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Heart of Chinatown

Times Staff Writer

He cried here once before, when he was 13 years old and suddenly far from his mother in China. Sixty-six years later, tears come again to the eyes of Albert Lew.

His mother was Chinese, and he was American. Born in Los Angeles, Lew at age 5 moved to China with his parents during the Depression. Then, in May 1937, three years after his father died, Lew’s mother said it was time for her son to return to his country of birth.

“You belong over there,” she said. “You don’t belong in China.” She gave him two American quarters and he boarded a ship in Hong Kong.

He came here, to the Garnier Building, which housed Sun Wing Wo (New Everlasting Harmony), a general store in the original Chinatown area of downtown Los Angeles. The business was owned by his granduncles, who provided him with a job and sleeping quarters upon his arrival.

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Today, it reopens as home to the Chinese American Museum, developed and operated by Friends of the Chinese American Museum and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, a department of the city.

The $2-million project, conceived in 1984, has culminated in a collection of more than 4,500 artifacts and 3,000 images discovered in boxes and at yard sales -- some were unearthed from excavation sites, others salvaged from buildings that were being demolished. Many were donated by other organizations or families that came here generations ago.

Among the exhibits is a re-creation of Sun Wing Wo, including an old clock high on the wall. Among Lew’s duties when he lived and worked here was to climb up and wind the clock.

In his childhood, Sun Wing Wo was more than a store. It was a mail center with a letter writer to help people communicate with loved ones in China. The store served as a link between Los Angeles and China, the beginning of new lives.

The Garnier Building today is the only remaining building from the original Chinatown. Built in 1890 by businessman Philippe Garnier, it contained businesses and organizations and served as a community hub for Los Angeles residents of Chinese ancestry.

It is part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, where the Olvera Street marketplace is located. In the mid-1900s, the building was closed as construction of Union Station and the Hollywood Freeway displaced the Chinatown community to its current location.

Lew is 79 years old now, retired from the city’s Department of Water and Power, where he worked as a carpenter. Behind the store is the re-creation of a tiny room, like the one he slept in on the second floor of the building.

Suellen CHENG stands outside the museum entrance watching its name being installed in bright gold letters against the building’s red brick facade. “This means so much,” she says. Executive director and curator of the museum, Cheng has spent decades working toward this moment.

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She was here the day in 1984 when it was mentioned during a walking tour of the area that there should be a reminder here of the old Chinatown.

The museum, she says, will speak not only to the past. Included in its opening exhibitions is an installation piece by contemporary artist Steven Wong, who, through the use of postcards, presents a range of written impressions about Chinatown, what it means and how it is remembered from different perspectives.

There also will be a retrospective featuring the work of Tyrus Wong, 93, considered one of the most influential Chinese American artists. Wong, who created many of the landscapes that served as backdrops for the animated film “Bambi,” continues to work designing kites.

The exhibitions speak to the diversity of the Chinese American community, says Sonia Mak, assistant curator. “We have tried to determine what strategies we can use to wrap our arms around the community,” she says.

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Among the artifacts are musical instruments, furniture and other items from historic businesses in the community. The oldest artifact is believed to be a cotton worker’s jacket from the 1890s.

The 7,200-square-foot museum includes some of the original bricks and wooden floor planks, which have been refinished and reinstalled.

“Family associations would gather here to eat, to talk about how they could fight immigration laws, petition, raise funds for World War II efforts. Things were happening all the time,” says Cheng. “Because this is such a historical building, I always feel that people are watching us.”

For Albert Lew, who lives with his wife, Margaret, in Alhambra, the museum once again marks a return home. “My life has made a complete circle,” he says. “I was born here, went to China. I went through the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] and the military. I lived in San Francisco, and now I have come back to this very spot.” His mother died about six years after he returned to Los Angeles, he says, while he was serving in the Navy.

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His story is part of the history of Chinese Americans and Los Angeles. In the re-creation of the living quarters behind Sun Wing Wo, in a display case made from an old wooden crate, there is a faded identification card showing the black-and-white photograph of Lew at age 13. The picture is as old as his tears and as old as the joy he found in America.

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Chinese American Museum

Where: 425 N. Los Angeles St., El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument

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When: Ribbon-cutting ceremony today, 11 a.m. Hours: Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Cost: Admission free today through Sunday; regular prices are $3; $2 for seniors and students with identification; free to museum members.

Info: (213) 626-5240 or www.camla.org.


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