Remembering Chinatown

(Photo: Omar Bárcena)

Learning that Los Angeles’s Chinatown is fighting a Walmart store, including with a lawsuit against the city, reminded me of what I learned in that Chinatown years ago.

One midnight, fed up from revising our dissertations all day, a friend and I drove the 10 minutes from Caltech into Chinatown to dine at Full House Seafood, open until 2 AM. (My Ph.D. adviser once asked why graduate students all seem to live on Guam time.) The restaurant was lively and crowded but not packed, and we quickly got a table. While waiting to give our order, I noticed an African-American man sitting on the chairs near the front counter. Even though several tables were free, the waiters did not offer him a table. Other customers came in, and were seated. As our dumplings arrived and got eaten, and then the spicy tofu, the man still sat on the small chairs.

There could be only one reason. Indian society holds a dim view of dark people, including darker-toned Indians like me. In “Bhaji on the Beach,” the Indian matriarch, who has just learned that the young Hashida is pregnant, editorializes about the boyfriend, “But why did it have to be a black boy?” And then faints.

Maybe other Asian cultures are similarly prejudiced. And anyway isn’t the Chinese word for foreigner “barbarian”? I’ll protest to the manager. I’ll never again eat at Full House Seafood. I’ll picket in front of the restaurant. As frustration and anger flowed through me, the restaurant staff handed the man a large brown paper bag. It was stapled shut using the receipt for his take-out order.

Sometimes a chair is just a chair; and I wonder how many other lenses I wear without knowing.

I hope Chinatown wins.


I hope Chinatown wins as well. The majority of residents in the area want the Walmart to be there. ..

Joe J

Too bad many others wouldn't let the truth stop them from protesting or suing over this obvious (to them) injustice.


Honestly - I was reading through the post and the first thing I thought was 'maybe he was waiting for take-out'. I've been in that same small chair at the front of a Chinese restaurant before.

Then I read to the end. Ha!

I hope they win, also. But, even if they lose, they can win with their buying habits (but they won't).


First of all, Chinatown nearly as Chinese as it used to be. The sons, daughters, and grand children moved away decades ago (first to Monterrrey Park, then further afield).

Last time I was there, most of the business owners I interacted with were Viet Namese. Just as Seafood is now trucked to Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco, so Chinatown is a valuable Tourism trademark that has little bearing on who lives there or what they do. Census data shows that "asians" are less than two-thirds of the residents in 2010

Oligopolists who hide behind ethnic identity are still oligopolists. I hope Walmart gets a a fair chance to compete. After all, if the community *really* doesn't want Walmart there, Walmart won't make money and will leave on its on accord


Forget it, Jake.


The chinese word for foreigner is wai guo ren, literally "outside the country person", not barbarian... And definitely not savages....


Or Laowai, which is often used in a derogatory manner.

caleb b

I can't understand the anti Wal-Mart craze. If the mom-and-pop stores can't win, so what?

How many Wal-Mart protesters are driving imported cars? Yeah, my point exactly.

Enter your name...

The problems are two:

Smaller stores can't compete because Walmart engages in abusive and unfair practices. Vlasic pickles is a well-documented example: Walmart said, we see in your SEC filings that you made X in profits last year. You will therefore sell us this year's pickles at your cost minus every dime in profit your entire company made last year -- or we'll get Chinese pickles and leave you to layoff a third of your workforce and get sued by a bunch of cucumber farmers whose product you suddenly no longer need. Smaller stores can't force a decision like that because they don't buy a third of a major manufacturer's annual output. The decisions made by one small store can't threaten a much larger business.

Walmart competes by paying the lowest amount of money possible for staff, which is what businesses "should" do, but which inadvertently creates burdens on the local economy. A Walmart stocker or checker might be paid minimum wage or slightly more -- plus food stamps for his kids, subsidized housing, Medi-caid, etc., which all comes out of the taxpayer's pockets. The profits all go elsewhere. At the mom-and-pop store, the people doing most of the jobs get (if you were to do a proper accounting) the low wage for the lower skill work like stocking shelves, some higher wage for higher skill work like purchasing, and also the store's profits, which might not add up to a whole lot, but usually adds up to enough that they don't qualify for taxpayer-funded welfare. So four small stores with two employees each results in less burden on the community than the same eight employees working at Walmart, most of whom are making only minimum wage and none of whom get any profits.



If they have monopolistic practices, then they need to be sued. End of story.

I love the old big business forces people to work there story. Evidently, WalMart is such a big story that it can go into middle income peoples homes, command the wage earners to quit their jobs and work minimum wage at WalMart. It is bad logic and a typical problem with WalMart haters. Do we need to talk sweat shops too?

The real issue here is what gives a city council the right to vote unanimously against the rights of a business to set up shop, especially when the people in the city want the store?


Why, also, assume he was "African-American"? A black person could be that...or Caribbean, Melanesian, plain old African, or something else.

Stewart Herring

Barbarian is from ancient Greece. The greeks heard any foreign language as babababa.
Gui lao is mandarin for ghost man, sometimes used as a translation for foreigner.
Seen through my pedantic glasses.

Sanjoy Mahajan

Not pedantic! I'd been wondering where I heard the link between barbarian and foreigner. Thanks for the correction.

Dave Hodgkinson

Chinese racist? Just read the comments on the right Chinasmack article. Mind you, they appear to be equal-opportunity haters: Westerners and Japanese take a lot of flak too.