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The opening of a Chinese grocery store in West Los Angeles represents a cultural shift

Most immigrant families face at least two journeys: one between work and home, and another, between home and the grocery store, to give a place a smell, a taste and a sense of belonging.

My parents would often drive three hours to find a 99 Ranch Market in Atlanta when we lived in Tennessee. As a second-generation Asian American kid who grew up loving American food, I never expected to participate in these pilgrimages when I moved to Los Angeles.

But these days, I’ve adopted my mother’s eating practices as the tastiest and most economical way to feed myself. At least once a month, I hike from the Westside to the San Gabriel Valley in search of $2-a-pound ground pork, Taiwanese cabbage, and a wider selection of vinegars and hot sauces.

The news of the arrival of a 99 Ranch in Westwood was therefore more than welcome. It was also somewhat unsettling for the mental map I have in my head of where to find things in Los Angeles.

David Chan, left, pictured in 2013, has eaten at and chronicled more than 7,000 different Chinese restaurants around the world. He closely followed the growth of Westside Chinese cuisine.

(Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times)

Chinese food and groceries are so rare on the Westside that they have become something of an urban legend. David Chan, a retired accountant and lawyer who has eaten at and chronicled over 7,000 different Chinese restaurants around the world, has been following the story since the 1990s.

“Back then, for any of us who worked or lived on the Westside, any SGV Chinese restaurant or grocery store would have been a dream come true,” Chan said via email, referring to the Valley of San Gabriel, a traditionally Asian enclave.

Until the 1960s, when Chan was still a student at UCLA, most Westside neighborhoods were entirely white thanks to standardized and widespread housing discrimination. Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles, Chan said, was defined by Americanized restaurants such as Twin Dragon, Madame Wu and Jade West.

I think most of us now understand and acknowledge the effects of redlining, but our understanding of its history seems abstract to me. I don’t think we really applied that knowledge to our understanding of the city and how it looks.

I certainly had a hard time understanding this fact when I arrived at UCLA in 2006. The dirty secret behind the pleasant quirkiness of this city’s neighborhoods is discrimination. You can’t understand the peculiar geography of Los Angeles without understanding where racism has found expression in real estate markets.

99 Ranch Market with red lit sign

99 Ranch hopes to open its Westwood market before the end of the year.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

There is a certain irony in the arrival of 99 Ranch in Westwood. By 1939, the neighborhood was so covered with racially restrictive housing covenants that black students at UCLA could not join housing cooperatives unless they were considered servants.

In 1943, authorities in nearby Culver City organized an official “segregation committee” that went door to door for promises never to sell or rent to black people.

These trips between home and the food that reminds me of home have become an age-old ritual that I don’t particularly hate. At the same time, I recognize that these trips were imposed on us. I think many immigrants and people of color would not have moved to the suburbs if they had had the same opportunity for a successful life in the city.

Chan recounted several failed attempts by Chinese restaurant groups to reach Westside diners in the 1980s. There was Unicorn Inn in Venice, Oriental Seafood Inn in Marina Del Rey, Hong Kong Royale in Beverly Hills, Royal Star Seafood in Santa Monica, all closed after a few years.

Nothing changed until 2012, Chan said, when the ROC Kitchen restaurant opened and suddenly there was a place to buy soup dumplings west of the 405.

While it’s tempting to believe that Angelenos have simply become more appreciative and knowledgeable about Chinese culture, Chan credits the success of these restaurants to a critical mass of Chinese students at Los Angeles universities. Many of the earliest authentic Chinese restaurants on the Westside were located near UCLA and USC, close to a captive audience who could enjoy regional Chinese cuisine.

According to census data, Asian Americans made up about 11.2 percent of the Westside’s population in 2000, and that number has only grown.

People sit and walk on a lawn with buildings in the background

A 2014 report found that Los Angeles County is home to more than 20,000 Chinese international students at places like UCLA, USC and Santa Monica College.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

A 2014 report found that Los Angeles County is home to more than 20,000 Chinese international students at places like UCLA, USC and Santa Monica College. In 2020, Asian Americans made up about 14.5% of the Westside’s population, according to five-year estimates from the American Community Survey.

These days, the Westside is no longer a “total wasteland” when it comes to Chinese cuisine, Chan said. Several successful Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley have opened locations in Westside malls.

And the 99 Ranch store is in the final stages of city inspections, marketing manager Emily Huang said. They will announce an opening date once inspections are complete, and they hope to open the store before the end of the year, Huang said.

I’m one of many Asian Angelenos on the Westside looking forward to it opening, not just because it will cut my trips to the grocery store by more than half. But also because it might herald a future in which the boundaries of community aren’t drawn so rigidly.

Sean Green contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times

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