For the Chinese, Los Angeles remains one of the world’s most popular destinations. That’s expected to be particularly true during Golden Week on Oct. 1 - 7, a holiday period in China that includes National Day on Oct. 1, when the founding of the People’s Republic of China is celebrated through flag-raising ceremonies, fireworks and music. If you’re not familiar with the holiday or you don’t have the budget to experience it in China, it’s a great excuse to get out and explore the riches of L.A.’s Chinese culture.
Founded in 1938, Chinatown’s Central Plaza by day is a gathering place for the elders in the neighborhood, whether it’s for a game of chess or a sweet bun and tea from Phoenix, the area’s oldest bakery. By night, the statue of martial arts star Bruce Lee watches over the 1930s era facades, while art galleries host openings, bustling new restaurants serve the latest dishes and live music serenades visitors.
The retro floating red lanterns and curvaceous rooftops that grace the historically noted buildings aren’t even found in China any longer, as traditional architecture, at least in urban locales, have been uprooted for more modern glass, steel and concrete structures in the metropolises of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing.
For a nightcap, seek out General Lee’s, a speakeasy named after L.A.’s very first Chinese restaurant, which occupied the landmark building from 1878-1985. Its inventive craft cocktails, particularly The Lost Orient Sour with Union mezcal, lemon and black sesame syrup, taste like magic potion. General Lee's hosts music on most nights, ranging from DJs on the main floor to jazz in the upstairs lounge.
At the nearby El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, be sure to visit the Chinese American Museum (CAM) for a quick history lesson. CAM is symbolically housed in the Garnier Building, the oldest and last surviving structure of Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. The 7,200 square-foot museum houses an intriguing, detailed reinstallation of the Sun Wing Wo General Store and Herb Shop, an actual store that was at one time in the building from 1891-1948, and serves as a promising point of entry to exploring L.A.'s unique Chinese heritage.
Get a sense of Golden Age Hollywood glamour and its then-populist exotic style, exemplified by the tea green roofs, Chinese-imported temple bells and pagodas of the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Opened as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in May 1927 and designed by master showman Sid Grauman himself, Chinese artisans helped complete the project under the supervision of poet and film director Moon Quon. Generations of epic film premieres have taken place at the theatre, from Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of the Kings at the grand opening to The Wizard of Oz and the original Star Wars.
In the famous Forecourt to the Stars at the front of the theatre, you'll see hand and footprints of icons like classic cowboy John Wayne and martial arts star Jackie Chan.
The Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens was once the grand garden and estate of an American railroad magnate. Now one of the many reasons to visit is The Garden of Flowing Fragrance or Liu Fang Yuan in Mandarin. Finished in 2008, it’s one of the largest Chinese-themed gardens outside of China. Encompassing a lake, seven pavilions, five stone bridges and sheltered walkways, the garden is set amidst a landscape of plants native to China and California, and is designed to reflect the gardens of Suzhou, the historic city just outside of Shanghai that has a centuries-old tradition of landscape artistry.
All that strolling and Snapchatting will make you hungry, so stop by the tea house for a snack: aromatic garlic shrimp spring rolls, Cantonese short rib soup with rice noodles or savory barbecue chicken with satay sauce. You’ll be temporarily transported to Lake Tai in Jiangsu Province, where the garden’s white rocks were mined.
Don’t miss the Chinese Woodblock prints exhibit in the Boone Gallery from Sept. 17, 2016 – Jan. 9, 2017. Explore arts, crafts and the cultural significance of Chinese woodblock prints made from the late 16th to the 19th century.
Chinese tourists come to the United States to shop, pumping in a higher per capita spending than any other visitors to Los Angeles. In fact, up to 60 percent of the sales at Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills come from mainland Chinese customers. One of the world's premier luxury shopping neighborhoods is a big part of the Chinese experience - many stores, including Hermes and Chanel, have Mandarin-speaking sales associates to serve the 20-30-something clientele, many of whom get their info on the latest trends in shopping and fashion online via their smartphones and the WeChat app.
A bit off the beaten path, the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights is a beautiful centerpiece of the Chinese American community. Built in 1988, its vast white geometric courtyard resembles a rice paddy, while the lushly landscaped gardens are designed in the style of ancient Chinese monasteries. The interior of the shrines echo the Chinese Ming and Qing Dynasty-styles of architecture, and as part of one of the largest such Chinese monasteries in the United States, is meant to spread the teachings of Buddha to the Western Hemisphere. Inside the main shrine, a sea of more than 10,000 golden Buddha statues grace the walls, symbolic of Buddha nature – it is believed you will find yourself in one of them.
Another revered tradition in Chinese culture is to get together with family and dine over a large meal. There’s no better place in Los Angeles to do that than at the San Gabriel Square. The 12-acre, 220,000-square foot multi-level mega mall was built in the early 1990s to cater to affluent Asian immigrants. This upscale, neon-bathed mall feels more like Shanghai or Beijing compared to other L.A. Chinese attractions and is anchored by an authentic Asian supermarket, 99 Ranch Market. Stop in and explore the amazing snacks and candies, and be the first of your friends to try seaweed potato chips and hot and sour vermicelli - rice crackers and Pocky sticks will seem very run of the mill!
Of course, you didn’t travel all this way to cook for yourself, so take advantage of the dozens of authentic Chinese restaurants that line the mall’s walkways. One favorite is the critically acclaimed Wang Xing Ji, a Wuxi-style restaurant serving slightly sweet yet mouthwatering dumplings, bursting with juice. Not to be missed is the nearby Shanghai No. 1 Seafood, one of the best Shanghai-style restaurants in Southern California. Black and white pictures of 1930s Shanghai, then known as “Paris of the East,” fill the red walls, but you’ll be focused on the magnificent menu.
Too much eating? Too much walking? Treat yourself to a soothing Chinese-style foot massage at Zi Liang Massage on Las Tunas Drive. You’ll be greeted with a welcome cup of tea (for health) and a tank full of shimmering goldfish (for good luck).
You can make your own Golden Week or even spend a Golden Day exploring Chinese culture any time of the year in Los Angeles.