California is the historic gateway for Asian immigration to the United States, with Filipino sailors arriving as early as the 16th century and the major boom happening with the Gold Rush and construction of the transcontinental railroad in the mid-1800s.
It was in the 1870s that Los Angeles had a large enough Chinese population to have a distinct, identifiable district of businesses, shops, and residences that made up the city’s first Asian neighborhood: Chinatown.
The history of Asian Americans in the United States, and in California in particular, is full of incredible contributions to the progress of the country but also wrought with complications, tragedy, and shameful acts of discrimination. As we see the rising number of hate crimes facing the Asian American community today, we know that the fight for justice continues still, but as the story goes for immigrants, despite an unequal playing field, they persist and make indelible marks on and contributions to our country.
This is incredibly apparent in Los Angeles, which is home to five historic Asian neighborhoods protected by the U.S. Council of Historic Preservation for their cultural significance. These neighborhoods are historic landmarks and not necessarily representative of the way or where most Asian Americans live in Southern California today, but over the last decade, much work has gone into revitalizing these areas with the aim of being a mix of past and present. We’re approaching 30 years since the Uprising in ‘92, which destroyed much of Koreatown, and Latinos make up significant if not majority populations of most of these areas now, but acknowledging all the nuance of this complicated history makes a visit to these neighborhoods so layered. They are great, living monuments to the Asian American experience in the United States.
As far as sprawling Los Angeles goes, these neighborhoods are fairly close together, so if you’re really efficient, you can visit all of them in one day to get a taste…and I’m emphasizing taste here because you’re going to want to come hungry! Here are must-visit, Asian-American-owned stops in Los Angeles’ 5 Official Historic Asian American Pacific Islander neighborhoods:
Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Thais outside of Thailand and home to the only officially recognized Thai Town in the United States. It’s small and the newest of the five neighborhoods, but has lots of plans for growth. It’s worth a visit, especially if you’re lucky enough to time it with a festival!
- The two Apsonsi (mythical half-human, half-angel figures) statues that mark the entrances to the neighborhood
- Two-spirit houses for offering gifts, garlands, and prayers
- Bangluck Market – this small grocery store is full of anything you’d need to create your own Thai feast at home, or just to pick up a few items to try. (5170 Hollywood Blvd)
- Thai Town Marketplace – though facing Covid-related construction delays, this modern marketplace looks very promising. Keep an eye out for opening dates on their social media accounts! (5448 Hollywood Blvd)
- Jitlada – a mainstay since the 70s, Jitlada is considered one of the essential Thai restaurants in Los Angeles (5233 Sunset Blvd)
- Siam Sunset – a bare bones home for Thai dishes of all kinds, but most famous for their breakfast, including Thai donuts with condensed milk (5265 W Sunset Blvd)
- Bhan Kanom Thai – come here for delicious desserts, like Thai-style crispy and filled crepes, sticky rice, coconut pudding, and candies straight from Thailand (5271 Hollywood Blvd)
- Songkran (Thai New Year) – 1st Sunday in April; come celebrate Thai culture with food, entertainment ranging from music and dance to kickboxing, plus the traditional water blessing
- Thai Cultural Day – September; immerse yourself in Thai culture through typical folk music and dance, arts and crafts, and the unique, like massage and fruit and vegetable carving demonstrations
Named the 5th coolest neighborhood in the world by Time Out magazine in 2019, Historic Filipinotown (or Hi-Fi, its new cool kid name), has one of those complicated histories. In the early 1900s Filipinos settled closer to what is now Little Tokyo, but urban development projects pushed them to their current location. After a 30 year campaign, the neighborhood was finally designated as an official historic one in 2002. Though facing the gentrification issues that go with becoming one of the world’s coolest neighborhoods, there are plenty of Filipino businesses you can support that mix this mix of historic and modern.
- Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy) mural depicting the history of Filipinos in the United States; there is a playground directly across from it as well (Unidad Park)
- Gabba Alley – over 110 murals by over 85 local and international artists adorning alleyways throughout the neighborhood (3126 Beverly Blvd)
- Take a Jeepney Tour – get a comprehensive tour of Historic Filipinotown through the Pilipinx Workers Center on a historic “Jeepney”, an important part of Filipino public transit
- Tribal Café (formerly Travelers Cafe) – in the neighborhood since the 1950s, Tribal Cafe serves up healthy juices, wraps, and vegan fare (1651 W Temple St)
- The Park’s Finest – “American cuts of BBQ with a Filipino Flavor”, this place is a fine representation of what can happen when cultures come together through food (1267 W Temple St)
- HiFi Kitchen – Filipino-Angeleno rice bowls blending classic Filipino flavors with trendy LA style (1667 Beverly Blvd)
- Dollar Hits – adventurous and more mainstream delicacies for a dollar — and on skewers! A kid hit for sure (2422 W Temple St)
- Bahay Kubo – try a bunch of different things at this turo turo or “point point” cafeteria where you point to what you want from a selection of delicious Filipino favorites (2330 W Temple St)
The first Koreans arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1900s but K-Town really began to boom in the 60s. The Immigration Act of 1965 finally allowed immigrants to establish businesses in this economically declining area, and by the 70s most were owned by Koreans. This caused tension in this historically diverse area which was a major factor in the ‘92 Uprising. The effects are still felt today, and the area is not without controversy, still, this is an important historic neighborhood for lots of reasons and a great place to experience Korean culture.
- Koreatown Pavilion Garden – Da Wool Jung is a traditional Korean gazebo and garden was constructed by Korean craftsmen and is now a peaceful respite among the bustle of DTLA (W Olympic Blvd & Irolo St)
- Korean American National Museum – reopening in a totally remodeled, stunning space in 2022, this lovely museum details the Korean experience in the United States and hosts many special exhibitions and events for families (West 6th Street)
- Korean Cultural Center – this is the place to go to learn all about Korean culture, from art to food to K-Pop. Check their website for exhibits and events specially catered to children. (5505 Wilshire Blvd)
- Wi Spa – this spa is open 24hrs a day, seven days a week, and is a perfect place for a massage, steam, scrub, and almost miraculously, is totally kid-friendly with an entire “kid zone” just for little ones. With a delicious restaurant on site, you really could spend an entire day here. An excellent post-Disney detox. (2700 Wilshire Blvd)
- The Corner Place – for 40 years, The Corner Place has been serving up the same traditional Korean dishes, including their iconic Dong Chi Mi Gook Su, a delicious and beloved cold noodle soup (2819 James M. Wood Blvd)
- Gol Tong Chicken – Korean fried chicken is legendary, and you’ll find no shortage of options in K-Town, but try this relatively new one-man operation run by a former Korean film director (361 Western Ave)
- Kang Hodong Baekjeong – there is, of course, a raging battle for the title of Best Korean BBQ in Koreatown and we won’t try to get in the middle; this Korea-based chain is a solid option. Come during the day when the atmosphere is relaxed and waits are shorter (3465 W. 6th St)
- California Donuts – a Koreatown staple for 40 years, these fluffy treats will delight the whole fam. The unicorn and panda-shaped varieties are sure to please kids and try Asian flavors like taro and matcha for something special (3540 W 3rd St)
- SomiSomi – come to SomiSomi for delicious taiyaki (warm fish-shaped waffles) and soft serve in Asian flavors like ube, sesame, and matcha (621 S Western Ave)
Though Chinatown is referred to as Old Chinatown, Chinatown, as it exists today, was established in 1938, about 70 years after the original Chinatown was demolished to make way for Union Station. The community has seen many ups and downs throughout its 150+ year history but recently is in a revitalization stage seeing lots of new, modern Chinese businesses open up next to historic ones.
- The Gates: The Dragon Gate, East Gate, and glowing neon West Gate
- Central Plaza – “New” Chinatown was planned, unlike other Chinatowns in the U.S. which organically built up around growing communities. As such, the architecture and decor (designed by non-Chinese) of this main plaza are a bit theme park, but still beautiful and the home to many events, like Lunar New Year dragon dances.
- The Wishing Well – make sure you have enough change for all of your kids’ dreams to come true!
- Bruce Lee statue – this statue of the groundbreaking film star has become a must-see for movie fans since it was erected in 2013
- Chinese American Museum – housed in the Garnier Building, the last remaining structure from the original Chinatown, this museum is a great source for all sorts of family-friendly events and workshops, plus a fantastic overview of the history of the Chinese American experience. (425 N Los Angeles St)
- Phoenix Bakery – founded in 1938, this family-operated L.A. classic is famous for traditional Chinese treats like almond cookies and sugar butterflies and the more California-style strawberry cake (969 N Broadway)
- Yang Chow – Angelenos have been waiting in line for the famous slippery shrimp for over 40 years (819 N. Broadway)
- Steep LA – parents depend on coffee, but maybe trade in your second (or third) for a cup of Chinese or Taiwanese tea meticulously handpicked by the owners and enjoy a moment of harmony in their serene space (970 N Broadway)
- Today Starts Here – an example of the modern revitalization of Chinatown, this is a delicious spot for Taiwanese breakfast. Try the dang bing, a sort of Taiwanese crepe or burrito with scrambled eggs (935 Mei Ling Way)
- Pearl River Deli – come for their famous Hainan chicken, stay for their rotating menu of specialties from all over China (727 N Broadway Ave)
- Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (September) – this festival celebrates the harvest with all sorts of activities catering to families, such as arts and crafts, musical performances, demonstrations, and plenty of delicious moon cake
Little Tokyo came to be with the opening of a Japanese restaurant in 1885, and by the turn of the century, many other issei (first-generation Japanese-Americans) followed suit and created the largest Japanese community in the United States. The growth of this thriving neighborhood was halted in the 1940s when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II. Thriving Little Tokyo never fully recovered from this horrific period of history, but it remains the cultural and symbolic center for the Japanese community in Southern California.
- Japanese American National Museum – this Smithsonian affiliated museum covers over 130 years of Japanese history in the U.S. Check for frequent activities, workshops, and events for families and children and make a visit to their Chado Tea Room for afternoon tea (100 North Central Avenue)
- Japanese American Cultural & Community Center – the JACC hosts many kid-oriented and family-friendly activities throughout the year, including an annual Children’s Day festival on May 5th. It is also home to the somewhat secret, tranquil James Irvine Japanese Garden (244 San Pedro St)
- Go For Broke WWII Monument – this monument commemorates the over 16,000 Japanese-American soldiers who served in World War II despite simultaneously being stripped of their constitutional rights (355 E. 1st Street)
- Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial – this monument is dedicated to the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, including Onizuka who was the first Asian American and person of Japanese descent to reach space
- Home is Little Tokyo mural – a bright, colorful mural depicts 100 years of Japanese history in the United States (Central Ave at First St)
- Japanese Village Plaza – this historic shopping district is chock-a-block with food, gifts, clothing, and more set in a traditional Japanese-style plaza. The Sanrio store is a favorite. Check their website for a variety of events and festivals happening throughout the year. (335 E 2nd St)
- Kura Revolving Sushi Bar – watch your children marvel at the delightful concept that is the revolving sushi bar. It might even encourage them to be a little more adventurous than usual (333 E. 2nd St)
- Oomasa Sushi – for a more traditional setting try Oomasa, which even caters to kids with a special Sushi for Children menu, and has other favorites like katsudon, tempura, and noodles
- Fugetsu-Do – this sweet shop has been in business in Little Toyko since 1903 and is currently run by the 3rd and 4th generation of the Kito family who opened the shop over 115 years ago. Come for their beautiful mochis which are truly works of art. (315 E. First St)
- Mikawaya – another historic confectionary, Mikawaya opened in 1910 and is the birthplace of mochi ice cream (118 Japanese Village Plaza Mall)
- Jist Cafe – a Little Tokyo favorite for over 70 years, this family-owned and operated spot for breakfast or lunch is sure to please any palate, from chocolate chip & banana pancakes to a chashu hash skillet (116 Judge John Aiso St)
- Nisei Week (August) – one of the longest-running ethnic festivals in the U.S., Nisei Week celebrates Japanese culture and the Japanese-American experience through events, performances, demonstrations, parades, and so much more
It’s easy to visit historic ethnic neighborhoods through a theme park lens, but with a little extra digging into the history and supporting businesses owned by these communities, they can be an excellent way to introduce kids to cultures other than their own.
You may also like these articles from Bébé Voyage:
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Kealan! What a great article! I learned about the history and context of ppl of Asian descent in Los Angeles. I had no idea! And all the sites and restaurants really make me want to go to LA to check them out!
Btw, if the Korean Spa in LA is anything like Spa Castle in K-Town in Queens, NY, then it must be AMAZING! I was literally just dreaming about taking my family there the next time we go visit the grandparents in NY.
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