Staff Reporter

For such a small piece of real estate, Chinatown can be a tough place to figure out.

It is deeply fragmented along cultural, ethnic, demographic, political and income lines. To some extent, even the name belies its make-up: As of 1997, almost 70 percent of Chinatown's restaurant owners were Cantonese, according to a survey sponsored by the Chinatown Service Center. But 70 percent of the retail apparel merchants were ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. And only 6 percent of Chinatown's population had emigrated from Taiwan.

"Chinatown is not like Little Tokyo, where the government can speak for everyone and get things done," said Len Betz, manager of several Community Redevelopment Agency project areas, including Chinatown. "What Chinatown needs is one spokesman."

But with the fractured nature of the Chinese community, finding such leadership seems unlikely.

"When it comes down to it, the Chinese are very individualistic people," said David Woo, a lawyer who has been involved in Chinatown redevelopment for years.

In many ways, of course, China is more than one country. On the mainland, two major languages are spoken: Mandarin to the north, Cantonese to the south. In addition, there are a variety of distinct dialects, including in such major cities as Shanghai.

Then there are the Taiwanese Chinese, who speak Mandarin, but are politically opposed to Communist mainland China. There are also various overseas Chinese communities, such as those from Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia.

Immigrants from these various countries bring with them a hodgepodge of customs, tastes and languages and that brings tremendous complications for any plans to redevelop Chinatown.

Chinatown traditionally has been a Cantonese stronghold. As a result, there is hesitancy among Chinese Americans who emigrated from other regions to invest in the area's redevelopment.

"Efforts to save Chinatown have to come from the Cantonese people, because they have the roots there," said William Chang, president of Asian American Economic Development Enterprises Inc. in Monterey Park. "I'm from Shanghai. We have no emotion toward Chinatown, no feeling."

Immigration patterns have fortified such divisions.

Starting in the 19th century, the Chinese community in Los Angeles was dominated by Cantonese-speaking immigrants from South China, which traditionally was the region of China with greater trading ties to the rest of the world.

Following the Chinese communist revolution in 1950, Chinese immigration into the United States was limited to people from Hong Kong, which is also Cantonese, and later, to Cantonese-speaking refugees from Vietnam following the communist victory in that country in 1975.

Each of these groups tended to initially settle in Chinatown, which was seen as a working-class neighborhood where an immigrant could live cheaply while acclimating to his new country.

But Taiwanese and mainland Chinese immigrants, who in recent years tend to be college-educated and middle class, have been bypassing Chinatown, which is perceived as Cantonese in character and poor. Instead they have flooded into more-affluent suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley. Today Monterey Park is known as "Little Taipei."

"Chinatown was built by the Cantonese, so they have a lot of family ties there," said Min Zhou, a professor of sociology at UCLA. "The Taiwanese in Monterey Park never lived there, so they don't feel obliged to rebuild Chinatown."

International politics is also getting in the way of redevelopment.

While nearby Little Tokyo has been able to flourish in recent years due in part to support from the Japanese government, Chinatown is unlikely to receive support from China.

"It is too politically sensitive due to the presence of the old timers who fought against the Communists," said Peter Kwong, who owns two hotels in Chinatown, and whose father was a general in the nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek.

There also have been divisions within Chinatown itself that have hurt.

The first efforts to revitalize the community came in the 1980s, when city of Los Angeles money was made available for redevelopment. At the time, the community was split into two camps, with business interests pushing for the area to become a tourist destination, and social-service activists pushing for low-income housing.

The housing side won. So while the area's tourism industry rapidly deteriorated, Chinatown's reputation as a low-income, immigrant neighborhood became further entrenched. "It was almost like they were ashamed of the tourism business," said attorney Woo.

That further fueled the migration of more-affluent Chinese immigrants to the San Gabriel Valley and beyond.

"Nobody is ready to step up to the plate," Betz said of the current situation. "They are blocked by internal differences, divided by language and regional differences. It's very political."

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