actually lived and worked. Restaurants, herbal medicine pharmacies, and other traditional stores lined the street, while many business owners lived right upstairs, creating a strong sense of community within the West Plaza area.
Many of the long-time residents have moved away to other parts of the city, and the traditional businesses of the past are now primarily art galleries or boutiques. Many of the storefronts have maintained their original signs and facades, so it's still worth walking through to get a sense of its former vibe.
"The Party at Lan-Ting" Mural at Castelar Elementary School
This mural on the side of Castelar Elementary School is by artist Shi Yan Zhang. It's called "The Party at Lan-Ting," and it depicts famous Chinese calligrapher Wang Xi Zhi (321-376, Jin Dynasty) hosting a party where he wrote the preface to a poetry collection that became a model for centuries of Chinese calligraphers.
The school itself is also a historic landmark. Castelar was founded in 1882 and is the second oldest school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. It reflects the rich diversity of the neighborhood, boasting staff members who speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Toisanese, Chaoshan, Hakka, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Spanish. Visit the school and this iconic mural at Yale and West College streets.
Thien Hau Temple
Thien Hau Temple on Yale Street in Chinatown is a Taoist temple run by a Vietnamese refugee association. The building isn't as old as other parts of Chinatown, as the structure only dates back to 2005. However, the temple has become one of the primary places of worship for Chinese and Vietnamese Los Angeles residents. The temple is run by the Camau Association of America, a local benevolent, cultural, and religious association primarily involved with Vietnamese refugees from the Camau Province in Vietnam.
Thien Hau Temple is dedicated to Mazu (or Matsu), the Taoist goddess of the sea. She is the patron of sailors, fishermen, and everything associated with the ocean. Thien Hau Temple has festive celebrations for the birthdays of all the deities enshrined here, the biggest of which is for Mazu sometime in April or May. There is also a major festival on Lunar New Year's Eve every year.