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Farewell to Chinatown's Empress Pavilion after 24 years

Chinatown at night
Chinatown at night

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A Chinatown institution is no more. After close to a quarter of a century, the dim sum palace located in Bamboo Plaza on Hill Street has shut down. The owners told the Los Angeles Times that they were evicted last Sunday by the plaza’s landlord after having fallen behind on rent.

The 600-seat restaurant opened in April 1989 and was once the byword for dim sum in Los Angeles.

"When it opened, it really was unique," says Lisa See, author of "Shanghai Girls, who frequented the Empress Pavilion. "There were some places in Chinatown where you could get dim sum, but this was the first Hong Kong-style dim sum restaurant with those push carts. People could point and say I want to try that."

That’s no longer the case, however, as folks began flocking to the San Gabriel Valley for authentic Asian grub. In a way, the closure of Empress Pavilion is about Chinatown as well.  

The original Chinatown in Los Angeles was established in 1880 and centered around Alameda and Macy streets. The Chinatown most of us know now, officially dubbed the “New Chinatown,” was rebuilt and relocated to make room for the construction of Union Station. From there, the fortunes of this historical district rose and dipped.

Its latest renaissance came courtesy of an unlikely group of people: artists and gallerists who moved into the area around the late 1990s, congregating specifically on and around Chung King Road, attracted by its cheap rent and plethora of available spaces.

"Even though there are all those new galleries there, even though some place like the Empress Pavilion closes, or some of the old shops that were owned by the pioneer families are gone, it still is a place for new immigrants," said See.

And See says that's because of Chinatown's history, in which Chinese-Americans had to live there because of the land laws — not the case for the San Gabriel Valley. 

"Those people were coming in a very different way than the early immigrants had come, and they didn't have to ever live in Chinatown," See says. "They didn't have to shop there; they didn't have to work there; they didn't have to go to school there. So, the San Gabriel Valley developed in a very different way than our Chinatown or Chinatowns in other cities."

See says that even today, ethnic Chinese coming from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand use Chinatown much like it was used 50 years ago.


Lisa See, novelist; her latest novel is “Shanghai Girls” (Random House, 2009)


Nuran Alteir contributed to this online article