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Proposed Chinatown Walmart Sparks Debate

  • Sarah Williams

Walmart's proposed store at this site in Los Angeles' Chinatown has sparked protests against the retail giant.

Walmart's proposed store at this site in Los Angeles' Chinatown has sparked protests against the retail giant.

Following months of controversy and attempted legal injunctions, a Walmart store is scheduled to open soon on the edge of Los Angeles' Chinatown.

"This story has so many angles and so many layers, that it's very complex in my opinion," said Philip Young, past president of the Chinese Americans Citizens Alliance, Los Angeles Lodge, and a former resident of Chinatown. "If you ask me, 'Do you think you need a store in that location?,' the answer is definitely yes."

The store is located about 500 meters from the center of Chinatown, and will contain a grocery store and a pharmacy. It is considered a Walmart Neighborhood Market, which is about a quarter the size of the usual store. It is also on the ground floor of a building containing apartments for senior citizens, many of them Chinese Americans.

Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo says the store will fulfill a need.

"When you look at that area of downtown Los Angeles, it's clear that folks don't have enough grocery options close to their neighborhoods, so we think this Walmart Neighborhood Market can really be part of the solution for residents who just want more choices in their own neighborhood," he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the Huffington Post last week said he would not stop Walmart's move to Chinatown, despite protests against the store.

"I am not going to use the city's powers to deny something that they have a right to do with or without us. They would've sued, and they would've won," said Villaraigosa.

Although the LA City Council unanimously approved an emergency ban on chain retail stores in the historic Chinatown area in March, Walmart surprised the Council by obtaining the building permits it needed the night before. The city's issuance of the permits is currently being appealed by unions and some Chinatown business owners and residents.

Some public officials such as California Congresswoman Judy Chu have stepped forward to oppose the new store.

Chinatown Los Angeles

Chinatown Los Angeles

"Chinatown is a tourist destination and people go there because it has a unique characteristic," Chu said. "To think that some cookie cutter [mass-produced] company's going to go in there and take over the functions so that people go and get their 99-cent cake there rather than shop at the local bakery in Chinatown is just too horrendous to contemplate."


Lisa See is the author of many books, including Shanghai Girls and On Gold Mountain, which chronicle Los Angeles' Chinese American community. Her family has historic ties to Chinatown, and she served as Grand Marshal of the 2012 Golden Dragon Parade to celebrate the Chinese New Year. She opposes the plan because she believes the new store could change the nature of the ethnically diverse area.

"I think this is a terrible mistake, just a terrible, terrible mistake," See said. "I think as we look back a year from now, two years from now, 10 years from now, we're going to look back and think this was not a good thing. You can never erase Walmart."

But Philip Young, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1980 from Guangdong Province, China, believes the Walmart store will be a much needed addition to the neighborhood. He said residents have to drive long distances to shop for household products that can't be found in Chinatown stores.

"When I used to live in Chinatown, other than going to the Chinatown commercial area to get the Chinese groceries, and what not, if you want to get anything mainstream, normal, good old U.S.A. things a person would use you would have to drive outside of my neighborhood to shop," Young said.

Walmart says the new store will create about 65 jobs, for which it has received about 2,000 applications, and intends to hire people from the area.

Restivo says Walmarts often improve local economies, and he expects the new store to do the same.

"If you walk around the vicinity of our planned Walmart Neighborhood Market, there are lots of empty store fronts," he said. "I think everyone can agree that a vibrant store front is always better than an empty, dormant building."

But one passerby, who asked to remain anonymous, believes the new Walmart could hurt local businesses, such as a nearby liquor store.

"I grew up right in this area, so I'd rather see that liquor store than a Walmart," he said. "From what I know, all these little stores hired people from the community in this Chinatown area, so I'm pretty sure that Walmart's not going to hire most of us, maybe a couple of us, but I doubt it."

This past summer, The Los Angeles Times endorsed the proposed store, saying Walmart had complied with the city's zoning rules and that the retailer would bring needed jobs and business opportunities to the neighborhood.
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