Los Angeles’s Chinatown is a sleepy pocket of walkable streets nestled in the shadows of the ever-evolving downtown L.A. There is a mix of old and new, art galleries share walls with Chinese trinket shops, and family portrait studios using trompe l’oeil backdrops are neighbors to minimalist design agencies. On the secluded walk-street called Chung King Road, there sits a slender, gray-haired lady who keeps a strict 9-to-5 schedule, stationed at a low red plastic stool in the center of the road underneath the floating paper lanterns. She silently monitors the minimal traffic flow as artsy types visit galleries and stark cafés and the older Chinese residents take smoke breaks in the restaurant alleys.
One arrives here via the Hill Street exit off the 110 freeway, where an incongruous patch of vibrant greenery runs along the chain-link fence. This is a plot of forgotten land, a pedestrian moment in an otherwise vehicle-bound city. I noticed this secret wild stretch years ago, when I stumbled upon a couple of older Chinese women with straw hats and gloves tending to a guerilla garden. With 5-gallon soy sauce containers as water buckets, the ladies were mounding earth around their greens and propping up their spiky leeks. They were growing vibrant rainbow chard, and training sweet peas to climb the only barrier between the sidewalk and the highway itself. Yes, one could raise concerns about the health of the soil in this particular spot, but their ingenuity and resourcefulness stole my heart. And suddenly, a walk around this urban neighborhood became an edible plant tour, with parking lots raising mustard greens in cinder blocks, and apartment building lawns giving way to rogue salad.