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Cheng Rey Koo: China, Chinatown, and L.A. Is Love

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?

Today we hear from Cheng Rey Koo:

CHAPTER ONE

"I'm going to start by talking about my grandma, Jo Yee Chang, because she was the one who raised me. And, it was because of a series of historical events that led, two generations later, for me to arrive here.

"My grandma was born in 1918 -- she just had her 94th birthday. She was born just south of Shanghai in a small town called LueDzun.

"By the early 1940s, when she was 23, she gave birth to my dad, Richard Koo. The GuoMinDang were governing China already, while the Communist Party encroached.

"GuoMingDang was the government that conceded China to the Communists and later took over Taiwan and the quote-unquote 'Republic of China' was created.

"According to my Grandma, post-dynastical China was moving towards creating a republic, when another foreign entity came through and interrupted. That complex entity was foreign by philosophy, but Chinese by member. That was the Communist Party that later reorganized mainland China as the Peoples Republic of China (P.R.C.). As a result of that, my grandma would soon flee China.

"Her second husband -- my father's father, Dr. Koo -- had a private hospital in Shanghai. My grandma tells the story that when the Communists came through, it was like aliens taking over. She said her and Dr. Koo held their post for as long as they could. The hospital remained in the hands of our family up until one day when she went up to the front gates of the hospital and the gates were closed.

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"Usually, when she came, the guards opened the gates right away. But this time, they didn't. She said, 'What's going on?' They responded coldly, 'We need your identification.' The staff she knew for years no longer represented the hospital, they were now part of the government, the Communists. At this point, she realized China was no longer the China she knew.

"I think what happened was, her husband made a deal with the Communists. He gave up the hospital to the Party in the hope that it would permit them to stay and live somewhat peacefully. My Grandma was convinced that the Communist takeover would only be temporary. After all, she had experienced the failed take-over attempts by both the Japanese (Sino-Japanese War) and English (Opium Wars).

"Well that wasn't the case. Restrictions increased and hostility mounted. The hospital was now over-run by soldiers. She and my grandfather were no longer welcomed, not even for a visit.

"So she, her husband and their son (my father) left China and went to Taiwan. She felt like all hope was lost because they were going to this 'barbaric island' where people didn't wear shoes, where there were no floors and mosquitoes preyed everywhere. That's how she represented Taiwan.

"This was a great time of loss for my grandma; the loss of her home, lifestyle, comforts, dignity, family, friends and hope. The loss of the country she loved. The loss of a big part of her identity.

"The family stayed in Taiwan. Needless to say, the country developed and modernized quickly, yet my grandmother never felt completely settled there. This is where my father grew up and met my mother, who's father was an attorney who worked for the GuoMingDang government. This makes my mother an original "Republic of China" citizen, which led to occasional political jabs and outbursts between her and my dad (the "mainlander" as my mother used to point out). Years later, I was born, in Taipei.

"But before I came along, my father came out of university and had a couple of second languages -- French and some English. He was hired on by the U.N. office in Taipei and went into the finance department. His boss was a German named Newt Belser. Later on, Grandma Belser (his wife) became my surrogate grandma in the U.S.

"My dad has always been a little wild at heart. He's kind of a roaming pioneer type. In Taiwan, he loved his motorcycle and ankle boots and was into American stuff -- like Elvis and some Blues. So when he had the chance to come to California to work for the U.N., he jumped.

"I don't know what happened -- but very soon after he moved here, he no longer had that U.N. job. Or, maybe he worked a little there and it wasn't enough to pay the bills.

"He enrolled in Cal State San Jose and moonlighted as a janitor at some local soft porn theater. He arrived to the U.S. with $200 and had to immediately make money to support his wife and up-coming kid (me) back in Taiwan. He said he regularly ordered a glass of milk at the local diner just to empty out the cracker basket. He bought a rice cooker, rice, sugar and cinnamon. That was his favorite cheapie meal to share with his dorm buddies.

"At that point, my mother, Ruth Chiang, was already pregnant with me. She stayed in Taiwan and had me. I think I was barely three-months-old when she just took up and left for the U.S. to be with my dad. This was 1969. I was left with my grandma.

"My parents were a struggling young couple here, but my father was full of dreams and adventure. He convinced my mom, 'I've got a great job waiting for you.' She arrived to find her job as the box office girl at that seedy theater.

"A few years later, I came to America. First, it was a false start -- my father came and collected me when I was three. But it was way too overwhelming for my mom and dad. I was here for maybe a year, and then they are like, 'Oh god, send her back!'

"They weren't really ready to be parents. They were very absorbed in their own thing. They were in their mid 20s and my father was very ambitious and my mom just, well...

"After they sent me back, a couple of years later they collected me again. So I officially came in 1974, when I was five. We were living in Gilroy and my father was working as an accountant in an adjunct U.N. office in Watsonville.

"We stayed in Gilroy for a few years. We were poor and lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I remember my sister's crib was in the hallway. There was a makeshift area for me on the couch. Gilroy at that time had only one stoplight and it was hanging on a cable.


Rey Koo. Photo courtesy Rey KooCHAPTER TWO

"After a couple years we moved to San Jose. My father was working as a C.P.A. for Price Waterhouse. He really loved the perks at that job. He thought, 'This is the best American dream job that a man could have,' because that company did the tabulations for the Miss America and Miss Universe pageants.

"When I was about six, my mom and dad took my sis and me on an American road trip. For two months we traveled in our LTD across the country. We ate Skippy peanut butter sandwiches, car camped and saw different aspects of America. Going through the South, the East, the Midwest.

"Visiting Reservations, that was the best. My dad said that was as authentic to a true American that we'd ever see. Going across big plains and huge deserts. Going into small and remote Chinese communities on the railroad belt and eating crappy Chinese American food in these towns of a few thousand Chinese whose grandparents worked so hard on building our American West that they no longer remembered what it meant to eat traditional Chinese food. Everything was fried and lathered in sweet and sour sauce. Those were some of my first impressions of America.

"The trip was cut short when we rolled off the mountain in a blizzard in Vail, Colorado. My mom was airlifted by helicopter while my dad was rushed out by ambulance. A few months later, my grandma rush-immigrated to take care of my sister and me while my parents, who had recovered from the accident, built their careers.

"From San Jose we moved to Cerritos. My father decided to open up his own firm in L.A. That firm still exists today and it's right here in Chinatown.

"When Koo, Chow started, it was in the World Trade Center in Downtown L.A. But my dad felt it was important to move it to Chinatown. In the 80s Chinatown was kind of vibrant. Lots of businesses, the buildings were bright and Madame Wong's was happening. My dad planted a law and finance firm right there on the top of Hill Street, above the 1st Interstate Bank. He felt that would represent the future growth of Chinatown and bring money back into the community. He worked tirelessly on revitalization projects, fundraisers, city planning, school projects, international outreach and investments. But the underworld was also growing and soon the gangs ran out the nightlife and good times of Chinatown.

"By the 90s Chinatown was slipping fast -- which it still is. There have been many efforts to try and revive it but it's still falling apart. My dad's office is still there but most of the business they do is in the San Gabriel Valley or on the Westside. They do more business with China than with L.A.'s Chinatown because Chinatown remains depressed.

"From Cerritos, we moved to Diamond Bar. That was in my middle school years, around 1981. When I graduated high school I moved out and went to college at Claremont and ended up living out that way, in San Bernardino County.

"Then I came to live in Los Angeles -- for good -- two years after I graduated. I thought to myself, 'I'm not going to spend my quarter-century birthday in Ontario, in the middle of the burbs.' So I moved into mid-Wilshire, around the corner from the Wiltern Theater.

Rey Koo's grandmother and father, during the mid-1940s, from a Shanghai photo studio. Photo courtesy Cheng Rey Koo

CHAPTER THREE

"I still remember my first impression of the L.A. area. I was eleven or twelve years old. My dad had a good friend who lived in San Marino. For me as a kid, L.A. was a place for adults to have fun.

"It was cruise-y and it was swanky and people had a lot of pools. I always felt my sister and I were the only kids. The closest 'kids' were in their late teens and 20s.

"This friend of my dad's had three pools. He was always having parties. My dad and his friends would hang out in their swimsuits and have business meetings in the pool. And then there were Jacuzzis -- outdoor Jacuzzis, indoor Jacuzzis, bathroom Jacuzzis.

"Also, nice sunrooms where my mom and the ladies hung out, getting acupuncture treatments while chatting. I think this was the era that needle face lifts and acupuncture for insomnia became popular.

"I remember we'd visit another friend of my dad's, right outside of L.A. He had a hydroponic tomato farm and experimented with tomatoes. We called him the tomato scientist. And he had wild kids who had Sharpies and they were allowed to write and draw on the couches in the family room. That was another thing -- L.A. was kind of hippie to me. San Jose was suburban.

"And then there was the Bonaventure [Hotel], my sister and I spent a lot of weekends there as kids, during tax seasons, running back and forth on the sky bridge between that hotel and the World Trade Center while my mom, dad and the staffed worked. We rode the glass elevators, played at FAO Schwartz, jumped around on the orange bar lounge couches that peered down to the first floor. Some afternoons, my dad would take us up to the 'Top of Five' and I'd sneak sips of his 'Tweetie Bird' cocktail that was the size of a vase as we looked out to the sun setting on all of orange-hued, glass-paned, Downtown.

"Ever since, I've loved L.A. I love the landform, the rolling hills. I love that we have access to nature. I love taking the 2 Freeway and next you know, I'm up in Angeles Crest looking at sheer-faced rock. I love that I can go to Tujunga and be in a ranch-type setting.

"That we have areas where it's super laid back and areas where it's super superficial. I like being able to come out of my house in Echo Park and not feel that L.A. intensity. Be able to walk around in my sweats, go into the Echo, Taix or Maya's in the same grubbies without much guilt. I love seeing the students I once taught at King Middle School grow into their lives. Many still live in and give love to the neighborhood. A few visit during the holidays when they're not off to college.

"Echo Park is changing, it always has, but this moment is on speed dial. I want it to stay balanced, diverse and thriving. I want the core ethnic communities to stay, make and grow with the change. The Chinese, Chinese-Americans, Cambodians, Cambodian-Americans, Latinos, Chicanos, etc. have been an integral part of this community for a long time. For a while, we've held on and nurtured this part of town when it was less desirable. That should mean something. Well see.

Cheng Rey Koo's grandma (Jo Yee Chang), sister (Jean Koo), Cheng Rey Koo, her mom (Ruth Chiang) and her dad (Richard Koo). The family is standing outside of their house, then, in Diamond Bar, Calif. Photo courtesy Cheng Rey Koo

CHAPTER FOUR

"Our business [Raw Cane SuperJuice Bar, which Koo co-owns with partner Robby Whitelaw] is in East Hollywood and provides another interesting perspective.

"We're in the middle of Armenia Town and Thai Town. At five, six in the morning there's already a lot of action going on -- street business. Hustlers and women, pimps and shiny cars mixed in with the sleepy quiet of this neighborhood full of young artists, jazz musicians, new immigrants, tribal dance studios, Thai, Latino, Armenian cultures, etc.
In the parking lot where the shop is at, depending on what hour of the day, you'll see complete population changes -- including ethnicity, age group and reasons why they are there. Little has to do with any of the businesses in the center. We have our world, and the parking lot people have theirs.

"East Hollywood is this wonderful convergence of all different groups just doing our thing and being able to retain the core of our differences. Yet we're somehow doing it pretty nicely, side by side. And that's something that I love about just being able to see Hollywood change through these decades. In the late 90s I was living in Los Feliz and would walk from Los Feliz Boulevard into Hollywood on a Tuesday night.

"I loved that because it was gritty and deep. I'd watch 'Sleepy Hollow' for $2.50 at the Ivar, go to the bathroom and there'd be a pair of high heels in the stall next to me, losing footing, 'click,' 'click,' lighting that crack pipe.

"Yet in the daytime that same corner would transform, ready for fresh dreams and happy tourists. And then Saturday night, it would transform again, into fashion, hair, more drugs, parties and clubs.

Cheng Rey Koo in her self-described dad jeans, from the 1980s. Image courtesy Cheng Rey Koo

"That's what makes L.A. - it's so beautiful, it's so dirty, it's so fake, it's so real. L.A. is love and hate. Which in the end, is love. And now that same area has gentrified in a snap and undergone corporate revival planning. And that's crazy too.

"Then again, there are a few things I don't like about this place, things that could improve. The City could be a little more human, more conscious. But I guess that could take some the fun out of L.A. On second thought. It's also great and real when it's full of plastic. "

-- Rey Koo
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)


Top Photo: Cheng Rey Koo's sister, her cousin (Elena Liu), Cheng Rey Koo, and her grandma backstage at an L.A. theater just prior to curtain call. Rey says her other grandma (not performing here) along with the godmothers of both her sister and her, sing Chinese opera and that both of those godmothers were headliners in this opera. Rey and her sister and played the children in this story. Photo courtesy Cheng Rey Koo

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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