Lem Quon, the 81-year-old owner of the Formosa Cafe, is talking old times.
* The time Elvis Presley paid a bar tab with a check that Quon was tempted to keep as a souvenir.
* The time Howard Hughes borrowed $20 to settle a debt with a drinking buddy.
* The time when Bono, lead singer of the rock group U2, phoned Quon and said: “Lem, we’ve got to save the Formosa.”
If there’s one thing Quon and the Formosa have, it’s friends--stars, politicians and hipsters who are fighting to keep the venerable Hollywood landmark from being flattened by Warner Bros. Hollywood Studios to make way for a parking structure.
Warner Bros. owns the land and the building, but the contents, which include crates of Hollywood memorabilia, belong to Quon, as does the 1902 red trolley car that doubles as the restaurant’s Star Dining Room.
Back in February when Warner Bros. announced its expansion plans, cafe regulars united as the “Friends of the Formosa.” They protested, garnered more than 2,000 signatures on petitions and asked the city of West Hollywood to declare the restaurant a cultural and historical landmark, which would save it from a wrecking ball.
Wednesday night, the city’s Cultural Heritage Advisory Board voted unanimously to do just that. The board’s recommendation will be reviewed by the city’s Planning Commission, which will make its own recommendation to the City Council, which will make the final decision.
Meanwhile, the studio has extended Formosa’s lease until the end of May. Studio executives also have hired a preservation specialist to examine the site and identify other structures on the lot with historical and cultural significance.
For now, says Quon: “This is still my Formosa, so I’ll keep coming.”
Like clockwork, Monday through Saturday, Quon drives his 1987 Cadillac from his Silver Lake home--where he tends to a garden, sits by a pond filled with exotic goldfish and co-exists with a pit bull named Sam and a chow named Chow--to “my home away from home” on Santa Monica Boulevard. He usually starts his 5 to 11 p.m. shift with a cup of coffee and bite to eat “because there’s no kitchen in my house. I’ve been a cook for so long, I don’t want to cook no more,” he says.
He then quietly sinks into his corner booth, which was once Ava Gardner’s favorite banquette. He spends his evenings sipping coffee--"I quit drinking three years ago and gave up smoking 24 years before that,” he says--listening to a TV above the bar, shaking hands with guests and pointing a flashlight to a star’s publicity photos when asked if Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Pearl Bailey or Ava Gardner really dined there.
Of course, the Hollywood celebrities did more than eat dinner.
Lana Turner danced in the aisles. Clark Gable handed out lousy tips. And Pearl Bailey belted out a torch song or two. As for Ava Gardner--well, just mention her name and Quon melts like a teen-ager in love.
“She used to sit right there,” he recalls, pointing to a spot across the booth. Directly above is a photograph of the glamorous Gardner.
“She was a beautiful lady. We would talk and share stories. She was a good friend. She took care of her sick sister, you know,” he says.
And the hangout that serves up Cantonese cuisine amid a gallery of close to 1,000 glossies still has that star attraction.
Members of a younger Hollywood crowd--Christian Slater, Johnny Depp and the Guns ‘N Roses posse among them--drop in from time to time. They and scores of other actors, musicians, producers and writers have filled three scrapbooks with autographs and photos.
Quon’s first scrapbook, which is locked away for safekeeping, includes greetings from Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Clark Gable and other Hollywood heavyweights.
The cafe also attracts the starry-eyed--and regular folk are just as welcome to sit at the Formosa’s primo booth: Marilyn’s, of course. Above the booth is a glass case of Elvis Presley porcelain figurines given to Quon by Col. Tom Parker, Presley’s manager.
Born in Hong Kong on Jan. 15, 1910, Quon was 12 when he emigrated to the United States on a cargo ship with a 70-year-old friend of his father. The journey to the port of San Francisco, with a small bag of belongings, took 36 days. His father, Ton Quon, and mother, Woo Shee, had emigrated years earlier with an older son and were waiting for Quon in Los Angeles.
“That was so long ago,” Quon says. “I was scared and excited about coming to America. But believe me, I never once thought I would end up talking to movie stars or having a place like the Formosa. You know what I mean?” he asks with a laugh.
As a young boy, Quon and his siblings--including another brother and two sisters born in Los Angeles--helped his father operate Tuewfar Lowe, one of a handful of Chinese restaurants in the city.
“My father did it all. He washed dishes and cooked. He was a hard worker, an all-around man. He’d bring home about $60 a month and the workers got paid a dollar a day,” Quon recalls. Quon married at 17 and had a son, Jimmy Quon, now 55 and an architect for the city of Los Angeles.
During World War II, Quon joined the Army and worked in a mess hall. “When they found out I was a pretty good cook, that’s what I did,” he says. After his Army stint, he returned to his family in Los Angeles and got a job as a cook at the Shanghai-Gin, a Chinese-American restaurant. But the job didn’t last long: The restaurant’s lease expired soon after he arrived.
Enter the Formosa Cafe.
Former prizefighter Jimmy Bernstein was operating the cafe when he hired Quon to head his kitchen. Bernstein had purchased and renovated the red trolley car in 1925 for use as a luncheon counter called The Red Post. A few years later, he added the main dining room, bar and kitchen and changed the name to the Formosa Cafe.
Back then, Quon says, the Formosa was a “favorite hangout of boxers--Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey--promoters, bookies, even some gangsters.” And because of the cafe’s location across the street from United Artists, it also became a popular watering hole and luncheonette for movie stars. Bacall, Bogart, Ball. They all came to the Formosa.
In 1945, Quon became Bernstein’s partner.
“I ran the kitchen and he ran the front,” Quon says. “When Jimmy died 15 years ago, I became the sole owner.” Quon had remarried by then--his first wife died of cancer in 1955, as did his second wife in the early 1980s. His stepson, William Jung--one of four stepchildren from his second marriage--is now a partner.
“But I’m still in control,” Quon says, adding: “Well, except for the land we sit on. I don’t control that. The big movie studio controls that.”
But Quon has no regrets.
He’s looking around for other sites for the Formosa if necessary. He says even if the cafe is declared a historic landmark by the West Hollywood City Council, Warner’s could ask him to leave and simply leave the building vacant.
If that happens, he says, he’ll strip the walls, pack up his mini-museum of Hollywood kitsch, unplug the Oriental lamps, yank out the red leatherette booths, remove the padded green leather doors and start fresh elsewhere.
But he hopes that won’t happen. He wants to stay where he has been a permanent fixture for almost half a century.
“I never look down on people,” Quon says while turning his head toward the bar where a crowd is watching the Oscar telecast. “Here at the Formosa, we always make small people feel like big stars. We are all the same.”
Quon slowly slides out of his booth and walks over to the bar, his eyes fixed on the TV screen. Gregory Peck is standing next to Sophia Loren. Quon chuckles to himself, and then--to no one in particular--says out loud: “He’s been in here, Gregory Peck.”
They’ve all been here.