At the slaughterhouse in Rosemead, patrons can grab a fresh chicken with head and feet intact, still slightly warm after its recent dance with death.
For the mostly immigrant clientele, the appeal of Chinese American Live Poultry is its farm-fresh stock of whole birds, as many Asian Americans believe a bird in its entirety represents family unity. During the week the slaughterhouse bustles, and when the Lunar New Year approaches, the line snakes out the door and down Garvey Avenue.
But neighbors have complained about the business for years, saying an unbearable odor similar to rotting garbage wafts into their homes and businesses. One shopkeeper said he added a second door to his building in an effort to block the gamy smell.
Earlier this month, the Rosemead Planning Commission voted to give the slaughterhouse one year to shut down, citing the complaints and multiple code violations.
The shabby gray building sits among auto shops, eateries and warehouses on the east side of a city that touts itself as today’s small-town America -- traditional yet increasingly diverse.
Owners Quan and Dana Phu say they’re being targeted by officials looking for reasons to oust the business they established in 1991, a full decade before the city banned any new slaughterhouses from opening.
“I just feel like they’re picking on us,” said Dana Phu, 39. “They don’t understand our culture, our need and our people in the community. We try to work with the city and are very cooperative. As far as the smell, we tried to address that, but the city won’t let us make any improvements.”
The Phus opened the slaughterhouse after years of trekking to Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles to pick up just-plucked whole chickens for special occasions. Pooling relatives’ savings and money borrowed from friends, the couple opened the shop on one of Rosemead’s main thoroughfares.
With little fanfare, the Phus grew their clientele, dominated by first- and second-generation Asian and Latino immigrants. Many of their patrons also purchase the store’s incense and joss paper to be burned during traditional ancestor worship ceremonies.
“We look for a perfect chicken for the family meal and to pray to our ancestors,” explained Dana Phu, who was born in Vietnam but is ethnically Chinese.
These days, hundreds of customers walk into the slaughterhouse every day to order ducks, hens, geese, quail and the coveted Vikon chicken -- a brown-feathered breed deemed in many Vietnamese and Chinese homes to be the healthiest and tastiest variety.
“We have to pray, and we expect to have the whole head and everything,” customer Winnie Lieu, 31, said one afternoon after purchasing a chicken for her mother to cook that evening. Lieu wouldn’t have dared to pick up poultry anywhere else. “The ones at the market are frozen first,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
A few minutes later, longtime patron Christine Luu stopped to pick up a Vikon for the dinner soup. The stay-at-home mother who frequents Chinese American Live Poultry several times a week says mainstream grocery stores just can’t compete with the quality of the slaughterhouse.
“It does get smelly,” Luu, 35, said of the store. “Of course, that’s normal.”
But neighbors say the odor that creeps into their businesses and homes is far from normal.
“It smells like a dead rat, especially when it’s hot,” said Chur Wang, manager of a swimwear manufacturing company across the street. “When the wind’s blowing this way, nobody can stand it.” Wang, 60, said he installed a second door in his entryway four years ago to act as a buffer from the stench.
Adolfo Ponce, who lives just north of the slaughterhouse, says that when he goes running in the neighborhood, he finds himself holding his breath.
“You literally have to close your nasal passages,” he said. Still, Ponce, 51, always passes by the building to take note of any code violations, which he feels the city has yet to take seriously.
At the last Planning Commission meeting, vice chair William Alarcon said it was time to “play hardball” with the slaughterhouse, which has been written up numerous times for violations that range from washing chicken waste down a storm drain to unauthorized signage.
“It’s kind of an antiquated business that came before, when the city was young, and before we tried to clean up the place,” Alarcon said later.
Some say the fate of Chinese American Live Poultry has become a matter of politics. In November 2008, the Planning Commission voted 5 to 0 to permit the slaughterhouse to add a filtration system to combat the odor. The recommendation passed 3 to 2 at the next City Council meeting, but some council members later revealed they had unwittingly taken campaign contributions from the slaughterhouse’s owners. The subsequent city elections changed the face of the council, and support for the business evaporated.
“It was an election year, and [Mayor] Margaret Clark sent out postcards to try and drum up opposition to the slaughterhouse,” said Todd Kunioka, who was on the Planning Commission in 2008. “It was just people looking for campaign issues, trying to attack the incumbents.”
Kunioka also said some of the opposition to the business stems from the city’s changing demographics; the Asian population in the town of 60,000 has risen to nearly 50% in the last two decades.
“It wasn’t that long ago when it was a traditional bedroom community with white people, and I think there are a lot of people who don’t like the changes in the city,” he said.
Clark, whose postcards about the slaughterhouse made reference to Avian flu, said she takes offense to the suggestion that her stance has anything to do with race.
“It’s a matter of code enforcement,” she said. “It’s a matter of taking care of the residents that live around there that have had to suffer for years.”
The council will decide the fate of the slaughterhouse in January. Meanwhile, the city has hired a consultant to scout other cities that might have a suitable spot for a slaughterhouse, said Director of Community Development Brian Saeki.
Nancy Eng, the only current planning commissioner to speak in favor of the slaughterhouse, said she hopes council members recognize that Rosemead has a responsibility to work with its businesses. She abstained from the commission’s recent vote.
“You don’t just shut somebody down, especially if somebody’s been there for that long,” she said. “I still feel that the code issues can be remedied, and both sides just have to talk and work out something where the business can still serve their customers. It’s a family-owned business and they put a lot of time and sweat into it.”
The Phus, who employ 15 people, say they have addressed each violation and continue to be under the city’s microscope.
“I’m hoping the city will do the right thing and see the kind of service we are providing for the community,” Dana Phu said. “A slaughterhouse sounds funny, but it’s very comforting for a lot of our people. It’s a place where they can go and it feels like home.”