Last night I learned that the Cha For Tea at Main and Garfield is gone. More than gone, the building's been dozed.
I'd always wondered about that complex. It was only a matter of time before the whole thing came crumbling down, probably to create space for future condos and street-grade storefronts. An oddly-shaped quasi-strip mall of a building, the only two operating businesses that I ever saw open were the Cha For Tea and the Radioshack.
So basically the only functional business was the Cha For Tea.
Last night I'd been making plans to meet up with a friend. His office was in San Marino and I'd inadvertedly ended up at Atlantic Times Square Plaza so Cha For Tea roughly split the difference. Ten minutes after confirming the location, he texted me that it was gone. Gone for good.
With Cha For Tea gone I had to wrack my brain to pitch a second location and it wasn't long before I remembered Tasty Garden on Valley.
I was a freshman when I first started eating in the 626, the affectionate area code-nickname for the largely Taiwanese/Chinese San Gabriel Valley. It was a USC Nikkei Association bowling event that took us to the area, and afterwards we stopped in at Tasty Garden on Valley to grab a bite. I'd grown up with Chinese food around me, but only recognized flavors this heavy from the occasional family banquet or takeout order. I'd certainly never felt such a diner vibe.
As freshmen do, I made friends with cars and soon we were in the 626 weekly. Pa Pa Walk for dinner. Ten Ren for boba. Cube for sticky pics. 99 Ranch to buy things we thought we needed like grass jelly and Pocky multipacks. At a time when Yelp was still in its infancy, the San Gabriel valley was a hidden gem only known to the Asian American kids, their friends, and their families.
Today it's common knowledge. You go to Koreatown for Korean food, Gardena for Japanese food, and the 626 for Chinese food. There is an overcrowded night market. There are articles written by Jonathan Gold. There are marketing tactics based on the 626 by LA-transplant YouTubers. A great rundown of the history and contemporary significance by JGold Scout Clarissa Wei can be found here.
But for me, personally, it represents that one moment in time. I wonder what that means as someone who did not grow up in San Gabriel or even LA for that matter.
The 626 is still very much defined by the scores of Taiwanese, Hong Kong-ese, and Chinese immigrants who live and work there with their families. My friends return to the 626 to do laundry and catch a home-cooked meal. They run into family friends at dim sum and grab an extra boba for the road. Their lives have been shaped by the traffic on Garfield or the opening and closing of childhood restaurants. Their ownership of the 626 has come with the symbiotic relationship between geographic space and personal existence -- the two are inextricably tied to each other, especially in an environment as specific as the San Gabriel Valley post-Asian immigration wave.
Though I have found deep roots in a neighborhood like the 626, my understanding of it is purely through the lens of a tourist. I have not really built community in the area, nor do I at all claim it. I don't know what it's like to go to San Marino High or Gabrielino and I certainly can't identify with the feeling of returning to SGV late at night, putting my car in park, and finding comfort in the flickering street lights outside my apartment. The food is not comfort food in a nostalgic sense, but rather nostalgic in voyeuristic remembrance of Chinese meals past and the joy that's come in sharing it with friends to whom it isn't even "Chinese food." It's just food.
It's this process of "claiming" space that I think attaches many of us to Los Angeles. We find our parking spot, our dive bar, and our route home and latch onto the deep entrenchment in whatever mile radius we choose to join as the collective pulse. I live in KTown but am still learning the rhythm. As Los Angeles changes we are exploring authenticity, ownership, and what it means for the public to have multiple layers of the personal embedded in a crucial, undeniable way.
I claim Little Tokyo because I've built a community of folks and spent years in conversation with myself and my elders as to what my relationship, as an outsider, is and could be to Little Tokyo. I have joined the extensive roster of cultural workers in Little Tokyo who can't afford to live in the area. While JTown is still a neighborhood, the people who have historically defined it are not necessarily defining it with residence.
Cha For Tea, like those many places I visited as a freshman, represents so much of my own life but in a very different way. It was a gathering place after dance practices, a late night study-session mainstay, and a default dinner selection for reunions, meetings, and hangouts. The oddly shaped restaurant with a weird mirror has a very special place in my mind.
But as a perpetual tourist in 626 I find myself easily mollifying those feelings of sad reflection in light of hearing that it's gone. I have made many memories in 626, yes, but I am not of the 626. Like people who tell me that Little Tokyo *SHOULD* do x, y, or z without an understanding of historical context, I am little more than a visitor who has chosen to view the city through the limited lens of my short experience instead of a deeper, intimate relationship to the geographic boundaries.
This moment of reflection doesn't drive me away, however. It reminds me that behind the noodles and rice there is a depth of history and humanity that I have yet to scrape the surface of, and in plunging into that pool there are many more memories to build. Cafes may come and go, but that adventure is ever-ready.