Chinatown's Cathay Manor Offers Housing, a Sense of Belonging : Elderly Chinese Comforted by Their Cultural 'Beacon'

Times Staff Writer

As a rising sun struggles to burn off the morning mist, elderly men gather in a courtyard to practice the traditional slow-motion Chinese martial art called tai chi chuan .

With the approach of noon, cooks use 30-inch woks to prepare meals of stir-fried meat and vegetables. On lazy afternoons, neck-craning kibitzers outnumber the old men playing Chinese chess, while other men and women chat quietly or peruse Chinese-language newspapers.

The scenes are typical of life in Hong Kong, Taiwan or China, but the setting is the new 16-story Cathay Manor, the first federally subsidized senior citizen housing project in Chinatown. Green-tiled entrance gates add a Chinese touch to the building, which also serves as a social service center for the community.

Pleasant, Safe and Clean

"Here, we old folks can live as a group," Ching-chun Chi said in Chinese one recent morning after completing her courtyard calisthenics. "We can exercise together. We can go out and buy Chinese food. The buses are convenient. The people are very nice, and it's very safe. It's very clean."

Elderly Chinese with limited English find the attractions of Cathay Manor and its Chinatown location so great that 2,300 people have signed the waiting list for the project's 270 one-bedroom units, which rent for 30% of residents' monthly incomes.

"If we can get a place here, it would be cheaper for us and also convenient," said Ekawad Limpichaisirikul, 70, a naturalized Thai citizen born in China who immigrated to the United States in 1979 and lives with his wife in a $300-a-month one-room apartment in the Wilshire District.

Avoiding Isolation

Limpichaisirikul, who works at Cathay Manor's Senior Citizen Service Center as a volunteer and hopes that in a few years he can move in, said he and his wife could stay with their son in Yorba Linda but that living there would leave them isolated.

"If we live with them, we cut ourselves off from other people," he said. "We have to wait until it is convenient for them to take us downtown. . . . (In Chinatown) we can get Chinese food and meet Chinese people. We can buy the things we used to get in Shanghai. . . . All these things would be impossible if I lived way out in Yorba Linda."

Wong Kit-fun, 73, a Cathay Manor resident who moved to the United States from Hong Kong in 1968 after retiring from a 35-year career as a kindergarten teacher, said she lived with her sister in Alhambra before moving into the senior citizen tower.

Chinatown Shopping

She often went to Chinatown for grocery shopping, taking three buses to make the trip, she said.

"Now, I don't want to take the bus," she said. Living in Chinatown also helps her keep in touch with old friends, Wong said, because they often stop by to see her after dining at the area's restaurants.

Most residents have come to the United States during the last five to 20 years, some renting apartments in Chinatown that they could hardly afford and others living with relatives in suburban Los Angeles.

Lily Lum Chan, vice president of the Chinese Committee on Aging, a nonprofit coalition of senior service associations that sponsored the facility's construction and now manages it, described Cathay Manor as a "beacon" showing how Chinatown's grass-roots organizations can work with the federal government to meet the needs of senior citizens.

Many More Needed

"We need at least several thousand units," Chan said. "Now we just have 270. But it's a beginning."

The Senior Citizen Service Center offers daily English classes, naturalization classes, translation services, help in dealing with government bureaucracy and basic health checkups. A noon nutrition program provides lunch, with a $1.25 donation requested from those who can afford it.

The senior service center, which recently moved into Cathay Manor from another Chinatown location, on Friday formally celebrated its opening with a luncheon that drew about 550 celebrants and featured traditional Chinese music.

An adjacent set of offices in the same building provides a permanent new home for the Chinatown Service Center, which offers a wide variety of assistance to people of all ages, including legal aid, employment training and a family planning clinic.

Project Draws Praise

David Lee, a Chinatown restaurateur who was active in some of the efforts about a decade ago to develop a senior citizens' home in the area, called Cathay Manor "the first big project of this type in Los Angeles for a Chinese ethnic group."

"That's something nobody believed would happen--the senior citizen home," Lee said. "They said, 'Oh, you don't have a chance.' But it happened."

Construction of the residential tower, Lee said, fits in with the booming growth of Chinatown in recent years, as immigrants and capital have flooded in from Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

Cathay Manor also adds to the pull of Chinatown as a retail and cultural center for Chinese-Americans who live in suburban areas but whose parents prefer a Chinese-speaking environment, Lee said. "If their folks are living in the senior citizens' home, they're going to come back," he said.

Funds From HUD

The $30-million project, primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is open to people at least 62 years old whose income does not exceed $11,500 for a couple, Cathay Manor officials said. Residents began moving in during late December.

Situated at the northeast corner of Broadway and Sunset Boulevard at the downtown Los Angeles entrance to Chinatown, the structure replaced the old county Juvenile Court building and a county warehouse.

A Chinese couplet in black ink characters on red paper hangs at the front door.

Read horizontally, the first characters of the lines combine to form the word "Cathay," as in the project's name. Read vertically, the couplet proclaims a message that translates:

The country is wealthy, the family is well-off, enjoying the golden years.

Healthy and strong, a happy long life.

John M. Chin, project director for the home's nutrition program, said a friend of his wrote the couplet.

Chinese Tradition

"Usually in Chinese tradition, especially at New Year's time, we always have couplets on the sides of the front door that express how wealthy and happy we are and express good wishes for the coming year," Chin explained. "Even poor families would hope for better times coming, so they also write something nice."

The couplet's reference to "the country" refers to the United States, thus expressing thankfulness for the residents' opportunity to share in American prosperity, Chin said.

Several residents expressed deep appreciation for the federal subsidy to the project.

"The American government is very good to elderly people," Wang Hsiu-chin, 68, said.

"We're very thankful for the American government's help," added her husband, Wang Ken-sheng, 78. "Thank you!"

Wang Hsiu-chin said they had lived with their son in Orange County before moving into Cathay Manor. She does not know how to drive, and in Orange County, she said, "if you don't go out in a car, you starve to death!"

Because she speaks only Chinese, she has difficulty shopping in non-Chinese markets, she added.

"I don't know how to buy things," she said. "I don't know how to talk. I show them what I want and hold out money for them to take. I can't figure it out."

English classes at Cathay Manor are aimed at helping elderly immigrants obtain the basic skills needed to cope with such situations.

Yung-yang Wu, 76, walked slowly into the project's courtyard one recent morning, leaning on a cane as he made his way to English class. He and his wife have applied to live at the home and are on the waiting list, he said.

Meanwhile, Wu studies at the center.

"We come every day," he said in Chinese.

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