“Corrective vision surgery takes on a whole new meaning in ‘Chinatownland.’ The result is a cartography that includes our blindspots. In ‘Chinatownland,’ juxtaposition, one of disruption’s favorite tools, simultaneously blurs and focuses our vision so that we might finally see the full complexity of a place and its reinventions.

—2019 Nonfiction Judge Selah Saterstrom

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Sophie He

2019 Nonfiction Contest Runner-Up

From the passenger’s seat of a car at night, I noticed the soft-focus fuzz, neon green-and-pink, radiating out from the unmarked phone booth by the 110 exit to Chinatown. I did not feel alarmed by this luminous specter. During the recovery period of corrective eye surgery, it was common for patients to encounter the minor side effect of pronounced halos and glares around light sources. The ephemeral played tricks on the eyes, gave form to trails, reshaped the contours of the visible.

Crank the wooden handle, sing a little ditty into the phonograph. Doo-bop sha-bop. Crank it back and watch the spool of tin foil spin across the cylinder. Like magic, a distant echo bubbles out from the big brass horn, vibrates through the air. Preserve this moment of conception, engrave it onto a form. Reproduction allows us to relive this creation in another time, another place.

I moved to Chinatown from Echo Park. I moved to Echo Park from K-Town. I moved to K-Town from another part of K-Town. I moved to that part of K-Town from Atwater Village. My last landlady kicked me and my three millennial roommates out so she could sell her duplex for $1.2 million. My last last landlord hiked up the rent after I left. I guess you could say I was a part of the problem, the problem being gentrification, said with a hiss, followed by a wringing of manicured hands.

Due to the Asian fetishes of the men I met online, I had the fortune of sleeping with many people throughout my twenties. I often fell asleep in their beds with a full face of makeup on, which did my skin no favors. But more importantly, I never took out my contacts. Placing them on the nightstand of a stranger felt too intimate. When I got back to my place in the morning or afternoon, I’d peel the lenses off, repentant.

Metal and mylar replaced tin foil, which is how sound met voltage, how waves of pressure began to travel through currents of electrical impulses. Applied to the world’s first amplifier, a tepid input found a body, a boom that filled an entire movie theater. By 1927, an onscreen image of Al Jolson opened his mouth. Approximately synchronized to his lips: a shellac disc recording of his golden song.

A chain link fence on Hill St. guards an empty plot of dirt, which extends out in front of Hop Louie’s yellow pagoda. I later learned that this was once the site for an art installation made of raw steel and plywood, constructed like the Hollywood sign. It read CHINATOWNLAND.

Sitting in the examination chair, my chin propped up in a plastic headrest, I peered into the focal end of the optical microscope. My pupils stared straight ahead into the ringed glass lens. “Your capillaries are so inflamed,” gasped Dr. Louie, the local Chinatown optometrist, from the other side of the instrument. She proceeded to inform me that my special-order astigmatic contact lenses—the ones I had been wearing for the last ten years—were depriving my corneal tissue of oxygen, prompting tiny red veins to creep like rhizomes along the whites. My eyes were choking to death, slowly but surely. It was the one of the worst cases she had encountered in all her years serving the neighborhood. The microscope’s lamp light beamed into me so that a warm flood of amber was all that I could see.

The Jewish forefathers of Hollywood came up in the ghettos of Chicago, Pittsburgh, the Lower East Side. But now, the old Laemmle was dead. Fox, too. And Zukor and Selznick and Mayer. Why keep books, trade furs, sell scrap metal when you could make myths? Griffith got to work. Painters, carpenters, electricians, and stagehands built sprawling feature sets to scale, each one increasingly more elaborate and real. Thus began the reimagining of Babylon.

Only those deemed deviant found themselves in the Old Chinatown of early LA. An unpaved dirt road led the way through Negro Alley, the pueblo’s district of vice. It led through brothel cribs, through squalid adobe. Through opium, liquor, dice. The neighborhood troubled the City of Los Angeles so much that they proposed to raze it and replace it with Union Station. The ballot measure passed.

“Have you considered corrective eye surgery?” Dr. Louie suggested with a tone of urgency. “I know it’s a bit drastic, but the state your eyes are in…” Dr. Louie looked at me head-on from across her office chair, her brow furrowing at the sight of such sorry specimen. I looked back at her and observed the clear whites, the black irises flecked with brown, the black pools of pity. Big kind eyes staring straight into my crazy ones. I asked her to recommend me a surgeon.

The Golden Age of Hollywood offered fantasy at an unprecedented volume: cowboys, Indians, Tarzan, King Kong. Three stooges, five Marx brothers. Blonde bombshells and tap-dancing girlchildren. Felons, gangsters, ghouls, and vampires. They all made their debut on celluloid—over 7,500 features were produced between 1930 and 1945. In Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade, 100 chorus girls and 20,000 gallons of water fill the fifteen-minute song-and-dance number, “By a Waterfall.” Scantily-clad swimmers cavort in a luxurious lagoon, rearranging their bodies into undulating geometric shapes. The end of the sequence culminates in a human waterfall, four levels cascading down. They spread their mile-long legs and smile.

Bulldozers demolished homes, shops, and temples, residents legally evicted. Some migrated to the now-defunct City Market neighborhood on Adams and San Pedro St., while others moved further east into the San Gabriel Valley. To level the train tracks, construction companies used fill dirt. Fourteen feet below the railroad tracks laid the remains of Old Chinatown.

I was awake, yet I felt nothing but wetness as I sat supine in the operating chair, my cold jelly eyes numb from the anesthetic drops, the Xanax kicking in. A clamp held my lids open as the surgeon administered a stream of liquid into my eyes. He scraped off a thin film of iris, like someone peeling saran wrap off a boiled egg. My vision a Gaussian blur, I could only make sense of the brightest values, amorphous forms. Strobe-like: A haze of green lights pulsed intermittently in my periphery.

Though it was made eternal by The Flamingos, the original “I Only Have Eyes for You” was written in 1934 for the Busby Berkeley film Dames. In the choreographed musical sequence, dozens of thin white women traverse a large Escher-esque structure made of platforms and circles. They whirl the hems of their textured white chiffon gowns to and fro like cancan dancers, creating a roaming, kaleidoscope image. The sequence concludes with a smiling Ruby Keeler beaming out of an enormous eye on the ground.

A few months before the surgery, I got some scrapbook photos printed at the passport photo place on Hill St. The auntie who worked there greeted me in Cantonese, and when that didn’t register, in Mandarin. As she retouched my digital photos on Photoshop with surprising deftness, the auntie asked me where I lived in the area. Reluctantly, I told her. “Those new buildings are too expensive,” she stated, not unkindly, her eyes fixed on the computer screen. She was adjusting the color balance, intensifying the cyans, the yellows. “I could never afford to live there.” I sat there in silence and glanced at the dusty gilded portraits hanging on the pink walls. In one portrait, three generations of Chinese Americans in their Sunday best huddle together against an artificial backdrop of the sky. They seemed like people I would know, and yet I knew nothing about them. Their smiles frozen in time, like wax figurines.

”I said I hoped they would use Chinese actors in the leading parts,” remarked Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, “to which he replied that this was impossible because of the American star system.” At lunch with casting executive Albert Lewin, Buck suggested that Chinese American starlet Anna May Wong play the leading role of O-lan in The Good Earth. The role went to Luise Rainer instead. To better resemble a Chinese peasant woman, Rainer donned a black wig and what the makeup director referred to as a “system of facial inlays”—race drag in its most physical form. She won her second consecutive Best Actress Oscar that year. Wong turned down the studio’s consolation prize: the supporting role as Lotus, a duplicitous concubine. Anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented whites and non-whites from kissing onscreen, had long thwarted Wong’s aspirations of becoming a leading lady. After this latest devastation, she quit Hollywood for good.

Buoyed by the successful launch of Olvera Street—a “Mexican Marketplace of Yesterday in the City of Today” —white activist Christine Sterling envisioned the same treatment for Chinatown 2.0: a romantic, commercially viable simulation of a far-away land. When China City opened its gates in 1939, a throng of 10,000 Angelenos lined up outside the entrance of the Great Wall, eager to experience the Orient.

Patients possessing genetically thin corneas only have one viable option for corrective eye surgery: photorefractive keratectomy. During PRK, the entire outer layer of the cornea is removed—unlike LASIK, there is no flap—so post-op involves a prolonged week of discomfort and compromised vision. The next day, after the Vicodin wore off, I awoke to what felt like an ocular yeast infection: a dull burn, coupled with a sharp ache and an itch, as if a feral cat had just kicked pissed-on litter into my eyes, then pissed on my eyes.

Some studies suggest that closing one’s eyes really does help with memory recall. It removes distraction and encourages remembering through auditory cues.

It’s the reverb on the backing vocals—that trailing doo-bop sha-bop refrain—that lends The Flamingos’ cover its sparse, eerie beauty. With minimal instrumentation, the doo wop vocals are allowed to linger in the cavernous space of the song like aural long exposure. Coupled with the slower-than-molasses tempo, “I Only Have Eyes For You” is a distant echo from another time, another place. When the infamous chorus glides in, combining Nate Nelson’s main tenor with the lush swell of his group-mates harmonizing alongside him, the witching hour truly begins. It’s a little scary, this beautiful, time-traveling song.

War films featuring Asians would continue to proliferate all throughout the second Sino-Japanese War, WWII, and the Korean War. The residents of Chinatown boarded a private bus that took them straight to set, where they transformed into refugees and coolies. Costumed adults and children stood in front of rice fields, filling the silver screen with yellow faces. Luke Chan appeared in dozens of war movies; Chester Gan and Esther Lee Johnson appeared in nearly a hundred. Bessie Loo both acted and represented Asian American actors as a casting agent—one of the first Chinese Americans to do so. When they were done, the bus left them right where they found them, one film credit richer. Just as the Jewish fathers of modern Hollywood adopted new American identities, so did the Chinese Americans of the Golden Age blur the boundaries between reproduction and identity, between cosplay and culture.

After Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife wrapped in 1938, the oriental-cafe set—composed of 1,000 feet of imported Chinese bamboo—lived in China City as a cultural artifact. 5 cents for entry.

To distract myself, I drew a hot bath and played some music on Spotify. I climbed into the tub, sat in the water wearing sunglasses with the lights off. Naked, hunched over, eyes closed, I listened to the velvety vocals that filled the room: My love must be a kind of blind love / I can’t see anyone but you. I kept my swollen lids shut.

Newer, wealthier immigrants from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong now skip Chinatown and head straight to the San Gabriel Valley, where gleaming luxury vehicles cruise down Atlantic Blvd., one after the other. The ones who came before them in the ‘90s, like my family, and my friends’ families, only think about Chinatown on special occasions, like on Lunar New Years, when colorful confetti blanket the streets.

Reinvention requires a degree of amnesia, an ahistorical veil.

Bathed in day glow and the scent of orange blossom, the citrus grove farms of Hollywood captivated early filmmakers at first sight. Here in Hollywood, crews could get to desert and canyon and mountain and beach within hours. Here, dirt-cheap land came aplenty, allowing studio heads to keep production costs low. And unlike the New York studio system, here nobody was union.

The median annual income for all households in Chinatown is but a mere $19,500.

A filmmaker ex-boyfriend once asked me to play an Asian goth chick in his web series. It was a role that required nothing of me, except to show up to the location looking the part, so I agreed. Dutifully, I dressed up as an exaggerated version of myself: black choker, black leather jacket, black leather skirt, combat boots. I had no lines, wore my own clothes, did my own makeup. But when the camera rolled, I no longer felt like a whole person. The gaze of the lens flashed at me, reflecting back an image of myself I could only recognize in the eyes of others.

In portraits, Wong looks just as cosmopolitan as her white counterparts: she wore beaded art deco gowns, figure-hugging velour, statement headpieces, strings of pearls. Her jet-black flapper bob, thin brows, and desultory stare exuded a hard glamour. She tended not to smile in photos, but when she did, her painted lips curled into a smirk. To me, this smirk seemed all too self-aware, a knowing insolence for the performative nature of her star persona, how much she had to straddle the line between her modern Western image and her exoticized Chinese identity.

Take the Dragon Road. Burn the joss sticks. Don embroidered satin, mandarin jacket, parasol. Smile at the girls in their rickshaw rides. Practice chopsticks—all the stars are doing it. The winding lotus pools lead to the question: Do I dare to eat a Chinaburger? Witness the wares of the white-bearded merchant: how his tapestries unfurl, how sturdy the wicker. The crimson glow of lanterns emanated from the sky, illuminating a place that only ever existed in fantasy—more simulacra than simulation. Artifice made hyperreal. At night, everyone would change back to their Western clothes. Gongs chimed in the distance.

Once, I went on a walk with a friend who grew up in Chinatown. As we passed Superior Poultry on Broadway and Alpine, he told me how his mom would wake up at the crack of dawn and line up outside, just to get first dibs on the day’s fattest live chicken. How folks in Chinatown still do. More memories came to him as we walked, though never once did he veer into romance. To him, the past was the past, and nothing more.

The Chinese immigrants of the ‘80s and ‘90s arrived, subletted, went to night school, worked seven days a week, bought a used car. If circumstances improved, they moved eastward to the suburbs for the convenience and the safety and the Blue Ribbon school districts, forgetting about the neighbors they shared the apartment with, the classmates who taught them English, the customers at the liquor store, the car that came before the Lexus. They moved so their children would never have to know who Vincent Chin was, would never have to hear the crack of bat against skull.

I like reverb because it’s the persistence of something after it’s been produced, an elongation of an experience that drifts and drifts and drifts into the wide open expanse. Reverb is a resonance. It lingers, overstays its welcome, reminds you that sound is just a continuous wavelength that can carry as a distant echo for as long as it unsettles you. Reverb is a ghost.

In 1948, a mysterious fire lapped up curio shops and cafes in China City. When the smoke cleared, it was decided that the neighborhood would not be rebuilt. By then, New Chinatown, the Chinatown of present-day Los Angeles, had established itself as the de-facto community made for —and funded by—residents of Old Chinatown and beyond. Black-and-white photos document the remains. In one, remnants of a former building sit in a wooden pile; in another, a Sitting Buddha statue emerges from the rubble, triumphant.

The human eye is a self-repairing organ. It grows back the epithelial tissue within a week. It adapts to its conditions with quickening speed, so long as there is water and air. With my new robot-laser eyes, I went for a walk in the neighborhood:

I headed south on College St. and passed the 157-year-old hospital and its Joan of Arc statue, a weathered woman flanked by palm trees, staff high in the air. To my right stood the rec center, dribbling and skidding radiating out from its door. What resounded after: the perennial swoosh of nothing but net. Further up, the bustle of recess time at the elementary school, where, as a new citizen, I cast my first ballot in a local election. I continued, crossed the street into a modest strip mall. At the cash-only restaurant under the red awning, a woman took my order in Mandarin, then took Susie’s in Vietnamese, filling a chasm we didn’t know we had. And next door, at the five-aisle supermarket, an errant eggplant tumbled from its bin and bounced on top of an auntie’s head. She was bent down inspecting produce. When the vegetable hit her, she looked up in bewilderment, then locked eyes with my partner Ted, who saw the whole thing go down. They shared this moment of intimacy, eyebrows raised, mouths open.

I turned right on Hill St. The sharp snap of party poppers crackled in the air—a novelty gag gift for most, but a pastime among the children who come here every year for the parades. I listened for the fleeting conversations of passerby, buoyant phrases in Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Khmer, Hmong, Toisanese, Spanish, and English. Jasmine’s floral notes permeated the streets. Dodger blue colored every other shirt. To my left stood a food hall-turned-hipster haven, its new cachet a blatant attraction to me and my demographic. A long line of patrons snaked through the pagoda-style building, waiting in the hopes of procuring a single on-trend chicken sandwich. Further up, I could see the gated lot of an abandoned restaurant, its mascot, a turtle in a top hat, still emblazoned on the entrance sign. Parked in front: a Bird scooter. That corner always smelled like weed.

Heading south on Alpine and turning left on Broadway, I passed a squatting vendor hawking produce on a sidewalk. On a piece of cardboard, Asian eggplant, green beans, bundles of scallion flashed in the sun like jewels. Up ahead, crowding the streets, a long stretch of gift shops selling sunglasses, wallets, keychains, flip-flops, fans, pinwheels, sparklers, lucky cats, hongbao, jade, houseplants, gingham aprons, polyester qipaos, and rice paddy hats, which out-of-state tourists don so blithely, I almost forgive them. I purchased my own lucky rubber plant, a small fellow rooted in a spherical pot, in one of these knick-knack stores. It’s grown three whole inches since.

On Broadway, the 128-year-old Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association harbors in its tall and clandestine halls, among other storied histories, the disputes of the tong. It is only a block away from Central Plaza, the heart of Chinatown, where elders congregate in the mornings, where skaters, scene kids, and hypebeasts gather in the evenings, where Tyrus Wong’s Chinese Celestial Dragon mural hangs, shock of electric-blue swirling across the surface. I walked past Central Plaza, walked past Phoenix Bakery and an advertisement for its famous strawberry whip cream cake full of dairy, frequently ogled, never consumed. Further up, the lit-up red neon of the Royal Pagoda Motel glowed in the dusk, and out front, the black-and-white marquee signage touted its trivia: LA LA LAND WAS FILMED HERE.

There is a difference between reinvention as a means to survive and reinvention as a means to forget. A truly subversive reinvention must acknowledge an origin story. It implicitly contains both past and present. These ghosts belong to me now too. Not simply because they look like me, nor because we share the same culture or language or country of origin. They are mine because they are California’s—loss is as American as the movies.

Like the aperture of a camera, the pupil dilates and constricts in response to photons of light entering the eye. Light hits lens, bends into the retina. Rods and cones buzz with electricity, send signals to the optic nerve. They tell the brain, “You are here. And so am I.”

“Your eyes look fantastic,” beamed Dr. Louie, “but remember to put in your drops. And try not to stare at the screen for too long.”

In 1987, construction workers building the Metro Rail discovered remnants of Old Chinatown, along with over a thousand artifacts, entombed below Union Station. Archaeologists excavated what they found—kitchenware, art, ceramics, jewelry, toiletries—and donated a portion to the Chinese American Museum. On the first floor of the building, tucked away in the corner, laid shards of pottery strewn across a bed of rocks. I squinted past the barrier of the glass display case and observed the broken bits, some hand-painted, some floral-patterned, some a stony gray-blue. I closed my eyes and envisioned what the pieces might look like whole.

Sophie He is a writer from Los Angeles. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Catapult, Lucky Peach, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. A former copywriter, she received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Washington University in St. Louis, where she currently teaches as a Junior Fellow.