From childhood through my teenage years, I’d visit Chinatown’s wishing well almost every Saturday. My mom works in Chinatown near Downtown Los Angeles, and growing up I’d wait for her to get off work daily, either at the public library, park, or the Old Chinatown Plaza where the wishing well is located.
The wishing well is actually a sculptural art piece, an irregularly shaped concrete creation designed to mimic the natural stone formations found in China. It’s adorned with splotches of blue, red, green, and yellow paint. There are small smiling Buddha statues perched on the formations, a smiling pot bellied pair promising luck, alongside various tin bowls designed to collect wishes – and coins – in the hopes of vacation, love, health, wealth, wisdom, and money.
I remember as a little girl attempting to land a coin in the tin bowl labeled “Wisdom”, all in hopes of passing my next exam. Or “Love” for my first crush as a teenager. For over 70 years, the wishing well has enticed locals and tourists alike to part with their coins in hopes of making a wish come true. It’s amazing how this eccentrically designed sculpture can evoke emotions of hope, disappointment, and joy within the community.
Fascinated by this place, I looked into its history to discover more about its development, its design, and how Chinatown has evolved with the changing needs of the community.
In the 1930s, when the original “Chinatown” neighborhood on Olvera Street was uprooted to make way for Union Station, a group of families and merchants came together to form the Los Angeles Chinatown Corp. The organization created a new Chinatown north of Broadway. At that time, only second generation Chinese Americans could own property, so American born LADWP engineer Peter Soo Hoo led the group to transform a railroad storage yard into a pedestrian plaza and shopping center with traditional Chinese architectural motifs.
This new Chinatown became one of American’s first shopping malls, and the wishing well become a landmark art sculpture. Designed by artist, Professor Henry Hong Kay Liu, the wishing well took inspiration and its name from a natural landmark thousands of miles away, the Seven Star Cave in China.
Chinatown’s wishing well is an amalgamation of the Western concept of a magical well with the culturally seeded Chinese beliefs of luck and fortune. It has gone through multiple renovations and touch-ups throughout the years. Buildings have been constructed around the well, altering the space, and in the process, changing how the landscape element is experiencing amongst visitors. And as buildings have changed so has Chinatown’s population. The once predominately Chinese immigrant community has evolved into a mixture of cultures, welcoming a new wave of immigrants and business that now call Chinatown their home.
Though times have changed, I’m happy to note the wishing well endures. It’s become a landmark art sculpture within the community for many years now. Whenever I’m nearby, I always pay the well a visit because it has been the source of many fond memories of wishes, dreams, and also representing a place where my imagination is free to go wild.
Some things do change though: I now aim for the “Health”, “Peace”, and “Vacation” wish bowls. It’s strange how priorities change as you get older!