At the end of the amazing film Chinatown, Jake Gittes is told, 'Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown'.

What are supposed to deduce from this? Is it that Jake is powerless to prevent or challenge what had just occurred?

Is it that horrible things like this happen all the time in Chinatown and therefore nobody cares?

  • 1
    None of the above are the 'last line' of the movie that Jake says...he says something unintelligible...to which the angry Lou says 'wha did ya say!?> twicw Does antone know what Jakes last line is...it sounds a bit like 'anythings possible'.
    – user28678
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 0:29
  • It's forty years later and we are still talking about it, for this and other reasons. That's what it meant. Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 20:30
  • To all the naysayers here and below, for what it's worth the script itself ends with those lines...
    – lly
    Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 14:09
  • @user28678 As others say below, Jake's last line is "As little as possible" (what he should've done) but upon a quick rewatch the actual last lines of the movie are the captain yelling "All right, clear the area! Get off the streets!" to the gawking locals.
    – lly
    Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 14:27

16 Answers 16


I believe the author left it up to interpretation, as I didn't find an "official" answer on the web.

There's a FAQ on IMDB about a similar question, though the answer doesn't source anything.

What is the meaning of "Chinatown" and the last line of the movie?

As a young man, Jake was a police officer in Chinatown. He once tried to protect a woman, but as a direct result of his intervention, she was "hurt" (an implication that the woman died). As a result, Jake became cynical and apathetic. Over the course of his investigation in the film, Jake again tries to protect a woman, and once again, she is killed as a direct result of his intervention."Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown" is an encouragement to Jake to forget this set of circumstances, just as he "forgot" the circumstances surrounding his time in Chinatown. The dramatic irony of this is that the viewer knows that Jake has never forgotten what happened in Chinatown, and that he will probably never forget the events depicted in the movie, inevitably leading to him becoming even more cynical and apathetic than he was already.

I think the line is a simple reaction to tragedy. What can you do to carry on but "forget" (and possibly forgive yourself)?

More importantly, what does the line mean to you? That interpretation is just as valid as any.


In addition to the other interesting answers, I'd like to emphasize the meaning of "Chinatown" in that quote a bit more. The impression I got, especially when Jake's past as a Chinatown cop is mentioned, is that Chinatown was a particularly tough area of the city, full of organized crime and corruption (maybe because nobody cared for it) and as a Chinatown cop you just had to develop kind of a cynical view and that you maybe also couldn't resist being slowly dragged into that swamp of corruption and violence when working there.

So I understood this quote to mean that in Chinatown bad things happen all the time and the good guys can't win anyway and Jake, who should know this from the past, should rather just accept this fact and get over it in order to not make things any worse, since he cannot change it.

But in the end it probably was a kind of a vicous circle. Nobody cared for Chinatown and therefore it developed into that kind of criminal hell, and for this reason in turn nobdy cares for this place. And if I remember correctly this quote came from one of those slightly corrupt or at least cynical policemen that don't care about Chinatown at all. So it might also just have meant that they (the police) didn't have any interrest in clearing this case when they could just put it into the shelf as another of those usual Chinatown incidents, so Jake shouldn't care or hope for anything either. So I'd agree with both your own explanations and it was probably a bit of both.

  • The quote came from Walsh, one of Gittes’ operatives/partners in the detective agency. He developed photographs. This doesn’t take away from your answer but I wanted to correct your recollection. Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 19:46

Great Answers! Like a lot of questions I think you can interpret it a lot of ways but after decades of watching Chinatown I'd like to inject this interpretation...

Opening scenes of Jake's new career paint the picture of him as a pretty disreputable opportunist. Photographing unfaithful partners and facilitating their Hollywood divorces are stereotypical examples of the work of mercenary private eyes.

Jake is a former police officer with no love lost between him and a few members of the LAPD. The noir sensibility of the film and and the real history of the LAPD indicate that Jake was either an incredibly corrupt cop for not getting along with them, or an honest man that chose what some would view as a sketchy way to make a living rather than dealing with the hypocrisy of his former career. The latter is what his interaction with his former colleagues seems to point to.

The catalyst for the change in Jake, the tipping point, is painted ominously as events that occurred in Chinatown. While the events are never delineated, Jake is clearly concerned about operating in that area, and people that know him know that he should be.

The Chinese characters in the film are all (with the exception of the gardener) party to the main coverup of the film. The virtual imprisonment, including the drug induced somnolence, of Katherine occurs with either their tacit or active participation. When Jake decides to help Evelyn and Katherine escape, it is the Chinese butler and other household staff that get enlisted in the effort to hide her from Cross, the father of both women.

Jake makes the choice to send them to Chinatown. He reintroduces the moral conflict that drove him away from the police force and into his sketchy new life. Rather than walk away from the old conflicts and uncertainties in the way that he did by hiding from them as a disinterested private eye, he confronts the old demons head on.

The dark climax of the film reinforces the central message that fate is inescapable. No matter what our motives or our actions the cycle of life confronts us with the consequences of our destructive nature. "Forget it Jake- it's Chinatown" means there is no escaping those consequences. Evelyn meets her doom and Jake is forced to bear witness to it instead of hide from it the way he tried to by leaving the LAPD.

Apologies for the long winded answer, just in case you didn't know...LOVE THIS MOVIE.

  • "Great Answers!" - Welcome to Movies & TV. Be sure to upvote any questions and answers you like, people will surely do it with yours, too, as it isn't in any way less great. ;-)
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 0:09

I found a good answer for this question from here,

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" means "you can't change things, it's the way things are and the way they will be, regardless of how much you tilt at windmills. The line is about the futility of fighting injustices and darkness in the world. It's about giving up and looking away, because nothing can be done anyway lest you become another casualty of injustice.

Chinatown is the world. Jake is everyone. Forgetting about it is what we all do anyway, and so what we may as well keep doing.


I think the ending of Chinatown is about coping with grief - and really summarises the moral struggles of Jake throughout the movie, leading us to an evaluation of guilt and self-forgiveness. Polanski actually changed the original ending to the film, which was initially going to be a happy ending, with Evelyn escaping and Jake dying, however Polanski insisted on the change.

It's hard to tell exactly why Polanski made this change, however, with reference to his wife's murder in 1969, a viewer can begin to appreciate the hopelessness of Jake's statement and the bleak ending of the film. Polanski said that his absence on the night of his wife's murder was the biggest regret of his life - Jake's regret for the unnamed woman who died in Chinatown is similar.

We can't always help what happens in our lives, and it frustrates and torments us when someone we love is hurt - we blame ourselves. By consoling ourselves that its Chinatown we accept that we don't control our lives, even if we want to, and that's ok.

However, Jake's consolation could also be construed as a critique of justice and futility, with Walsh forming a sort of Senecan prototype of fortune and immorality/injustice. Either way it is one of my favourite movie quotes!

  • 1
    The question is about the dialogue in the ending rather than the ending itself. Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 12:31

To understand the meaning of the phrase, one must understand the meaning of "Chinatown" within the context of the film. "Chinatown" is a metaphor for any situation in which an foreign entity seeks to intervene without having the native knowledge required to understand the consequences of the intervention. In the film, Jake knows about the dangers of unintended consequences from past experience as he tried to help a woman previously with disastrous results. After that, he drew the allusion between those events to Chinatown himself, a place with its own culture, language, and customs so foreign to the police that the prevailing wisdom was to do "as little as possible", lest accidentally doing more harm than good. When drawn into protecting Evelyn, Jake gets in over his head, and his actions wind up causing more harm than good once again. The policeman reminds Jake of where he is, literally and metaphorically, with the phrase, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."

The phrase has become famous not only because it is a shockingly low-key reaction to the events at the end of the film, but because its meaning is so readily adaptable to real world events both large and small since the film was released.

  • This. In the movie "The year of the dragon", Mickey Rourke's character is told this many times. The Chinese are inscrutable, with their own beliefs and customs completely foreign to those of Westerners that the Police Captain is repeatedly told "it's Chinatown". I always understood this movie to be referencing much the same thing.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 0:49

Well, for starters, we have to look at the symbolism of Chinatown. What does the area itself represent? Within the story, Chinatown is the neighborhood in which Jake, years earlier, failed to protect a woman. Not only did he fail to "save" this woman, he ensured that she would be hurt by his very attempt to save her.

We can divine that Towne's screenplay contains a larger symbolic purpose for Chinatown. In my opinion, Chinatown represents the power structures of the world, and the futility of attempting to subvert them. The line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." is an admonishment to those who seek to do what is right in the face of unassailable evil and corruption.

Noah Cross personifies these malevolent forces. You may recall the scene where Noah and Jake are eating lunch at Noah's farm, and Noah tells Jake: "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but, believe me, you don't." This line, which drips with subtext, reveals that Jake is in over his head, and Noah knows it. Noah has the arrogance of a man who has taken everything he's ever wanted, and nothing has stopped him. He is the power of the world, and the forces of good are no match.

Jake has once before tried to fight back, in Chinatown. The memory of Chinatown is a traumatic one to Jake, for it bears the realization that one is powerless in the face of the world's oppressive evil. At the climax of "Chinatown," Jake is once again reminded that he is grossly overmatched. The police, who arrive during the final showdown, simply enable the corruption to fester right before their eyes. And, just as it happened before, the victim of Chinatown is an innocent woman. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." - the line spoken by one of Jake's P.I. pals, is a plea to Jake to accept what Chinatown is: a place where good only begets bad; a place where things do not change.


You also can't separate the ending of the movie from the recent happenings in Polanski's life at that time, given the cruel and purposeless way in which his wife and love, Sharon Tate, was killed in cold blood by the Manson "family" only a few years prior. A sad reflection of Polanski's life experience unfortunately


I believe the last line Jake says under his breath in Chinatown is "as little as possible." It refers to his time as a cop in Chinatown when he was told to do "as little as possible" because cops in Chinatown were on the take and looked the other way as part of the deal. But Jake apparently tried to help a woman in Chinatown and as a result she was "hurt." Perhaps Jake was more honest than the other cops, including his former colleague, Lt. Lou Escobar. That is why there is an animosity between the two characters, especially since Escobar has now been promoted t to Lieutenant. I believe this movie was named "Chinatown" because nothing is what it appears in the Chinese district. All the prostitution, gambling dens, opium dens, etc are hidden behind legitimate businesses and organizations such as the different benevolent associations and tongs, restaurants, bars and other businesses. So if you were a proactive officer, any arrests in Chinatown would not only affect the criminal underworld but also the police hierarchy who were on the take. A great movie that I can watch every year.


The quote comes out of a long-standing prejudice amongst 'Caucasians' that 'Orientals are inscrutable'. The cop says this to Jake because he blindly assumes that, because whatever happened, happened in Chinatown, it is bound to make no sense, so Jake shouldn't try to make sense of it.

I'm not saying that it is right to think that way, of course; I am merely pointing out that back in the era when the movie takes place, this would have been a common attitude - particularly among cops.

  • As other answers indicate, there is more to it than that.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 22:40

I always thought this was simple, Chinatown represents corruption, and it's not a racial thing, just a tough district where police tended to overlook existing corruption on their daily beat just to get along, and also to probably participate in corruption (payoffs). That's why Jake left the force with cynicism.

The line is just the partner telling him to accept the situation that powerful corrupt individual like Noah Cross control things and accept that it's a no win situation. I always use the line in my everyday life our current politics are so noir, goes great with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump,it's all Chinatown!!!

Life imitates art, by the way, here is something bizarre. Jack Nicholson's raised sister was his actual mother, he found it out, that same year (1974when he was 37 years old. His assumed parents where his grandparents.


Jake was disillusioned as a policeman working in Chinatown because he couldn't tell the good guys from the bad guys. He never knew if he was pursuing actual justice or just helping local power-brokers settle scores. He wound up hurting the innocent when he thought he was helping.

Jump to the end of the movie. Jake has tried to help the ladies escape the horrible injustices and abuse caused by the ladies' shared father. Jake's escape plan is foiled by the blundering police, and they wind up killing one of the victims instead of the perpetrator.

Jake is told to "forget it, it's just Chinatown"; but what Jake has learned by now is that the outside world works a lot like Chinatown. Jake was trying to help good in opposition to evil, but the main evil character was rich and powerful and respected-so the police naturally and instantly took his side when the conflict took place. They work for the rich and powerful. This is what led to tragedy. Once again, Jake's actions turned out to be on behalf of the bad guy, even though he thought he was helping the good people. Evil triumphed and the good faced tragedy and death.


My work involves taking a hard look at capitalism and its effects on society. I want to add to what others have commented about Jake and who he is. To me, one of the most important scenes in this amazing movie is the exchange between Gittes and Noah Cross, when Cross sits at his beautifully appointed outdoor table, dining on foods most people could never afford:

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?

Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?

Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?

Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!

Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?

Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future. ...

This both shows who Jake is--"How much better can you eat?"--and who Cross is. With his wealth, he can control everything and everyone around him, which he certainly demonstrates amply. What he can't control is what hasn't happened yet: the future. It also clearly shows the evil in Cross, which is his belief that he is entitled to know and control the future--because of his wealth. This brand of evil ultimately is Gittes' downfall and Evelyn's sentence of death:

Noah Cross: ... Now, where's the girl? I want the only daughter I've got left. As you found out, Evelyn was lost to me a long time ago.

Jake Gittes: Who do you blame for that? Her?

Noah Cross: I don't blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of ANYTHING.

When Jake was with the LAPD, he probably thought he had seen to the farthest depths of evil in Chinatown. But he hadn't met Noah Cross. This adds to the weight of the lines, "As little as possible." In Chinatown as a cop and in Chinatown as a private eye, Jake was fighting against evil. And each time, the evil was insurmountable. Would things have worked out better for the women he was trying to save? Well, the woman in Chinatown would have had to remain in her circumstance (likely prostitution, which in the time would have been akin to slavery), and Evelyn would inevitably have lost her daughter, because she--and Mulwray--could ultimately be no match for Cross's money and power. This would have destroyed her, if not killed her. And Jake would have suffered a smaller, but possibly more soul-crushing, defeat in having not even tried. Which would be harder to live with?


In the bedroom scene with Evelyn Mulwray, she asks Gittis "What did you do when you worked on the police force?" He answered, "As little as possible." He repeated that line at the end of the movie; and Escobar responded "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

  • Can you elaborate a little more what this implies for the meaning of that phrase then?
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 12:03

I don't think anyone gets it.

"Chinatown" is a secret a person will never tell. A complicated, dark mystery filled with lies and guilt, so ugly that the truth can never be spoken aloud to anyone.

Its something youll never understand, because its too complicated and too much of a secret.

  • Please don't suggest that no one but you (or maybe not even including you) is right.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 22:37

Jake had a line early in the movie while talking to Mrs. Mulwray to the effect that sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. And we see throughout the movie, particularly in his relationship with Evelyn Mulwray, that he never lets sleeping dogs lie --he is after all a detective--and his actions end up making matters worse if not for him for someone else. I believe his encounter with the customer in the barber shop, when Jake defends his occupation to the point of violence indicates his uncertainty in regard to the ultimate worth of his work. Likely His relentless quest for the truth during the unexplained event in Chinatown led to a similar case in which the punishment far outweighed the crime just as he views the death of Evelyn to be far too harsh for her crime of incest. For me the question: Is it better to let sleeping dogs lie or not was constantly presented to Jake. Another example of this was when he was tailing Hollis Mulwray and ended up at a meeting where Hollis gave a speech. Throughout those proceedings Jake was bored stiff and began reading the paper. However when the spectacle of the sheep entering the hall and the farmer bringing up the subject of the value of water to all involved caught his interest he could have let that aspect of story alone, after all he as a detective was looking for evidence of infidelity.

  • Ok, but this doesn't answer the question.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 22:39

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