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Chinatown a living legacy

Times Staff Writer

Ron Louie has successfully designed high-end homes from Santa Monica to San Marino for four decades.

But at least once a week, the architect leaves his Pasadena home and heads to Chinatown in Los Angeles to run his family’s aging trinket store, K.G. Louie.

His brother Bill, a retired teacher, comes in three days a week to work the register. Brothers Hoover, an accountant, and Raymond, also a retired teacher, man the shop once a week, selling the usual figurines, bamboo umbrellas and silk slippers to wandering tourists.

Making a profit isn’t the point. They’re lucky to ring up $100 a day.

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Carrying on the store is an act of respect to the siblings’ father, Gar Fong Louie, and mother, Lee Shee Louie, who were among the original tenants of Central Plaza, the colorful center of Chinatown.

As “New Chinatown” marks its 70th anniversary today, those celebrating will include the so-called grandchildren -- the second- and third-generation Chinese American professionals like Ron Louie who no longer live in Chinatown but keep a finger there nonetheless.

“We all have our professions, but we want to keep the tradition alive,” said Louie, 69. “If it wasn’t for our parents’ sacrifice, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

The Louies opened their store in Central Plaza because the original Chinatown was razed for Union Station. Its founding families lived at a time when the Chinese were prevented from buying property, obtaining bank loans and securing desirable jobs.

It wasn’t until the next generation that Chinese began to find mainstream professional success.

Many fled Chinatown and moved to the modern Chinese community to the east, in the San Gabriel Valley.

Yet a handful of families, like the Louies, who were part of the neighborhood’s 1938 opening, still cling to the narrow pedestrian streets and pagoda-style buildings.

Many will be present tonight at a retro anniversary celebration meant to evoke the glamour days when Hollywood stars would descend on Chinatown.

Organizers will show historic photographs, a swing band will perform and one of Central Plaza’s more recent tenants will unveil newly installed neon lights along the roof lines of his three buildings -- an ornament that long distinguished Central Plaza until the lights fell into disrepair in the 1980s.

“We want to pay tribute to these original merchants,” said George Yu of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, which helped organize the event that’s open to the public. “I think they’d be proud to see what their children have become.”

New Chinatown was a popular tourist destination for decades after it opened, perhaps reaching its zenith in the 1970s during then-President Nixon’s trips to mainland China. But by the 1980s, the district was in decline, as the epicenter of L.A.'s Chinese community moved east to Monterey Park and vicinity. Merchants struggled as business dropped and crime increased.

But in recent years, Chinatown has rebounded with trendy new boutiques, restaurants, bars and galleries. A new generation of merchants -- many from Vietnam -- have also brought vigor to the district.

Some of the older establishments have seen an uptick in business while others continue to struggle.

Phoenix Bakery is more successful than ever -- settling into Los Angeles icon status to a loyal group of customers, much like its neighbor a few blocks east, Philippe’s.

In 1977 the Chans moved the bakery, originally tucked into a corner of Central Plaza, around the corner onto Broadway, where they sell their famed strawberry cream cakes and Sticky Sugar Butterflies from an aqua blue storefront with a logo of a robed boy carrying a cake box behind his back.

“The bakery is still an anchor for our family,” said Kellogg Chan, a retired banker and lawyer whose father opened the store. “We all come in and help out.”

Two cousins, one a biochemist, the other an engineer, work the bakery on weekends. The store is now managed by Chan’s younger brother, Kelly, and his son, Craig.

“I feel like downtown is on the way back,” said Craig Chan, 30. “We want to be part of the redevelopment of Chinatown. This is our legacy.”

Kellogg Chan, 68, said he was put to work in the bakery by his parents as a young boy. He learned to slice berries, clean pans and bake and ice the cakes.

It was a lesson in discipline and hard work that helped him later in life, he said.

“They stressed education,” he said of his parents. “The bakery taught me that success takes a lot of hard work. Why do I come back? Because this was the source. This paid for our educations and our homes.”

Sitting at one of the bakery’s round tables Thursday, Kelly Chan, 61, was more precise: “We’ve spent the last 20 years making more money than we know what to do with.”

While “the grandchildren” help out in some businesses, other Chinatown shops are still overseen by older generations.

Eileen Soo Hoo stood behind her glass counter selling jade necklaces and beaded bracelets at Phoenix Imports on a recent afternoon, much as she’s done every day since 1953, when she married into one of Central Plaza’s first families.

“I always say ‘one more year,’ but we never leave,” said Soo Hoo, who is originally from England and speaks with a noticeable accent.

“It’s a habit now,” she said. “So many others left. They grew tired of Chinatown. They had no childhood because they had to work. They don’t want to be tied to a business like this. My kids always ask me why I stay here.”

But Soo Hoo can’t imagine leaving.

She is so tied to the store that she asked a passing organizer how much of a distraction today’s celebrations would be for her business. She said she’d rather look after the store than go outside to join the festivities.

Ron Louie said he invited more than 80 family members to the celebration. He doesn’t expect the youngest to show. Some of them haven’t ever seen the store.

He sometimes worries that history will be lost. In the last four years, three of Chinatown’s mainstays have died: Roger Hong, the son of a pioneering Chinese American lawyer; Gim Fong of Fong’s Oriental Works of Art; and John Chin of Sincere Imports.

But Louie doesn’t think the family will ever lose the shop.

“Someone will take over,” he said. “It’s too unique to give up. I’ll force my daughter. There’s enough of us to find someone.”

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david.pierson@latimes.com


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