In January 2014, cleaners were working on a dark and gloomy basement when they stumbled upon a cache of curious relics. Once upon a time, the building had been an unassuming neighborhood restaurant. However, these unusual items hinted at it being used for seriously shady backroom operations.
The property was located on Ord Street in Los Angeles, the heart of Chinatown. The neighborhood is home to some 10,000 people and has been a commercial hub for Asian businesses since the late 1930s. And, having served as a Chinese eatery for some time, the building was about to be transformed into something completely different.
In fact, chef Marcus Christiana-Beniger planned to bring some southern hospitality to the district. Indeed, he planned to convert the building into a restaurant called the “Little Jewel of New Orleans.” But before he could begin serving po’ boys, gumbo and shrimp Creole, he needed to completely clear out the space.
And so, armed with brooms, pans and dust masks, he and his team set to work. Invariably, sweeping out long-neglected corners turns up all kinds of surprises. Objects from past lives, secrets, mysteries, pieces of puzzles that pose more questions than they answer; what would Christiana-Beniger find here?
Well, for one thing, this tub of monosodium glutamate (MSG). It’s no secret that Chinese restaurants use MSG in their cooking. Indeed, in small doses, it can enhance savory flavors such as meat. However, there is something disconcerting about the size of this industrial-sized container.
But it wasn’t the MSG that was shocking. Curiously, the really surprising discoveries were waiting downstairs. Staff for The Little Jewel described the basement as a “labyrinthine, straight-out-of-a-horror movie.” The space, around 6,000 square feet, “had been harboring tons of decades old junk… and secrets of all varieties,” read a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Indeed, dark, dirty and swathed in cobwebs, the basement needed a deep clean. Discarded boxes, garbage and furniture were piled up in corners. And even though Marcus and his team fixed lights to the ceiling beams, it was still difficult to see into every crevice.
Meanwhile, this macabre rat skeleton seemed to signal three things. Firstly, that not everything that went down there made it out alive. Secondly, that it had been quite some time since anyone bothered to clean out the mess. And thirdly, that live rodents were probably lurking in the shadows.
Undeterred, Christiana-Beniger and his team continued their sweep of the basement. It was then that they discovered a stack of intriguing vintage crates with mysterious Chinese letters painted on the sides. Curiously, Rasputin the cat also seemed to be drawn to them. And their contents would not disappoint.
According to Facebook user Vanessa Lin, the characters on the sides of the crates referred to Chinese medicines. The letters on the bottom left crate signify “He Shou Wu,” a perennial vine known as fleeceflower root. The bottom right crate is marked with the letters for “Huang Bai,” the bark of the yellow fir tree.
At first glance, the crates appeared to contain a bland collection of crockery. A stack of beige-colored dishes and soup bowls suggested there was nothing much to see here. However, on closer inspection, the crates yielded a trove of puzzling secrets. And some were as dark as they were intriguing.
Firstly, a rainbow array of fan-tan poker chips suggested that the property may have once been used as a gaming house. Fan-tan is a table game similar to roulette. “For real though,” read one of the post on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “This dungeon used to be an illegal Chinese gambling/fan tan parlor (opium den?) back in the day in the 20s-40s.”
And of course, with any operation where large quantities change hands in an unregulated setting, security is of the utmost importance. What’s more, this particular fan-tan parlor appeared to have some heavy security indeed. “I’m from the South,” wrote Christiana-Beniger on Imgur. “So the ammunition… is… awesome.”
But not everything in the crates were connected to clandestine gambling. Take these badges, for example, along with what appear to be numerous metal spoons. The red crosses suggest that they were perhaps something to do with medicine. The badge marked “Chinese Relief” might also refer to medicinal relief.
Made with locally sourced Californian passion fruit, this old bottle of “Passionola” claimed to be the “Taste Thrill of the Century.” Sadly, the public must have lost their appetite for this particular thrill as Passionola is no longer produced. In Australia, however, Schweppes still makes a passion fruit-flavored drink called “Passiona.”
Would these interesting jade tiles make an attractive feature for the new restaurant? Speaking of which, what exactly did Christiana-Beniger do with the stuff he found? “I’m a history buff [so] obviously I want some of this [stuff],” he wrote on Imgur. “And I’ll be giving some to Chinatown museums.”
Among the crates were many bottles, jars and vases containing mystery powders. “There used to be an herb shop on the property,” Christiana-Beniger continued. “So we found TONS of old Chinese medicine.” Of course, this explains the badges and spoons, as well as the lettering on the sides of the crates.
Also found among the receptacles was an interesting clay urn and little bottles inscribed with Chinese letters. Christiana-Beniger even recovered a couple of bottles of California Chablis. Of course, wine is not without its own medicinal properties. But, judging by the screw cap, it wasn’t vintage.
Amazingly, it only took Christiana-Beniger and his crew a day to clean out the basement. His deli-restaurant opened shortly afterwards and has since received positive reviews. Meanwhile, a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page said that the basement “still has a ways to go to becoming our very own, super secret, underground den of iniquity, we’re one step closer everyday.”
Curiously, it seems that the creepy basement was in fact once the ground floor. “There was a fire in Chinatown at one time and they simply built on top of it (a la Seattle). This is what I’m told anyway,” wrote Christiana-Beniger on Imgur. “There are also bricked in tunnels down there… and downtown has tons of them.” Indeed, who knows what else might be down there?