Finals have ended for Susanna Niu (牛承程). She’s completed the first year of her Master’s program at the University of Southern California. And while classmates Patrick Shi (施沛洋), Maggie Hui (惠江雯), William Chen (陈振麟), and Jenny Xu (徐婧) have all completed their studies and graduated, Susanna is celebrating the arrival of summer break, joining fellow Public Diplomacy student Sally Guo (郭蕙) for a day tour around Los Angeles.
In previous installments of Discover L.A.’s Los Angeles Through a Chinese Lens series, Susanna detailed her transition from Liaoning Province to L.A. by way of Manhattan, and dished on adjusting to life in the U.S. This excursion is all about exploration and fun, which is integral to any city tour. Joined by Sally, a native of Xiamen, a coastal city in southern China, Susanna is keen to see the different neighborhoods, areas and districts of the city that she’s been unable to visit since arriving last August, as schoolwork has occupied most of her schedule up until now.
Beginning in Venice, Susanna and Sally start this uncharacteristically cloudy Sunday at Abbot Kinney, briefly strolling down the café and boutique-clad drag before stopping at futuristic coffee mecca Intelligentsia for a mocha, cappuccino and pastry. The atypical layout of the café is slightly jarring at first, or perhaps it’s just very early, but after finally taking their beverages outside and into the front courtyard, the ladies are instantly impressed, noting how the independent locale offers a bit more character than a typical coffee chain.
With major brands like Starbucks and the Coffee Bean so prevalent across the USC campus and throughout mainland China, it’s a rare opportunity for Susanna and Sally to try something a bit more local.
Soon they take their cups to go and head towards the famous Venice Canal Historic District. Curious about the history and origin of Venice’s interlocking waterways, Susanna and Sally recall the similarity between the Westside neighborhood and Jiangsu Province’s Suzhou, “The Venice of the East” as it’s often called, and marvel at the homes along the canals.
In Chinese culture it’s commonplace (and completely socially acceptable) to inquire about the price of real estate, and after a few minutes of speculating the local property market, they decide to move on with their tour around Los Angeles.
Next stop, Universal Studios Hollywood. Having visited Universal Studios on a previous occasion, Susanna and Sally are adamant that the theme park is an essential part of every visit to L.A. Their friends from back home regularly fly over now that the U.S. has opened up 10-year tourist visas to Chinese nationals, so navigating the bustling alleys and walkways of Universal Studios is effortless for the pair.
Beginning with Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Susanna and Sally visit their favorite rides, racing past slower tour groups en route to motion simulators for The Simpsons and Transformers. They also stroll through the streets of "Paris," admiring the local flora.
The sun comes out midway through the day, and with the lines lengthening and the onset of heat and UV rays, the two pack it in, hoping to beat any traffic down the 101 South, as they move on to Hollywood.
Given its distance from USC’s main campus, Susanna and Sally rarely visit the area nicknamed “Tinseltown,” situated between Franklin Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, with Western Avenue to the east and Fairfax Avenue to the west. On this pleasant Sunday, the girls proceed to Melrose Avenue.
But first, a quick stop at the legendary La Brea Avenue eatery, Pink’s Hot Dogs. It’s the rare occasion when Susanna and Sally nosh on indulgent Western fare. They generally prefer to enjoy the familiar culinary flavors of home. But since Melrose and its vintage and secondhand shops are literally just around the corner, the girls decide to give Pink’s a try.
They split a Planet Hollywood and a Mulholland Drive dog, along with a side of fries and onion rings, noting that Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs recently opened up shop in China.
Full from the snack, the duo move on to the hip Hollywood shopping street, stopping by Wasteland for a gander, and later dropping in to Japan LA for a look at some cartoon and anime-influenced fashions and knick knacks.
Shopping on Melrose is actually a first for Susanna and Sally. They usually frequent the Beverly Center and Rodeo Drive, occasionally arranging shuttle buses for their USC Chinese Student Association classmates. But Melrose offers something different, appealing to a more alternative consumer, and the pair is always eager to find new shops.
After a jaunt around Melrose, Susanna and Sally have grown a bit tired of the secondhand stores. In major Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing, 二手 (secondhand) clothing has found a popular niche with youth and the more art-influenced crowd. But these fashions have not quite reached a critical mass, and still carry a certain stigma in the eyes of some Chinese.
And while Susanna and Sally have enjoyed perusing the densely-filled racks of L.A.’s vintage shops, they’ll head back to Beverly Hills for future shopping trips.
With Melrose now in the rearview mirror, it’s up into the hills for one of L.A.’s spectacular vistas before dusk. But on this Sunday, Griffith Park will be far too crowded, so Susanna and Sally opt to head to Mulholland Drive for a different view, one that major tour groups rarely visit and also doesn’t require extended hiking.
Looking down on the Hollywood Bowl from one angle, and being able to see the Hollywood Sign and Downtown L.A. from another, the girls are happy to enjoy the view without needing to walk uphill or battle through crowds. The vista is marvelous, and after snapping a few photos for posterity, it’s back to the Eastside via Sunset Boulevard and into Silver Lake.
Much like Hollywood, Silver Lake is one of those L.A. neighborhoods often overlooked by these mainland Chinese students. There’s no particular reason why Susanna and Sally have yet to venture over to the artsy area, but if there’s anything that will get these girls to explore unknown territory, it’s the possibility of some interesting food.
After making their way down Sunset Boulevard in rush hour, they park and walk over to Pine & Crane, a popular Taiwanese restaurant that has become a favorite of L.A. locals, imports and the Chinese diaspora.
Pine & Crane grows all their produce at a local farm. Sampling cold dishes like tofu, seaweed and wood ear mushrooms, along with some Mapo tofu, three cup chicken, and organic pea shoots, Susanna and Sally are instantly impressed. Sally in particular, as the cuisine of her home province of Fujian uses flavors similar to those found in Taiwanese cooking.
Dinner has been served and enjoyed, thoroughly, and this lengthy day tour of L.A. is nearing its end.
Susanna and Sally jump back in the car and hop on the 110 South to head back towards campus. The pair initially felt that three days would be an ideal duration for tourists to see all that L.A. has to offer. But after one exhausting marathon across the city, they’ve come to the realization that there is more to Los Angeles than they originally thought, and immediately begin mapping out their next excursion.