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Why Wal-Mart in Chinatown is a threat to Chinese Americans – even in the ethnoburbs* | 為什麼沃爾瑪在唐人街是一個華裔美國人的威脅 – 即使在ethnoburbs*


When I read that Wal-Mart was opening in Chinatown, I felt personally provoked.

Growing up behind freeways and beneath mountains in the San Gabriel Valley, I often felt a world apart from the rest of Los Angeles. But I trace my roots seven miles west from here to Chinatown. Like other San Gabriel Valley grandparents, my 84-year-old mah-mah — with an umbrella in one hand and a plastic bag in another — visits Chinatown weekly to shop and socialize. At the Southern California Teo Chew Association, she sips tea with friends and revisits memories of pre-war Vietnam. For me, Chinatown is a living heritage embodied in the sights and smells of burning incense, freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, and live chicken.

Wal-Mart is a threat to that heritage. Chinatown would be the corporate giant's first site in the Downtown, Los Angeles. The company says that it will bring jobs, economic development and new shopping opportunities. But I am concerned how the proposed neighborhood grocery market at Grand and Cesar Chavez avenues will alter the local culture of independent stores and community centers which matters so much to my grandmother—and to me.

Alpine courts where the author's father played basketballWhile some may argue that the rise of communities like the San Gabriel Valley make Chinatowns obsolete as support centers for recent immigrants, I would propose the continued existence of Chinatowns is vital to maintaining the Chinese American identity. The neighborhood was the first community and refuge for my family upon their arrival in America. My father played basketball on the Alpine courts, and my mother worked as a nurse in a medical office across the street. The Buddhist temples scattered throughout Chinatown and its adjacent neighborhoods provided comfort and morale to immigrants like my parents, aunts, and uncles who needed more than just an individual work ethic to survive. Chinatown represented a familiar place in a foreign land, and perhaps even more so, an implicit understanding of shared aspirations and struggles that would one day amount to the American Dream.

We, amongst so many of our Chinese American neighbors, have achieved that and moved east to the San Gabriel Valley. But even as we have left Chinatown, we continue to maintain ties to the historic neighborhood. These should not be sacrificed to corporate development without a good fight. Los Angeles' Chinatown — like others throughout the country — is highly vulnerable to our lawmaker's choices. For example, an article, “The End of Chinatown,” in The Atlantic magazine explains that Chinatowns  “almost died once before, in the first half of the 20th century, when various acts limited immigration.” Now, our Chinatown faces a similar demise as building and zoning regulations are failing to protect it.

Wal-Mart maintains that "the site has always been zoned for a grocery store, has been empty for most of the last two decades and our plans clearly comply with all City requirements." They say the grocery store will be one fifth the size of the regular big box stores, that local businesses welcome it, and that special interest groups are blocking new jobs and financial growth. I recognize the economic struggles that Los Angeles’s Chinatown faces. I, too, am sympathetic to the lack of high-quality, healthy foods in low-income areas. However, Wal-Mart’s neighborhood store model to engage local suppliers and provide products for people to “save money” and therefore “live better” is persuasive only to the extent that it will in fact integrate smoothly into the Chinatown community. Nor does its existence at the peripheral of Chinatown negate its relevance to the impending unmatched business competition that it will wage. Wal-Mart at its proposed location will signal the sterilization of culture in an entire area that has been a place of collective memory for many Chinese Americans.

Perhaps my defense comes too late, just as Los Angeles City Council’s motion last month to ban the building of retail chain stores in Chinatown was a day too late. One day before, Wal-Mart had filed for the requisite city permits to build. from coming to the downtown and Chinatown communities. Now we wait as advocates appeal Wal-Mart's application. Even as some of us may never live directly in Chinatown, I encourage people to take a stand against Wal-Mart before it is too late. Petitions have been circulating and community meetings are being organized. Because memories of the past shape the collective identities that give us a sense of community, it is important to have a symbolic physical space to share these experiences across generations, and ultimately to not forget that the positions of privilege we hold now are rooted in past stories of struggle.

*Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated that a Chinatown Wal-Mart would be the first in Los Angeles County. That was incorrect. It would be the first neighborhood market, a smaller grocery market than the usual big box store. The updated version also includes more details on the type of market Wal-Mart is proposing. We work hard to be accurate with a very small staff. If you catch something, please let us know.  – DG, [email protected]


成長于高速公路的背後和聖蓋博谷山脚下,我常常覺得与部分的洛杉磯遥如隔世。但從這裡到唐人街以西七英里,我追溯我的根。像其他的聖蓋博谷的祖父母们,我84歲的嘛嘛(祖母)—一手拿着雨傘,另一手拿着塑料袋 — 每週都造访唐人街以購物和社交。在南加州潮州公會,她與朋友们喝幾口茶和回憶戰前的越南。對於我來說,唐人街是香火围绕的一個活生生的遺迹,还带着鮮榨甘蔗汁,活雞的景象和氣味。

沃爾瑪是該遺迹的威脅。唐人街將是这个企業巨頭在洛杉磯市中心的第一個据点。該公司表示,它會帶來就業機會,經濟發展和新的購物体验。但我擔心,这个对我的祖母和我关系重大的地方的那些位于Grand和Cesar Chavez大道的,筹建中的雜貨市場,还有當地文化的獨立門店和社區中心,將如何被改變。


我們之間這麼多美國华人鄰居成功后迁移到東聖蓋博谷。但是,即使我們已經離開唐人街,我們將繼續保持歷史留下的鄰里關係。不应该不去尽力争取而犧牲给某些企業的發展。洛杉磯的唐人街如同其他在全國各地的唐人街,在我們的立法者的選擇中是非常脆弱的。例如,一篇文章,大西洋雜誌的“唐人街的終結”解釋唐人街” 在20世紀上半段幾乎消亡過一次,当时各项法律限制移民。“現在,由于建設和區劃法規未能保護它,我們的唐人街面臨著類似的消亡命运。”

沃爾瑪認為“該地盘一直被劃為雜貨店区,已經空置二十年了,我們的計劃,顯然符合所有市府的要求。” 他們說,雜貨店將是正規的大型商店規模的五分之一,當地企業界歡迎,而特殊利益集團阻撓了新的就業機會和財政增長。我承認在洛杉磯的唐人街面臨的經濟困境。在低收入地區,我也很同情缺乏高品質的健康食品。然而,前提是沃爾瑪社區店的模式將在事實上能順利融入華埠社區,以本地供應商參與並為人們提供產品,以“省錢”,因此“生活得更好”才是有說服力的。也不否定其在唐人街周邊存在的相關性,以即將到來的,它會發起的,無可匹敵的商業競爭。沃爾瑪在其建議的位置的新店將在整個地區散发消除文化的信号,而此区一直是許多美國华人的集體回憶中的地方。

也許我的维护來得太遲了,正如上個月洛杉磯市議會的議案禁止的唐人街的零售連鎖店的建設,是為時已晚一天。 前一天,沃爾瑪已取得城市必須的建設許可證。 從未來的市中心和唐人街社區,現在,我們等待着作為倡導者上诉沃爾瑪的申請。即使我們中的一些人可能永遠不會直接住在唐人街,我鼓勵大家對沃爾瑪表明立場,望不会是為時已晚。請願書已經傳出,社區會議也正在舉辦。因為回憶過去的形狀,給我們一個共同的社會意識,而有一個象徵性的场地空間是非常重要的。让几代人分享這些經驗,並最終不能忘記我们的的立場權力,我們認為現在应该紮根在過去抗争的经历基础上。

*修正:這個故事的早期版本有误。唐人街沃爾瑪將在洛杉磯郡的第一店。這是不正確的。這將是第一個社区市場,一個比一般的大型商店較小的雜貨市場。更新後的版本還包括各類型的市場,沃爾瑪建議的更多細節。我們只有一個非常少的工作人員但努力争取準確。如果你发现有问题,請讓我們知道。 – DG,[email protected] 


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19 thoughts on “Why Wal-Mart in Chinatown is a threat to Chinese Americans – even in the ethnoburbs* | 為什麼沃爾瑪在唐人街是一個華裔美國人的威脅 – 即使在ethnoburbs*”

  1. The comments against Walmart thus far have not addressed the author’s concerns, which I see as:

    1. Her lack of confidence that it will “integrate smoothly into the Chinatown community”
    2. Walmart’s competitive edge
    3. Walmart “will signal the sterilization of culture in an entire area”

    But addressing some of the comments made, Rosemead has a Walmart and that hasn’t made the city and its surrounding communities into a barren wasteland. The fate of the surrounding markets and shops has little to do with Walmart than with their own individual effort and larger economic and demographic trend. They, as a whole, don’t really compete with Walmart: People already know that if they want jeans, shoes, and a pretty decent TV, they go to Walmart. People go elsewhere if they need ethnic clothes and food. We already do this even without Walmart–Store A has the better meats, Store B has better Asian vegetables, we go to different places to pick up different things.

    There’s a bigger question of why has that space on the edge of Chinatown been vacant since 1991? What prevented (perhaps) more reputable shops from moving in?

    I have my skepticism on Walmart, but that also applies to other chains in and around San Gabriel Valley; just because it’s not reported or talked about, does not make them necessarily innocent. If you believe Walmart’s prices are largely due to cheap and exploited labor, what makes you think others don’t take advantage of the same practices? Do you honestly think these employers encourage union representation? If I replaced Walmart with a big box Asian chain, would you still make the same argument about eliminating jobs from mom and pop shops?

    I’m not trying to defend Walmart, but I’d like to hear specifically:

    1. Why Walmart-and specifically the Chinatown grocery store, won’t or can’t integrate into the community? Is Chinatown the only community to be served?
    2. How do you explain the co-existence of Walmart in Rosemead and the many shops around the area?
    3. How will Walmart, and specifically the Chinatown store, signal the sterilization of culture, when it has not done so in Rosemead and to the larger SGV area?

  2. With all the gentrification going on in downtown L.A., I have to wonder if perhaps this is Walmart’s attempt to grab that growing marketshare. Chinatown is located right on the edge of much of the loft development.

    That whole spiel about how Walmart will bring “economic development” (a nebulous phrase at best) and jobs is laughable. Think about the cities that have allowed Walmart into their backyard. How many of those cities are now thriving centers of economic progress following Walmart’s arrival?

    This is Walmart, we’re talking about, right? Walmart, the corporation that pays at or near poverty-level wages, cruelly offers health insurance that’s too expensive for most of their employees to afford, and then, without missing a beat, encourages new hires to sign up for tax-payer-funded health care programs for the poor?

    As for jobs, do cities actually gain a net number of jobs from Walmart after taking into account the number of mom-and-pop businesses and smaller chains (and the jobs they create) that Walmart eliminates? How many jobs and mom-and-pop owned businesses in C-town will Walmart eliminate in order to “create” a few jobs?

    As for whether or not Walmart belongs in Chinatown, it’s a no-brainer that this question is for the stakeholders of Chinatown to decide.

    Of course, “stakeholders” can mean a number of things: property owners, business owners, people who live there, people who work there, people who consider it their cultural and historic neighborhood and home base.

    For instance, J-town stakeholders include far greater numbers than those living and working in Little Tokyo, and J-town remains a living historic and cultural center for Japanese Americans throughout all of Southern California, even as J-A-influenced neighborhoods in places like Gardena and Torrance have sprouted. People from as far away as Ventura and Irvine go back and visit the old neighborhood.

    Chinatown is no different from Little Tokyo, and thus, many people living in places like Alhambra should be considered C-town stakeholders, too. Sure, some Alhambrans will only reminisce about Chinatown but never go back, and only wish to calcify their memories in the form of a physical landscape that never changes. But actually, a lot of Alhambrans and SGV residents do visit Chinatown rather frequently and treat the historic neighborhood as a place full of life. Check the bus that goes down Valley to Chinatown. At certain hours of the day, you will find a lot of grandmas and grandpas heading out to C-town to do their shopping, their socializing, etc.

    So yes, the author brings up a very good point. Walmart’s proposed incursion into a historic core neighborhood of Los Angeles has implications for many Alhambrans and SGV residents, not to mention all of Los Angeles, and some of them are pretty darn disturbing and worthy of honest, heartfelt debate. (Let’s leave out the snide and racist remarks; life is short. Skip the hate.)

    But even without the controversy of a big box store being proposed to be built in one of L.A.’s core historic and cultural neighborhoods, Walmart, with its questionable practices and heavy reliance on taxpayer aid to make a profit, raises enough eyebrows on its own.

    (BTW, if you want real job creation in a way that makes sense for a historic cultural neighborhood, watch for the long-awaited construction of the Little Tokyo gym, which will draw people from the entire Southland, especially J-A and Asian American sports leagues that consider J-town their historic/cultural home base, to play in sports tournaments every week. Sports leagues are huge in this community, and the leagues will have a big, positive economic impact on J-town. When tournaments aren’t being held, the gym will serve local residents. Now that’s an economic engine that will bring business to a core historic and cultural neighborhood and create jobs without taking out mom-and-pop businesses and the existing jobs they provide.)

    Personal note: I grew up in Alhambra, but regularly visited family in Chinatown on weekends. I grew up taking that Valley bus w/my cousins to play volleyball at the Alpine gym every week as a kid, and one of our coaches would later become the mayor of San Gabriel. SGV and Chinatown are forever linked, that’s a fact.

    Kudos to the Alhambra Source for bringing up this topic for much needed discussion. Sorry the comment is so long, but it’s a weighty topic that deserves much attention.

  3. Walmart stinks no matter where they decide to build. Does anyone remember Walmart’s ad campaign that all their stuff was ‘Made in America’? Ha-ha. What a joke.

  4. Alhambra Resident

    I support Wal-Mart being here.

    They listen to the market’s needs.

  5. I like this Story very much and wish my James could write something like this. I also wish all our 2nd generation Chinese could have this feeling about China Town.
    When I first came to the States, I had lived in China Town for 2 years and I still have friends there. I also played basketball and Ping Pong at Alpine Court.
    My wife’s parents go to the same Southern California Teo Chew Association in China Town and they also live in Alhambra.
    This Story is translated into traditional Chinese just now.

  6. I agree, Wall-Mart is a greedy corp giant… but a vast majority of what they sell is “Made in China”… kinda like a double standard here… the Chinese home country made the items but now you don’t want them to compete with you?? Live with it!! Those of us who were born and raised in the USA have watched millions of jobs leave this country and go to China… MILLIONS… and now you’re crying foul??

    Live with it and maybe you’ll see how we have felt for years… I know many people who have lost their jobs because the company moved their production to China because they were willing to work for penny’s and we’re not.

    Live with it!!

    1. Tommy: There is no double standard. Chinatown is in Los Angeles, California. It is not in China. The people involved in this debate live in the United States. More than that, not everybody who lives in Chinatown is from China, although many may be ethnically Chinese. In fact, the author acknowledges that her family’s roots are in Vietnam, which is not in China nor is it controlled by China.

      You are confusing this debate with other countless debates that do in fact deal with China.

  7. Some questions I’d like answered is why haven’t there been any other proposed grocery store other than Wal-Mart? 99 Ranch and plenty of others have had opportunities to develop the space. Was it their lack of interest? Or was it something else? What makes people think that (say) 99 Ranch would treat workers better than Wal-Mart does–i.e., just because it’s not in the news, does it mean it’s not happening?

    Also, I find it interesting that the ban the city council passed will also effectively ban “friendlier” outlets like Trader Joe’s, Fresh and Easy, 99 Ranch, etc., because these can be defined as “formula retail.” Although, I suppose retailers can possibly get around it by making this outlet unique from the rest of their outlets, thereby satisfying the “formula” part.

    I don’t know who will ultimately end up opening a store at the site, but it will be a very interesting journey.

  8. It seems to me that many who are opposed to Walmart don’t even live in Chinatown. It’s easy for them to say that it will ruin the heritage of Chinatown. They seem to be longing for some long ago time where life was hard and necessities were hard to come by for Asian immigrants and there was safety in numbers.

    For many immigrants, Chinatown the destination was a launchpad. The goal: get out and make a better life for themselves. Life is about change and looking forward while cherishing our past. A neighborhood doesn’t give me an identity. I and we as group of people give a neighborhood identity. I see no reason why Walmart couldn’t co-exist within Chinatown.

    Everything changes with time. That’s why we have museums and cultural centers that can preserve and document the heritage of Chinatown. There’s no need to keep residents of Chinatown in the dark ages. The author herself states that residents already lack access to high quality food. Why deny access and job creation because of nostalgia? It’s illogical.

    1. TC, you have an interesting perspective. I’ve actually heard the opposite. There are many folks in Chinatown that oppose Walmart. A few of them have expressed their views on a small blog called: http://nowalmartinchinatown.tumblr.com/

      I agree with you that Chinatown is a launchpad for many immigrants. For many of my relatives and friends, Chinatown was and still is a place where they got their “start.” They were very lucky to have a community to lean on, share information and learn more about opportunities in the greater Los Angeles area.

      As I become more informed about this issue, I know that small businesses in Chinatown will be unable to compete against Walmart. If Walmart moves in, these small businesses and the jobs will disappear and so will Chinatown. These small businesses and its jobs is what creates a sustainable community. My 2 cents.

      1. Well, the Chinatown Walmart is now closing. What other businesses did Walmart endanger or put out of business in Chinatown except for their own?

    2. Well said. Most Chinatowns I’ve seen are hardly urban planning or architectural masterpieces. They are a far cry from the hutongs in Beijing for example.

  9. Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou

    I don't know, if I were a tourist or someone with nostalgia for my cultural heritage, I would practically die if I saw a Walmart sitting in the middle of Chinatown. I was in San Francisco and Hawaii recently and the Chinatowns there were absolute highlights for me. I feel the same way when I visit LA Chinatown.

    But there are people living in Chinatown, so what do residents there think or need? Or are most of the people in Chinatown now just visiting from the San Gabriel Valley?

    Walmart is not something I would go out of my way to defend, but I kind of want to hear what Chinatown residents think. It shouldn't be about our own idea of what Chinatown should be, but about what the people living in Chinatown think it should be. Walmart or no Walmart, why didn't anyone ask if what they really need is something like, maybe a retail chain like 99 Ranch? Or maybe they don't want 99 Ranch, which is just another Chinese grocery store with a lame “American food aisle.” But I really have no idea…  maybe they don't care either way and have other things to worry about.

    As for our own aversion to Walmart in Chinatown, I feel as if those of us who live in ethnoburbs take it for granted our own easy access to corporate/retail chains. And we get to have this access alongside our very easy access to the more “ethno” establishments in our neighborhood. Why say to Chinatown residents, well, it's alright that we've got Walmarts, Targets, Vons, Starbucks, but that's not for you? I mean, maybe it isn't for them, but they can be the ones decide that…

    1. Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou

      Also, I guess I forgot this for a moment here, but isn't the main problem with Walmart the way they treat workers?

  10. While The Atlantic article cited does mention the past near death experiences Chinatowns went through, it points to better opportunities at home (China) that seems to be the most recent cause, rather than building and zoning regulations, whether failed or not.

    That is not to imply having a Wal-Mart will never result in “sterilization of culture”–there are examples of that, but I place more confidence in Chinatown’s resiliency. There may be overlapping products, but there are many items that seem to be specific and unique to Chinatown stores. In other words, Wal-Mart excels at economies of scales with efficient supply chain, but they don’t necessarily excel in product knowledge–the kind of knowledge that can’t be had with massive logistics, but only with deep experience and understanding of local population. If Wal-Mart wants to succeed in Chinatown, they’ll have to try much harder than just low prices on frozen pizzas and jeans.

    I think for Wal-Mart to succeed, they may need to run the new store like a collection of small mom-and-pop shops staffed with people who are familiar (at the least) with the needs of the local residents. Will they carry Yu choy, yam leaves, ong choy, or chicken feet, pork bung, and coutless other products that even today, only Asian grocers and shops carry? What kind of economies of scale can they achieve with carrying products only purchased by a very small segment of their customers?

    wal-Mart is run by smart people so I’m certain they’ll do well, but to me, the biggest competition and threat that Chinatown has is San Gabriel Valley. It’s bigger, more varied, better stocked, and more convenient to the residents who already live in the area. In fact, there is a Wal-Mart in Rosemead and it doesn’t even try to compete with Asian shops, and the Asians who shop there know Wal-Mart is not the place for freshly slaughtered chicken or sugarcane drinks (they go nearby on Garvey Ave for slaughtered birds).

    Even already, the new generation has made SGV a “living heritage” and its appeal resonates beyond the Asian population (see Fung Brothers’ “626” video showcased on this site). Our children will identify more with SGV than Chinatown, and their children will identify even more with SGV, or perhaps another. If Chinatown is resilient, it will still remain a place of significance, but that significance will be shared by a broader spectrum of places and people–and I think that will be a good thing.

  11. Thanks for catching the mistake Anthony. We added the following correction:

    An earlier version of this story mistated that a Chinatown Wal-Mart would be the first in Los Angeles County. That was incorrect. It would be the first neighborhood market, a smaller grocery market than the usual big box store. The updated version also includes more details on the type of market Wal-Mart is proposing. We work hard to be accurate with a very small staff. If you catch something, please let us know.  – DG, [email protected]

  12. Are you sure there are no other Wal-Marts in LA county…? I agree with you Helen Tran that it would be sad to see Chinatown lose because of Wal-Mart.