The busy corner of Daxiyang Avenue and Shangu Boulevard bustles with life in the cool of a fall Sunday morning.
At the Yongtailong and Taisheng herbal medicine shops, elderly and middle-aged Chinese women and men browse the barrels, burlap sacks and boxes of roots, herbs and elixirs. Several doors down, a younger set of Chinese women sort through the reams of colorful fabrics at the My Hop fabric shop.
This could be a Sunday morning scene in any busy neighborhood in Taipei, Hong Kong, or even Beijing or Shanghai. But this is Alhambra, and the intersection is the one at Atlantic Avenue and Valley Boulevard one of the liveliest crossroads at L.A.'s emerging new Chinatown.
"You feel like you're in a Chinese environment," said Betty Shao, a Taiwanese immigrant who lives in Brentwood but goes to the San Gabriel Valley at least twice a week to shop, eat and run errands. "You're in a totally different environment from any other Caucasian neighborhood. Everyone speaks Chinese."
Indeed, L.A.'s new Chinatown has come to resemble some places in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan so much so that Chinese immigrants from all over L.A. and even Orange County often make special shopping trips to buy things that are difficult or simply impossible to find elsewhere in Southern California.
They flock to the area's many Chinese supermarkets, its herbal stores, snack shops, book stores and night clubs, all concentrated into just a few square miles and many run by shopkeepers who speak only broken English.
The Asia Supermarket at Atlantic and Valley is a favorite stop. A miniature Buddhist temple sits near the entrance, surrounded by stacks of different Chinese-language newspapers, including the New Asia Weekly, the China Daily News, the True Buddha News and other Chinese publications.
Inside the grocery store, shoppers with hand-held baskets speak a mishmash of Mandarin, Taiwanese and Cantonese as they stroll up and down the narrow aisles filled with cans and packages of food. One young Chinese woman stops to examine a can of Foco Coconut Juice on sale in the large display window, while another young couple looks over the boxes of mangoes stacked by the main entryway.
The availability of Chinese goods at the Asia Supermarket, plus other Chinese shops nearby, is what keeps shoppers like Shao coming to the neighborhood.
"I basically spend my weekends there," Shao said. "They have all the Chinese ingredients there, for one. It's also the area where you get the most authentic Chinese food in Los Angeles.
"I even go there to go get my hair cut," she added. "Caucasians cannot cut Oriental hair."
ANY OTHER VOICES?
But the scene was altogether different just 20 years ago, when English was still the dominant language of the land and any ethnic shops in the eastern San Gabriel Valley were more likely to cater to a Japanese rather than Chinese clientele.
It was during that time that the first major establishment selling Chinese fare the Diho Market in Monterey Park opened its doors on Atlantic Boulevard near El Portal Place. Whereas other shops in L.A.'s downtown Chinatown catered to an older set of Cantonese immigrants, Diho, named after a popular shopping area in Taipei, sought its niche in the growing number of Taiwanese immigrants coming to the United States.
An outpost in an area otherwise devoid of Chinese establishments, Diho quickly gained fame as the first Asian foods grocery store in L.A. outside the old downtown Chinatown, said Wesley Ru, a Taiwanese immigrant who moved to Monterey Park with his family in the late 1960s.
"When the Diho Market opened it was like a Mecca," Ru recalled. "People would drive all the way from Orange County to go there. It was a new kind of place that catered more to Taiwanese and newly arrived immigrants."
The Diho Market has since closed its doors, replaced by such heavyweights as Ranch 99 Market and hundreds of restaurants, shops, pool halls and theaters that line the streets of Monterey Park, Alhambra and San Gabriel, many of them with only Chinese signs in their windows and Chinese items on their menus.
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