Before the 'Ghost Ship,' owner struggled with old warehouse in tough neighborhood

Chor Ng became the owner of a run-down warehouse 20 years ago, part of a larger divorce settlement with her husband.

For much of those two decades, she leased the building out to various renters, sometimes struggling to find tenants who would pay their rent in what was then a tough neighborhood.

The last lessee was Derick Almena, who converted the warehouse into the Ghost Ship, an artists’ residence and underground concert venue. The space underscored the improving fortunes of the Fruitvale district, which was becoming popular with artists and musicians. 

But last month, a fire broke out in the packed warehouse, killing 36 people.

The nation’s deadliest fire in more than a decade prompted questions about how the Ghost Ship came to be. It’s put a spotlight on both Ng and Almena.

Although Almena appeared on the “Today” show to discuss the fire, Ng has not spoken publicly about the tragedy. Lawyers representing Ng and her insurance carrier against wrongful-death lawsuits filed by the families of two fire victims also declined to comment.

The fire has spawned a criminal investigation and scrutiny of Oakland’s tolerance of unpermitted warehouse conversions that house hundreds of young professionals and urban artists without adequate fire and earthquake protection.

The tragedy has prompted some owners of converted warehouses to confront how they should deal with the various issues raised by the Ghost Ship fire.

Ng, 62, came into that role by way of irreconcilable differences.

County deeds show the giant warehouse and retail shops on the corner of 31st Avenue and International Boulevard were transferred to Ng’s sole name in 1996 shortly after she and her husband were named in a lawsuit filed by other family members.

In the split, her ex-husband, Hoi Man Ng, was awarded the family's $400,000 interest in a hotel in China.

Chor Ng took their Chinatown deli and investment properties — the Fruitvale warehouse, two Chinatown shops and the site of a dry cleaning business in San Francisco — along with $550,000 in unsecured personal debt.

She was 42, spoke little English and had two teens to support.

“I intend to sell the deli business and learn a new skill,” she told the court.

Oakland was in decline at the time. Court files show Ng had her share of problems keeping tenants who could pay rent. For a time, the warehouse was leased to a tire shop owner who eventually was evicted for nonpayment. He was followed by a store owner who used the building to stash spare inventory.

A young woman who leases Ng’s former family home, a 1960s tract house that shows its age, said she was happy with her landlord and praised Ng’s daughter, with whom she does business, as “sweet.”

Alameda County records show Ng moved to Pleasanton in 2015 with her daughter, Eva Ng, and her daughter’s fiance, an executive at a medical tech firm.

Though city codes do not allow it, Almena rented out living quarters at the Ghost Ship and hired out the second floor for events. Former tenants said they were told to hide evidence they were living in the Ghost Ship whenever Ng’s daughter came by.

“They definitely did not live there,” Eva Ng, 36, told The Times the morning after the fire. “I don't think people lived there. I think the artists come and go.”

She has declined to comment further.

An estimated 100 people attended the electronic music show on Dec. 2 when a fire started on the bottom floor. Most of the 36 people killed were trapped upstairs, unable to escape down a stairway hammered together from old pallets and recycled wood. Federal and city fire investigators have yet to determine a cause of the blaze.

Griselda Ceja and others cited frequent power outages in the industrial building, which had a shared power supply for all tenants, including the Ghost Ship, a tire business and retail shops. The wiring was antiquated and often would short out or arc, sending sparks jumping from light fixtures and the junction box, Ceja said.

The man leasing space beneath Ceja’s hair salon filled the emergency exit stairwell with supplies, blocking egress. Rats were a common nuisance.

“It was dangerous and it was scary,” she said.

Repairs were slow to be made, and only after repeated complaints to Ng’s two children.

“There were no sprinklers, no smoke alarms,” said Enriqueta Soriano, who at one time leased space in the warehouse for a bridal boutique. “The entire building wasn’t kept up.

“Oh, but they collected rent on time.”

In 1998, Oakland required Ng to make earthquake improvements to the Fruitvale warehouse. The process involved punching holes in the roof, and there was a downpour. Soriano and her husband, Flaviano, returned to find their business knee-deep in water. They blamed Ng.

“It was a horrible loss,” said Soriano. “It was complete negligence on her part.”

They sued Ng for $100,000 in damages and settled for $48,275, court records show.

Public files show citations resulted in more than $20,000 in city liens against Ng’s properties for failing to promptly pay fines for building code violations. The warehouse and an adjacent empty lot were repeatedly cited for recurring blight.

Within weeks of an ordered cleanup of trash in the vacant lot next door, the debris reappeared out front, obstructing pathways. The broken furniture, appliances and odd artifacts turned the sidewalk into a flea market of the bizarre. After cleanups in 2014, new violations were lodged in 2016, two weeks before the fire.

The family sometimes did its own repairs, city records show. Eva Ng emailed a city inspector in 2014 saying she used the weekend off from work to paint over graffiti outside the Ghost Ship.

When the city required her to remove wood boards affixed to the top of a tall fence, city records show Eva Ng sent the inspector an email noting that the artists using the warehouse “thought it was artsy, and beautiful and are sad that they have to take it down.”

Around the corner on International Boulevard, the city also repeatedly issued citations for sidewalk debris, trash, a deteriorated facade and an illegal resident.

Ceja said she complained to the city around 2003 about rats and garbage, and the inspector who answered left her with a warning.

“He told me we’re going to end up shutting it down, and then we’ll have no jobs.”

She stopped complaining and resorted to her own repairs. When the hot water stopped flowing, Ceja said she bought and installed her own heater.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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