I found the attached via the Chinese Historical Society, 2004:
LOS ANGELES’ MYSTERIOUS
By Don Sloper
The Chinese tunnels are one of the most persistent urban myths in the City of Los Angeles. Veteran docents for
Las Angelitas del Pueblo, the volunteer organization that leads free tours of the plaza area, encounter people who ask to see the tunnels. When told they don’t exist, people can
become quite demanding and state they have been in them. In at least one case, people walked away and stated they weren’t interested in a tour if it didn’t include the Chinese
tunnels. So what is the origin of this myth?
The Old Building Foundations and the 1960’s
Tunnel The foundations for early Los Angeles buildings were built by digging a trench, then piling up rocks. Two buildings which had this type of foundation for their basements are the Merced Theater, built in 1870, and the
Garnier Block, built by Philippe Garnier, a Frenchman, in 1890. The Garnier block, which housed Chinese business establishments and volunteer organizations, is the present location of the Chinese-American Museum. In the Garnier Building as in other commercial buildings of the era, the basements were often subdivided
with partitions between various tenants, but often a basement had connecting doors between partitions. In the 1960's—long after the Chinese had left the Plaza—the park authorities
built a utility tunnel between the Merced Theater and the Garnier Building.
What Happened Next
The Plaza is a noisy place and trips to the basements were always entertaining to school children. Since fourth grade is the year for local history, many touring the Plaza are
elementary school children. When tours of the Plaza started in the late 1960’s, the docents would enter the basement of the Merced Theater.
Picture the situation: you go down a narrow
stairway, the docent used a flashlight because there were few or no lights, the basements were spooky with cobwebs and rough rock walls (remember the round stones; they left lots
of space for dust and spiders to collect). The basements are subdivided into rooms and passageways, so the docent would
issue dire warnings, particularly to school children, not to wander off into the dark. Eventually, the tour group would go through the 1960’s utility tunnel and into the basement of the Garnier Building, which looked a lot like the basement of the Merced Theater, then eventually emerge on the other side of Sanchez Alley from a different building than they had entered. The docent would talk about the Chinese occupants in the Garnier Block. When there were no children on the tour, conversation could include the city’s Wild West heritage and the fact that there were formerly prostitution, gambling and opium dens in the Plaza Area. It took only a small leap of the imagination or a careless docent to make one believe they
were in the secret Chinese tunnels that “everyone” knew existed. Since a basement is an uncommon rarity in Southern California real estate, going underground into a basement was a new experience for most tour goers, making it even easier to become confused.
The Tunnels Today In 2003, to determine if the present tour options at El Pueblo could be expanded and also provide an alternative during rain, I entered the old Merced Theater through the utility tunnel and into the Garnier Building, following the former tour route. It occurred to me that adding this area to the present route would provide a fun experience and could be used to finally clear up the urban myth of the mysterious Chinese tunnels. However, the Northridge earthquake in 1994 caused extensive damage to the old foundations in the Plaza area and to the buildings above them. Millions of dollars have been spent to save the buildings and, in the process, the basements are
now largely reinforced concrete with steel beams and electric lights on motion detectors that turn on automatically with no flashlight required. It's just not the same experience today, and current laws would require major retrofitting before tour groups could be taken into the basements. How truly disappointing!
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