Posts tagged Chinatown

When my parents moved to California, they settled down just east of Chinatown in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. At that time, my parents decided to settle there due to it’s close proximity to Chinatown and the relatively affordable rent. I spent a good part of my childhood exploring the neighborhood, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to truly appreciate the walkability Chinatown offers.

What makes Chinatown so walking friendly?

I believe it’s partially attributed to the Chinese culture, but also because of the dense residential layouts, short blocks, human scaled storefronts, and most importantly, the small businesses that serve the community. There’s a wide variety of shops ranging from family owned supermarkets, herb shops, seafood, eateries, bakeries, clothiers, and many more serving the tight knit community. Growing up, my parents did all of their shopping and errands within a few square miles. We purchased our birthday cakes at Queen Bakery and Phoenix Bakery, brought our produce at Ai Hoa Supermarket, and picked up fresh chicken from the local poultry shop.

But the small businesses environment in Chinatown is changing. There is now a mixture of new and old businesses that co-exist together, each serving different demographics, both culturally and generationally. The younger generation has moved away from Chinatown, leaving an increasingly elderly immigrant population that relies heavily upon the shops and services for their daily needs.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about our office’s ongoing photographic exploration of Los Angeles. My own photographic adventure began when I thought about what defined my own definition of Los Angeles: the numerous small businesses that in sum make up the architectural landscape of our city. Angelenos experience and share their culture through the foods, goods, and services offered at these endless number of neighborhood stores and restaurants.

During my assignment I walked through different neighborhoods documenting with my disposable camera the various storefronts that make each neighborhood unique. I witnessed local residents gathering to buy fruit at the neighborhood store, picking up their daily newspaper or a fresh chicken for the evening’s dinner, observing the everyday activities of a community. At the heart of each area, these small business proved integral in creating walkable neighborhoods, helping establish a deep sense of community among their local residents – an essential component in a city as sprawling, expansive, and culturally diverse as Los Angeles.

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Photo by Yiran

Photo by Yiran Wang

While I write this post the Chinese Lantern Festival is just winding down. On this evening – part of the celebration of the annual Spring Festival – Chinese families come out to decorate Chinatown’s streets and plaza with all varieties of luminous lanterns. One famous event has participants release lit up paper lanterns into the sky as a symbolic gesture of well wishes for families and for the entire world (those worried about the environmental impact should note the quantity released here is modest).

Photo via Instagram/@kongtagious

Photo via Instagram/@kongtagious

Chinatown is still a good, but not only spot in Los Angeles to observe the cultural practices of Lunar New Year. Hsi Lai temple is a Chinese Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, and a very authentic destination for observing the celebration of the Lantern Festival. Originally a Buddhist celebration dating back to 2,000 years ago, monks of the Han Dynasty lit up lanterns to worship the Buddha on the 15th day of the new lunar-solar calendar year. Fast forward to the present and participants now continue the tradition from a small hill located in the city of Hacienda Heights, now part of LA’s Chinese Buddhism landscape.

Apart from the Asian “foodscape “germinated from the multicultural context of Los Angeles, the religious landscape also plays a significant role in representing the diverse cultural heritages of each region of the city. However, instead of an elaborate essay about this rich and deep topic, I prefer to offer a brief glimpse into the Hsi Lai Temple as a focus. As the largest Buddhist monastery and temple complex in the Western Hemisphere, Hsi Lai Temple is a notable and fascinating example of the Chinese religious landscape here in Southern California.

The temple, as viewed above using Google Maps.

The temple, as viewed above using Google Maps.

While researching about the history of Hsi Lai Temple, I discovered that the temple’s specific location – on top of a hill overlooking the suburban community – was once resisted by the locals before its completion in 1988. The concern was that the Buddhist temple complex was too large in scale and would supposedly detract from the existing landscape.  To this point, I personally do not believe Hsi Lai Temple does not blend into its surrounding landscape as well as other Chinese monasteries. However, just like Los Angeles itself, the temple can be appreciated for its unique architecture.

Creative Commons photo by Andy Nguyen

Creative Commons photo by Andy Nguyen

Unlike Gothic cathedral marked by a tall spire representing the divine form reaching to heaven, or the circular geometry symbolizing the Mandala integral to Indian temples architecture, Chinese temples in both their Buddhist or Taoist iterations are usually built upon a mountain. These geographic features are believed to be inhabited by sacred spirits, and a mountain or hill also adds a level of grandiosity for a religious site. This “borrowing” from the natural landscape is a very substantial methodology in designing for the traditional Chinese landscape.

If one looks carefully, they might note the front of the first shrine of Hsi Lai Temple has many steps, too many steps to meet the ADA standards (but there is a ramp access). The stairs symbolize the journey practitioners must take symbolically in hopes of ascending to the Pure Land from the mundane world. Climbing as a physical act is also an enduring Buddhism Practice. Traditionally, the number of steps would coincide with the number “108”, either exactly or in some symbolic relationship,  a sacred number in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

The Arhat Garden in the temple. Creative Commons: via Wikipedia: Aaron Logan

The Arhat Garden in the temple. Creative Commons: via Wikipedia: Aaron Logan

With its gleaming golden roof tiles illuminated by the beautiful California sunshine, it’s hard not to notice this temple even from afar. The Hsi Lai Temple complex reveals a strong relation to Ming Qing (1368-1911 C.E.) architectural style, therefore it has earned the nickname, the “Little Forbidden City”.  It has a symmetrical layout, with an axis crossing the Mountain Gate, the Bodhisattva Hall, the Main Shrine and Meditation Hall, with two courtyards in between, and the Requiem Pagoda at the end honoring the dead. Additionally two theme gardens balance the temple complex.

This style of Buddhist architecture and landscape is an adaptation from an originally more spiritual-focused and austere style, adding more ornate and grand imperial design elements. Buddhism played prominent in the Chinese political realm throughout history, and temples designed in the Buddhist-Imperial style emphasized the power and dignity of the deities alongside the grandiosity of the temple itself compared to the more serene focus upon individual meditation. But as far as I know, Hsi Lai Temple’s heritage is only connected historically and culturally to this ubiquitous Chinese religious style, without any affiliation to politics.

Photo via Instagram/@thecaliforniac

Photo via Instagram/@thecaliforniac

One last important dimension while experiencing the religious landscape any Chinese temple is the smell of incense and the sound of chanting sutra. Unlike many Buddhist temples in China, where Buddhist music is performed loudly with groups of monks or nuns chanting together, Hsi Lai Temple is relatively tranquil. This makes the temple feel less touristy and permitting an air of authentic religiosity to permeate its grounds. Still, in front of the Main Shrine there is an incense burner where people pray to the Buddha and offer their incense*. People buy incense to represent high(er) esteem, therefore, the number of incense in the burner or the smoke emanating from it can represent if the temple is really efficacious and popular.  Hsi Lai Temple invites anyone and everyone to participate, offering up to three incense sticks for free. Also, every day between 11:30am till 1:30pm (2:30pm on weekends) is a $7 donation vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet for visitors. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s yet another reason to visit.

Hsi Lai Temple is definitely worth visiting and exploring, alongside other religious landscape in Los Angeles, such as the Hindu Temple in Malibu, the Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood , and the Japanese Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo. I highly recommend taking advantage of this aspect of the Los Angeles landscape, whether to begin a spiritual journey or to simply appreciate the enchanting landscape surrounding it.

*Side note: An interesting fact about the incense is that Indian people used this burnt sticks made of herbs and spices and etc. to repel insects like mosquito.

Hsi Lai Temple
Location: 3456 Glenmark Dr, Hacienda Heights, CA 91745




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.

Chinatown in the 1950's

Chinatown in the 1950’s

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.

Chinatown 1947

Chinatown, 1947

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.

Photo: Artist Mike Kelley's MOCA Exhibit Replica of the Chinatown Wishing Well

Photo: Artist Mike Kelley’s MOCA Exhibit Replica of the Chinatown Wishing Well

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!

AHBE-LAB-Alpine Recreation Center Expansion

Wendy Chan, Associate with AHBE Landscape Architects, on what inspires her design process and her work on the Alpine Recreation Center Expansion, a project funded by Proposition 84, Proposition K, and Proposition A grants, designated to transform a vacant one acre hillside site in Chinatown, Los Angeles into a community recreation center for the local populace to exercise, commune, gather, and play.