Chinatown Against Walmart

A Walmart is constructed in Los Angeles, California despite protests from Asian American neighbors

February 7, 2016

Walmart: save more, live better and crush all who oppose you.

Walmart, the superstore chain and one of the most powerful companies in America, finds itself mired in controversy on a cyclical basis. Whether a possible $24 million bribery in Mexico for market dominance, negligence in updating factory conditions that led to the Bangladesh factory fire with 112 worker deaths, a failed campaign for a new store in Brooklyn, New York, or retaliations against employees involved in labor strikes, Walmart is a familiar villain in the American corporate landscape. And now, via questionable legal strategies, the big box store has maneuvered its way to edge out local stores in one of the most historic Chinese immigrant communities in the country: Los Angeles Chinatown.

Walmart’s recent encroachment into Chinatown adds to the super chain’s sullied reputation. The long-contested mini-Walmart known as “Walmart Neighborhood Market” in Los Angeles Chinatown opened in September of last year, nearly two years since it was initially proposed in February 2012. Local Asian American groups continue to fret over its impact on Chinatown’s small businesses, and a lawsuit has been filed against the city of Los Angeles for approving Walmart’s building permits without a proper public hearing.

Rock the Vote

Walmart is such a big player in the grocery industry that they are often considered a “bargaining czar.” The opening of a Walmart is correlated with a decline in local grocery and retail labor rights and the closing of well-established LA chains like Albertson’s. Other than the Walmart in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, the Chinatown Walmart Neighborhood Market is the first entry of Walmart into the historical heart of LA.

Many organizers saw Walmart’s Chinatown campaign in light of a company trend of exploiting politically disenfranchised and impoverished communities.

Allison Mannos, communications specialist at Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), further explained: “In 2004, LAANE advocated for a superstore ordinance to mandate analysis and permits for proposed big box stores in LA, and Walmart wasn’t interested.”

However, the proposed Chinatown Walmart is not a superstore, but rather a downsized “Neighborhood Market,” allowing the company to bypass legal processes hindering big box store development in the city.

For the past two years, community leaders have fought against the opening of Walmart in Chinatown. The leaders have identified several instances where Walmart has circumvented the public hearing process designed to facilitate community discussion and debate about the new store.

Community groups such as LAANE attested that Walmart had applied for development permits prior to the public hearing required of big box stores. The City of Los Angeles, in fact, issued a building permit to Walmart a day before it approved a moratorium on big-box stores. The community organizers’ fourth appeal for a public hearing, held in late February 2013, was voted down 3 to 2 by the zoning commission. The previous appeal, known as the Interim Control Ordinance (ICO), fell short by two votes in October.

“It is a hard struggle. It is not a very pretty struggle,” King Cheung of the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) explained.  “We had 10 votes, and we needed 12 votes to pass the ICO. It was a very high hurdle for us to pass. We needed over 80 percent of the vote – this is more votes than was required to pass the Constitution of the United States,” said Cheung.

Most of the Los Angeles City Council, including former Councilman Ed Reyes, voted for the ICO. “It's been our contention that when that area was originally zoned for a supermarket, it was a completely different area. Now you have senior housing and a high school across the street. It's a recipe for potential disaster,” said Tony Perez, spokesman for former Councilman Reyes.   

Despite the close vote and organizers’ efforts to issue a 24-hour moratorium after the failed vote, Walmart was still able to get its construction permit approved. “They were already getting the permits approved before our 24-hour moratorium was approved,” Mannos said. “Expediently and quietly.”

At the time, the reaction from community organizers was apprehensive. “We felt there was something quite fishy,” Cheung said. “The day before the ICO vote, around 4 [p.m.], Walmart got the permits. And it seems that maybe someone was helping them from the city.”

In April 2013, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance LA (APALA LA) and the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) sued the City of Los Angeles for approving the permits without proper review as required by the California Redevelopment Agency’s (CRA) Chinatown Redevelopment Plan. For May 2014 deliberations, the judge failed to order any public hearing or injunction against Walmart, thus allowing the retailer to continue operating in Chinatown.

Walmart – whose representatives have not responded to this journalist’s requests – does not rely solely on planning commissions to construct stores in new communities. In addition to rumored private discussions with city officials to expedite building permits, Walmart also donates to community organizations to gain their support.

For the last several years, Walmart has made significant donations to Homeboy Industries, the highly revered project of Jesuit priest Father Greg Boyle that rehabilitates, retrains and supports at-risk and gang-involved youth in downtown LA. On January 9, Homeboy announced it had received $75,000 from Walmart’s California State Giving Program. Homeboy’s headquarters is located right across the street from Chinatown, less than a mile from the proposed Walmart Neighborhood Market site.

“Walmart has been a long time supporter of Homeboy. We are grateful for their support over the last few years,” said Alison Camacho, the director of marketing and communications for Homeboy Industries.

Community organizers saw Walmart’s philanthropic support of communities of color as another strategic move. “[Walmart has] given to Asian American, Latino and African American groups that are not advocacy groups,” said Mannos. “Of course, those people are not going to oppose the project. They try to use financial resources to minimize opposition.”

New Dog, Old Trick

Rewind ten years to 2004 and go just 11 miles away, and you would hear a similar debate about the Walmart superstore in suburban Rosemead. A Walmart superstore in Rosemead received the blessing of local politicians after a strong two-year fight from public, Asian American-led opposition. So what foreshadowing did Rosemead provide for LA’s Chinatown?

Rosemead lies on the western edge of the San Gabriel Valley, an Asian “ethnoburb,” or an area populated mainly by immigrants who also have economic and cultural connections overseas. Even though San Gabriel Valley is known locally as the “Asian Beverly Hills,” Rosemead is notably less well-off than its surrounding community.

“Rosemead is considered a lower-middle class community,” said James Zarsadiaz, a doctoral candidate in history at Northwestern University researching Asian Pacific Islander suburbanization in San Gabriel Valley. “It has a significant Asian American population, but a lot of the Asian Americans who live there are not the white collar Asian Americans.” In comparing Rosemead with another San Gabriel Valley Asian ethnoburb, San Marino, Zarsadiaz notes, “the median income for San Marino in 2000 was $147,000. Then you look at Rosemead, and their demographic median income was $44,000.” Given that most Walmarts are located in working or lower-middle class suburbs, “it makes more sense that there is [...] a Walmart in Rosemead,” Zarsadiaz said.

However, Rosemead might be more similar to Chinatown than to the valley that surrounds it. According to data gathered by Sophia Cheng and Paul Ong of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Rosemead and Chinatown have similar rates of educational attainment (19 percent of Asian Americans hold at least a bachelor’s degree in Rosemead versus 14 percent in Chinatown) and foreign birth (75 percent in Rosemead and 80 percent in Chinatown). Both of the regions boast predominantly Asian American groups who are resisting Walmart’s perceived threat to the local economy.  Much like Rosemead, the Chinatown struggle lost against Walmart’s usual public relations strategy that combines the lure of increased tax revenue with calculated moves against local opposition.

Just as Rosemead incomes fall much lower than those of the suburban valley that surrounds it, Chinatown also ranks low on LA County’s income distribution index. Compared to Rosemead’s $44,000 median income in 2000, LA Chinatown had a median household income of $22,754 in 2008.  According to Ong’s data, Chinatown has a poverty rate of 39 precent as opposed to the 14 percent in Rosemead in 2010.  And on top of the comparative destitution of both regions, Walmart appears to have subverted the political process in Rosemead, just as it did in Chinatown.

In 2004 when Rosemead officials, tempted by a projected increase up to $640,000 in annual sales tax income from the big box retailer, unanimously approved the Walmart construction, a local community activist group called Save Our Community organized the recall election of two city officials.

Before the unanimous vote in 2004, then-California assemblywoman and current House Representative Judy Chu (D-Calif.) joined other local Asian American officials in opposing the Walmart.

“The similarity between what happened in Rosemead and what [took] place in Chinatown is corporate power,” Chu said in an email statement in January 2013. “Walmart uses their corporate wealth to manipulate the public process. When they came to Rosemead, they used their money to pick up key supporters – they manipulated the political process despite strong public opposition." Chu said the same result happened in Chinatown, "only worse."

John Kawakami, member of the Rosemead organization Save Our Community, which fought against the Walmart, noted this fact as well: “They definitely gave to political campaigns and spent over $400,000 to influence one election.”

“Walmart got their permit through administrative gimmicks to subvert the permit process,” Chu said. Chu believes Walmart looked for ways to avoid a public hearing because “they [didn’t] want to face the community. But it is the community that will be impacted by Walmart moving in, so there should always be a hearing.”

Don’t Call This a Food Desert

LA’s Chinatown has a history that spans over 200 years, while San Gabriel Valley experienced a boom in Chinese immigrants during the 1980s and early ’90s. Chinatown has served as the traditional port of entry for immigrants and contains networks and support not seen in San Gabriel Valley.

“Chinatown is more symbolic,” said Cheung of CCED. “We have more seniors, more recent immigrants. You walk the streets, see more real Chinese, hear Chinese spoken more. Over there [in San Gabriel Valley] you have more youth, the new generation that mixes Chinese and English.”

Cheung explained that pro-Walmart advocates in Chinatown argued that the Rosemead Walmart did not affect local businesses and, in fact, brought new businesses to the area.

“But to put it bluntly, that place [Rosemead] is where they need a big store,” said Cheung. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. In Chinatown, we already have thriving businesses here. The comparison is apples and oranges.”

Those who were against the construction of Walmart in Chinatown saw it as fundamentally altering the downtown area.

“I don't want to see Chinatown get destroyed, the character of it, or see mostly mom-and-pop businesses go to Walmart and change the character of Chinatown forever,” said Chinatown Ai Hoa Supermarket associate Lily Cheng.

While East Los Angeles has often been called a “grocery store desert,” this observation ignores the three grocery stores that exist in Chinatown at risk of losing business now that the Walmart has opened. Additionally, an estimated 15 pharmacies, herbalists and Chinese medicine stores also stand to lose business against Walmart.

According to a 2009 report by the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University of Chicago, a Walmart Neighborhood Market in West Chicago was correlated with the closing of 25 percent of competing businesses within a 1-mile radius of the retailer within one year of its opening and 40 percent within two years.

Following the Chinatown Walmart Neighborhood Market’s soft opening in September, a major protest was arranged by organizers and covered by local media. Thus far, seniors living in the complex where the Walmart is housed have been disturbed by increased traffic and road blockages. Rumors are also building about an incipient Walmart move into another Chinatown, this time in Honolulu, Hawaii. For the annual May Day protest in Los Angeles, CCED, APALA, SEACA and LAANE organized a large-scale protest based in Chinatown. While in the past the L.A. May Day protest often focused on potential harmful effects on Latino communities, “this year was very squarely API-focused,” Mannos said. Chinatown residents and labor organizers continued to raise awareness of immigrant communities being targeted by corporate retailers, especially in light of Walmart’s long history of suspicious maneuverings.

Chinatown’s community organizers are concerned not only about the corporate influence on the immigrant community, but also its larger implications for the region. “For Walmart, this is the last frontier for them to get their foot in the door in urban markets,” Mannos said. “Walmart setting up in Chinatown will not only affect the historical Chinese community, but it could set the tone for the industry and jobs in Los Angeles as a region. This fight is epic, in that sense.”

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Emily Yukiko Leach


Emily Yukiko Leach has been writing for Hyphen since 2007. She is a registered nurse in neurosurgery and researches heart failure and mood amongst U.S. army veterans. She loves reveling in the elegance of commonplace circumstance. She is a transplant from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where she participates in eco-friendly biking and composting. She is proud to contribute to the R/Evolution Issue, wishing fulfillment for those who continually struggle for justice in their communities.