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.


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