Thai Town - History PDF Print Email

After the Los Angeles Civil Unrest of 1992, the soon to be formed Thai Community Development Center (Thai CDC) saw that a critical need emerged to address the issues of social and economic inequalities in low-income, neglected and resource starved communities such as East Hollywood which has served as the historic port of entry for newly arrived Thai immigrants spanning 50 years. Designating the East Hollywood area officially as Thai Town would be one way to spur much needed economic development and entrepreneurship through community and culturally based tourism.

Thai migration has passed through three stages of immigration. The first stage, pioneer migration, coincided with the two post-war decades, when only a handful of educated, middle-class Thais immigrated each year. The second stage, group migration, was ushered in by the change in American immigration laws; it was marked by a slow but steady increase in numbers and by a gradual change in the composition of the migrant flow. At the present time, the third stage or mass migration is occurring, which includes many economic immigrants seeking new opportunities.

photoOver the years, the East Hollywood area has been the site of the Thai American diaspora both as a business enclave and source of social/family networks, employment and housing. This is primarily because Hollywood is a well-known destination among Thais and when they decided to immigrate to the United States, they chose to settle in Hollywood. The first Thai business in Los Angeles is the Bangkok Market on Melrose Avenue, which specializes in Thai and Southeast Asian groceries. Thus, LA’s East Hollywood area has emerged and served as the historic point of entry for Thais since 1965 and has become a major cultural and economic hub through a concentration of bilingual services, jobs and family connections.

The severe social and structural damage caused by the 1992 Riots and the 1994 Northridge Earthquake prompted the Thai community to revitalize and take ownership of their neighborhood through empowerment, education and entrepreneurship. In 1994 a campaign to designate East Hollywood as Thai Town was initiated by Thai CDC as a result of a landmark needs assessment of the Thai community conducted in 1992 in the aftermath of the Civil Unrest. The 1992 assessment indicated that an overwhelming majority of Thais in Los Angeles supported an officially designated Thai commercial and community center in East Hollywood. The campaign, however, suffered a major setback after the Northridge Earthquake of 1994 and had to be placed on hold while the needs of Thai earthquake victims were addressed. Eventually, in 1998, Thai CDC and community stakeholders resurrected the campaign for Thai Town and organized the Thai Town Formation Committee to spearhead this effort.

Finally on October 27, 1999, after a long and protracted campaign by Thai CDC and the Thai Town Formation Committee, the motion to designate a 6-block expanse of Hollywood Blvd. from Western to Normandie Avenues as “Thai Town” was introduced by Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and passed unanimously by the Los Angeles City Council. An official unveiling and ribbon cutting in January 2000 attracted community residents and stakeholders, various local, state and federal officials, and representatives from Thailand to witness the birth of the first and only Thai Town both nationally and internationally.

Today, Thai Town is home to more than 60 Thai businesses including silk shops, bookstores, and restaurants. Thai Town is also the site of several historic Los Angeles structures and landmarks such as the Don Carlos Apartments, Trianon Apartments and the Mayer Building on Hollywood and Western. Thai CDC’s leadership and commitment to Thai Town’s cultural heritage preservation endeavors has also included its commitment to protecting historic properties through adaptive reuse.

The goal in establishing Thai Town was to promote neighborhood pride, economic development, cultural exchanges and tourism. It is important to the Thai community not only because it provides a cultural experience but also to acknowledge the history of the Thai community in Los Angeles. According to Chanchanit Martorell, Thai CDC’s Founder and Executive Director, Thai Town “is a form of community empowerment, because it has helped establish a Thai identity within the diversity of Los Angeles.” Since the designation, Thai CDC continues to collaborate with fellow Thai community stakeholders and to provide leadership to the development of Thai Town’s tourism infrastructure, raising the community’s visibility and providing support for small businesses and community asset building to establish this relatively small commercial center as a cultural haven.

In 2008 Thai CDC expanded its partnership with the four Asian Pacific Islander (API) communities in Los Angeles that it has longstanding relationships with to pursue a national designation by the White House of all five API towns as a Preserve America Neighborhood. The other API towns include Chinatown, Historic Filipinotown, Koreatown and Little Tokyo. Together, the five communities formed the API Preserve America Neighborhood Coalition. Thai Town was officially designated a Preserve America Neighborhood in 2008 and Thais are now officially recognized for their cultural and historical contributions to the fabric of the United States. This federal initiative encourages community efforts to preserve and enjoy national and cultural heritage.

More on the history, culture, and journey of Thai Americans from immigration to empowerment, the official designation of Thai Town and its continuing developments and the ongoing contributions of Thais to the multicultural landscape of Los Angeles is captured through vintage photos and written narratives in Thais in Los Angeles, published by Arcadia Press (2010).