Lost in Chinatown

What happens when the currency of the late twentieth century and now the burgeoning twenty-first, the "real" telescopes back in on itself? When the all the Osbornes and Survivors and Anna Nicole Smiths lose the sardonic smirk and implode in a morbid feedback loop?

This is what I wonder as I wander in and out of galleries, plastic glass in hand (half-full with cheap Chardonnay) on Chung King Road, Chinatown. A pleasant art-filled Saturday evening in Downtown Los Angeles; just me and a hundred grungy socialites.

At least, this is what I wish I was wondering. It’s what comes to mind now that the sweetly sour taste has faded some months after the fact. What was really on my mind was "Why is their hair so greasy and messy, yet so artfully arranged?" But now I’ve given up taking pot shots at the jaded, Fred Segal shoppers and it’s time to reflect. I’m disturbed by the ease with which these tableaus nest. One ironic reality fits snug inside another, and another and another ad infinitum, as if you are staring at your image in the funhouse mirrors of the Prada men’s shoe department. (Location: Prada Store, New York City, Rem Koolhaas/OMA; in the basement behind Kazuyo Sejima’s packaging installation.)

Chinatown is a place with multiple historic layers dating back a century. For Los Angeles, it is simply ancient. Also, it proves to be the perfect case study to illustrates my line of questioning. One earnestly ironical "real" moment in time tucked within another.

With a nod to the Eames’ film, Powers of Ten, there’s an equation to graft the exponential growth or decay curve (the warped space, the geographic projections) of these realities. First establish the variables. C equals Chinatown, our case study. "Real" equals a wry, disposition in which the everyday is worn as a sarcastic badge of honor.

C=C0 Rx

C= Chinatown, a function of the original Chinatown multiplied by the real, or where we are at a given time

C0= original Chinatown

R= real

X= the exponent of reality in time

So, where does the curve end?


C=C0 R1

To find the end of the rainbow, we need to track the development of Old Chinatown. Located in downtown Los Angeles, Chinatown was built in the 1870s along a short alley, Calle de Los Negros, block long between El Pueblo Plaza and Old Arcadia Street. It’s presumptuous to label the jumble of buildings occupied by Chinese agricultural workers, laundry men and hired hands anything but a moment in itself. An immigrant culture, plunked down in a potential Arcadia, does not build in an attempt to create an "old-world lifestyle." The decorative motifs ape what is brought from the motherland producing a life just cobbled together. The self-conscious nostalgia comes later when it becomes part of the cultural production. When we start to consume and reconsume its image.

The rise and fall of Old Chinatown as a fin-de-siecle tourist destination that determines the first degree on the Reality Curve. The exotic restaurants, shops full of oriental bric-a-brac and eastern temptation conspire around 1900 to lure thrill-seeking white Anglenos. Opium dens, perhaps real, perhaps a fabrication set up for American chiniose visions, marks the crest between the apex and nadir of Chinatown. Questioning whether the scene in front of you is actual or forged anticipates demise and locks in cynicism. When the guise of authenticity slipped from the shop windows and onto the unpaved streets of Old Chinatown, what had seemed alluring to Western eyes was now seedy and corrupt. By 1910 the area was abandoned by all but immigrants and considered worthless. In 1913, property was sold for development to Southern Pacific trackways. In 1931, the California Supreme Court approved the construction of Union Station on the site of Old Chinatown.


C=C0 R2

So here we stand in the second creation of Chinatown. New Chinatown, 1938. One part pagoda, one part Portland cement. Reality is squared.

New Chinatown didn’t rise phoenix-like from the ashes of its own demise. It wallowed for years as one developer’s speculation after another failed to light a flame. Two years passed after the Supreme Court authorized Old Chinatown as the site of the new Union Station before the thought of a new "Old Chinatown" was bandied about.

But why a New Chinatown as such? Couldn’t the Chinese community just settle into the great American melting pot like the rest? The reasons for autonomy are as much about economics as about heritage. Built into the architecture is an appeal to the American tourist. "The buildings would be most modern and airy, correctly engineered for earthquake, fire safety, and sanitation. The streets would be wide for an open, safe look. Thus the area would be palatable to the casual American tourist as well as fellow Chinese. The new community would eliminate potential houses of vice, such as gambling," write Suellen Cheng and Munson Kwok in the Los Angeles Chinatown Fiftieth Year Guidebook.

"Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson were the architects who worked successfully to combine the elements of Chinese designs on essentially modern buildings. Economy and a limited budget dictated that the structures be kept simple rather than exactly authentic," they continue. Is the architecture American posing Chinese or is it Chinese posing American? Simple concrete construction delineates a hutong, the historical city alley or lane typical in Beijing. Chinese characters announcing each store and restaurant are rimmed with neon, translated into English with matching brush strokes.

The nostalgia is not yet dripping from the eaves, but there is a celebration of otherness – of the Far East -– and a celebration of California’s precarious position balanced on the Western edge of the continent. It’s Nathaniel West territory: a collision of dreams, forms and cultures. As he writes in The Day of the Locust (1939), "But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon. …Their desire to startle was so eager and guileless. It’s hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh."

With a sigh, New Chinatown is exactly what one would expect from Los Angeles: commodity, fantasy, Forbidden City storefronts and imported baubles next to the imported authenticity of oddly-perfumed herb shops and grocery stores. It’s a projection of the Orient made palatable to Western eyes.

And where Old Chinatown stood? Union station. The building, designed by architects John Parkinson & Donald B. Parkinson and finished in 1939, is as much of a visionary view of the American West as Chinatown is a Western view of the East. To the degree that Chinatown is decorative and marginalized, Union Station is majestic. Rancho Supreme, mission moderne describes the vast courtyards, tile roofs and faux wood-beamed ceilings. A three-storey tall archway spills out promise across the LA Basin. It is dust bowl sublime built to accommodate the migration from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas that preceded it’s construction.


C=C0 R3

Equation 3 takes us back to quasi-real-time Chung King Road. Saturday night gallery hopping. Back to an opening sponsored by the movie Dogtown and Z Boys, drinks hosted by Absolut. Lit by strings of faded paper lanterns, the crowd is beautiful. It’s a happening.

And why is it a happening? Perhaps it’s because the crusty storefronts make cool justification for mediocre art and fashion? In Los Angeles, anything that gives the semblance of history has value, especially if it gives just that – a semblance. Not much is actually for sale. The art is more display than commerce – galleries set up to win cred, to win authenticity. The R cubed is the paradox between knowing one’s own shallow roots are grounded in hyperreality and the need for something deeper. The depth found in or a Parisian cold water flat is coveted. So it is re-created into a New Urbanist Citywalk for hipsters.

"Unreality no longer resides in the dream or fantasy or in the beyond, but in the real’s hallucinatory resemblance to itself," writes French theorist Jean Baudrillard, in his 1976 essay, "The Symbolic Exchange and Death." Following Baudrillard’s thought, this Chung King Road happening and, by extension, much of Chinatown’s ad hoc gentrification, is not a dreamy recreation of bohemian café society, but a parody of itself. The trust-fund galleries (and gallery owners), hawking more attitude than art, establish their "realness" by carrying over the names of now defunct establishments. Black Dragon Society, China Art Objects, Fong’s the signage reads with a smirk. The clever recycling leads not to a happy-go-lucky bricolage, but to something darker.

"Reality itself flounders in, the meticulous reduplication of the real, preferably though another, reproductive medium, such as photography. From medium to medium, the real is volatilized, becoming an allegory of death. But it is also, in a sense, reinforced thought its own destruction. It becomes reality for its own sake, the fetishism of the lost object: no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of denial and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal," again writes Baudrillard. Hence, retail architecture is the medum of reduplication. This changes how to read the Chinese shopkeepers pulling down the rolling metal shutters over the display windows at dusk and scurrying past the arriving jet set. Perhaps it’s not because of a lack of business acumen that they abandon their territory, but because they catch a whiff of the smell of death and are fleeing ghosts.


C=C0 R4

The chatter and drum-and-bass co-mingle and it seems that all the equations, variables and integers map out a grim path towards destruction – reality implodes, one layer of visibility pancaking on top of another like the dual towers at the tip of Manhattan. Does all matter turn to toxic pixie dust?

Searching for the art space, C-Level, it looks like Baudrillard’s prophecy is true. Sketchy directions taken from their website take me down an alley just behind Chung Kind Road. Chinese restaurants that face Hill Street also share the alley. Their engorged dumpsters aren’t quaint, although the stink is damn authentic.

C-Level is about ten yards down the alley, identified by a left-hand stoop with an open red door. Steps lead down to the basement. This is the space; it’s under Chung King Road, a literal representation of the "underground."

Although I brace myself for more of the aboveground underground attitude, what I find is a hodgepodge computer equipment and threadbare couches. A couple members of the cooperative are playing video games and another is programming something. The seven members (Christina Ulke, Cyril Kuhn, Eddo Stern, Jason Brown, Mark Allen, Michael Wilson and Peter Brinson) are self-proclaimed on www.c-level.cc to be "artists, programmers, writers, designers, agit-propers, filmmakers and reverse-engineers." The space is a studio and lab for virtual explorations.

It’s here, where subterranean rompus room meets high tech, that Baudrillard’s endless reproduction comes back into play and, in turn, is questioned. He writes, "Thus art entered the phase of its own indefinite reproduction; everything that redoubles in itself, even ordinary, everyday reality, falls in the same stroke under the sign of art, and becomes aesthetic. The same goes for production, of which one can say that today it is commencing this aesthetic doubling at the point where, having expelled all content and finality, it becomes, in a way, abstract and nonfigurative. It begins to express the pure form of production; it takes itself, like art, as its own teleological value."

While the work could fall under the above definition, an understanding of what constitutes the "art" is slippery. C-level is more about creating a social network through lectures, screenings and performances than about autonomous art production. Events are produced, and cynicism aside, there is hope here in the basement gloom. A community of sorts is formed around production without the added "real" aesthetic.

Communal art projects tend manifest in interactive events. For example, the following Cockfight Arena and Tekken Torture Tournament happenings are described with all the gusto of a World Wresting Federation referee:

"A one-night parade of sweat and adrenaline pitting viewer against viewer in brutal virtual cockfighting theatre. Audience volunteers will don custom-made game controllers with full sized wings and feathered helmets. Combatants will step into an arena to control their life size game avatars through vigorous flapping and pecking, competing for blood and birdfeed while rapaciously inflicting onscreen bodily harm. Cockfight Arena is free and open to the public. Gambling and smoking will be permitted. No animals or humans were injured in the production of this event.

"Tekken Torture Tournament is a one-night event combining the latest video game technology, untapped public aggression and painful electric shock. Willing participants are wired into a custom fighting system – a modified Playstation (running Tekken III) which converts virtual on screen damage into bracing, non-lethal, electric shocks."

Eddo notes that the "lack of slickness is deliberate." There’s an odd logic to their oppositional stance against the gentrified art scene going on above them: it actually helps them to create community. Peter, from his musty couch, raises his voice if not his fist in solidarity. "Decide what kind of culture you are interested in and then manufacture it. We don’t need those galleries to validate what we do."

So, it is where you least expect to find reality – in a virtual reality, net art, digital space - the most hyperreal places on the planet, that the Real is able to re-emerge from the staticy feedback. C-level authenticates the unreal. Production, in this case the production of community alongside the technological, is not subsumed by its own self-consciousness. Instead, it sidesteps notions of authenticity. The work may not look great. It may not be slick or pretty. It shows each pixel, every puppet string of production. The "shock of the real" is real and the sarcasm is left in the alley. The shocks dealt in the Tekken Torture Tournament underscore that the goal is to reiterate life, rather than wallow in Baudrillard’s fascination with decay.