China Busy Setting Up Shop : Beijing Renovates Hotel as Place to Showcase Its Goods

Times Staff Writer

The Chinese government has purchased the 500-room Clark Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and is renovating the first two floors for the first permanent U.S. marketplace for Chinese imports.

Under the name May Wah International, officials from Guangdong province have set up offices in the once-elegant hotel to supervise the $3-million first phase of what architects say will be a bottom-to-top renovation. They say the scheduled December opening of the Yuet Lei Friendship Store will be a major step in China's efforts to increase exports to the United States.

Architects have designed a new grand lobby--to be constructed of native Chinese materials--a 20,000-square-foot, second-floor showroom and parking in the basement and on the ground floor.

For the last two months, workers have been tearing out the first two stories of the 74-year-old structure at 426 S. Hill St. and will begin construction of the lobby and showroom by the end of the week, according to officials at Stromberg & Sons, the general contractor.

Historic Facade

While the historic facade of the Clark will remain intact, the interior will be redone in a "very contemporary, international modern style," according to Bernard Judge, head architect of the renovation project, a joint venture of Environmental Systems Group and L.T. Engineering Corp.

But while renovation of the first two floors is under way--construction plans were approved by the Community Redevelopment Agency in late June--May Wah has yet to tell the nearly 75 full-time Clark residents, many of them elderly, whether they must vacate if second-phase plans to refurbish all 11 floors are carried out.

Walking about what remains of the Clark lobby, much of it enclosed by scaffolding and filled with background demolition noises, building residents said Monday that conditions in the hotel have deteriorated to the point that they want to leave.

"Some of the old-timers here have gotten into a senior citizen home," said 12-year Clark resident and retiree Walter Parr, who added that he hopes to do the same.

Only eight years ago, the number of full-time residents was triple the current figure. But many of those people decided to leave after a much-celebrated victory in a major eviction court battle in 1979, Parr said.

The eviction fight began when former Clark owner JCG Financial Co. announced plans--similar to the Chinese government's--to restore the hotel to its former grandeur.

In recent years, the hotel has also been regularly booked by travel agencies for low-budget tour groups.

The Clark Hotel dates from a time when Los Angeles was coming of age as a city.

Big-City Status

Just before World War I, Eli P. Clark, a wealthy Southern California financier, decided that Los Angeles, taking on big-city status, needed a downtown hotel to match.

So Clark, also a founder of the Pacific Electric Railway, built one--and named it after himself. The hotel opened in 1914 and immediately became, as a writer characterized it, "the fashionable place to go in the center of town."

In the latest phase of the rich history of the white-brick building that once hosted visiting U.S. Presidents, May Wah officials say they hope to renovate the upper floors and create a first-class grand hotel for tourists and business people, Judge said.

May Wah managers have yet to start this second phase of the renovation, he added.

While May Wah is billing the renovations and creation of its showroom as a permanent national storefront for Chinese goods, city officials say they were not aware of that plan.

"It's just one event as I understand it," said Damon Lawrence, the mayor's consultant for international trade.

Relatively Quiet

He was surprised to learn of May Wah's intentions to set up a permanent market and said the Chinese have been relatively quiet about the project.

"I think a lot of people are confused about it," Lawrence said. "It's not clear what's going on."

Even CRA officials said that until they received plans from the architect and engineer two weeks ago, they too were unaware of the Clark project.

Officials at the Los Angeles Chinese Consulate also said they knew little about the project, other than that it was managed by a government-run company in Guangdong province, which includes the city of Canton and is just north of Hong Kong.

Clark project manager Ron Smart said the Chinese have kept a low-profile on the renovation because they are not familiar with American-style public relations.

"It's a very simplified operation," he said. "The people are not the big-business type. . . . They just want to get the job done."

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