Historic Monuments of Ethnic L.A?

PART 1 - CHINATOWN

Los Angeles is the quintessential 21st Century, multi-ethnic metropolis. 52 to 56% of the county's population is of Mexican and Central American descent, the San Gabriel Valley is home to one of the fastest growing Chinese and ethnic Chinese populations in the nation, first and second-generation Koreans have made Los Angeles their second Seoul and Middle Eastern immigrants from Lebanon, Pakistan and Iraq have created their own "Little Arabia" not far from Disneyland.

There's no doubt that Los Angeles' complex ethnic mix reflects global social changes and migrations, but this is nothing new to our city. In his influential book, The Los Angeles Plaza, Historian William Estrada traces the city's multi-ethnic status from indigenous and colonial times to present-day Los Angeles, weaving together a common narrative based on personal stories, news clipping and diaries about the heart of Los Angeles. According to Estrada, Los Angeles was a multi-ethnic city from its inception, with Native-Americans or Gabrieliños, Spaniards, Mexicans, Chinese, Anglos and Africans negotiating and defining the meaning of the city.

Through this lens of common recognition, Departures has gone about exploring Los Angeles, weaving together "official" and personal stories that celebrate, uncover and remember our shared history. It's no surprise then that when we visit places rich with myths and forgotten histories we encounter issues that highlight ongoing - sometimes fraught - efforts telling true stories of culture, history and race in Los Angeles.

Chinatown is a great example of how difficult it can be to uncover these histories. It took almost three decades of dedicated efforts by community leaders to open the doors of the Chinese American Museum in 2003 and "officially" tell the story of the first wave of Chinese Immigrants to Los Angeles and the destruction of Old Chinatown for the construction of Union Station. While many people knew of this history, there had been no formal "above ground" recognitions by the city.

Mason Fong of Fong's Antiques

This tension between official and informal monuments can be found throughout Chinatown. Early Chinese entrepreneur Fong See, immortalized by Lisa See in her family memoir On Gold Mountain, built a family empire around businesses such as F. Suie One Co. and Fong's Antique Shop. One simply needs to walk into one of these establishments - two of them are in Chung King Road - to step into a living piece of Los Angeles history. Yet because these are private businesses, many such informal monuments are threatened with closure and erasure.

As part of the Chinatown Departures, I spoke with Leslee Leong, great granddaughter of the late Fong See and Mason Fong, cousin of Leslee, to discuss how these "unofficial" places of Los Angeles history should be maintained, preserved and celebrated as monuments of our common narrative.

PART 2 - THE WATTS TOWERS

Starting Oct. 22 an international discussion around some of these issues will kick off with a focus on the Watts Towers. As part of the Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative Seth Strongin, Policy and Research Manager at The City Project, conducted a series of interviews with N.J. "Bud" Goldstone - Watts Tower advocate and engineer - about the imminent danger facing the iconic south Los Angeles historical monument today.

The City Project, whose mission is to help shape public policy around issues of social and environmental and public equity with emphasis on communities of color, has taken the lead around building public awareness on this issue.

In his interviews with The City Project (see below) "Bud" Goldstone urges the city to turn the towers over to a private arts related entity that has the capability and expertise to maintain and preserve them.

 

 

Simon Rodia, the Towers' master architect and builder, gave the property away in 1955 and it changed hands repeatedly until it was deeded to the city in 1975 and become a historical landmark. But this "official" recognition was no guarantee of safety and support. After years of official neglect, the community had to take legal action to preserve them.

 



 


Today the towers are once again being threatened. Without a radical new approach to maintaining and preserving, the towers could go the way of many other lost monuments of Los Angeles' ethnic history.

 

 

Ironically, as Bud" Goldstone suggests, taking the towers away from the city might be the only way to save them.

About the Author

Juan Devis is a Public Media artist and producer, whose work crosses across platforms – video, film, interactive media and gaming. His work, regardless of the medium is often produced collaboratively allowing for a greater exchange of ideas in the produ
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Hi, this Mason Fong, owner of Fong's Antique Shop on Chungking Road. Last week, my landlord told me that he will be putting the building which houses my shop on the market. This had happened before a few years ago, but he was unable to get his price. This time the price has been lowered considerably and within my reach.
Since I have no savings and own no property, I will not qualify for any kind of loan for the down payment in the $300,000 range. But funds are available from my father's estate, which are controlled by myself and my five brothers. We had a meeting
yesterday to discuss the pros and cons of buying this property to enable me to maintain the shop, which has been in the Fong family since 1952. I went into the meeting expecting opposition to the purchase, since it would require using a major portion of
the estate which will be inherited by all of us with the passing of my father, who will be 97 years old. In addition, the five years I have managed the shop, we have seen little profit. I assumed that I would need to forcefully present my case. After
discussing the potential of profitability, the feasibility of a loan, and alternatives such as finding a new location and just closing shop and moving on, I was essentially given the power to decide. Then to my surprise, I had second thoughts.

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Hi Mason,

The coincidence of publishing this article and the circumstances that you and your family business are going through are completely uncanny. Although sad, it illustrates precisely what we where trying to surface in our article.

What is the legacy of places like Fong's? Should they be preserved?

I know, through our interviews, that you took it upon yourself to keep the store and its history alive.... but now that it may close, you seem to have second thoughts? Why?

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For those reading this exchange, as part of the Chinatown series we also had the chance to interview artist and curator Steve Wong who still owns Mason's Antique Shop.

In his interview Wong speaks about the dangers of gentrification and the contradictions that arise when you are a property owner of a building that has such historical significance to the community. Wong further explains that he "made a promise to the Fong family that they would let them stay there as long as they wished...." Take a look.

Of course the market has changed and now Steve Wong, as is Mason, are having second thoughts (and needs) about preserving the building.

In a spirit of conversation (less that controversy) I have reached out to Steve and Mason in hope of having a dialogue that may inform the public about these issues.

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Before I answer your question, I want to point out that the landlord,
Steve Wong, has always been sensitive to the significance of the shop. When my uncle, Gim Fong, the previous owner of the shop, suddenly passed away five years ago, Steve supported our purchase of the business by continuing to rent to us at a rate below market value, despite plans that he had of his own for the space should Gim's wife, Shirley, decide to close the shop. And before placing the property on the market, he has always given me priority in purchasing it and is willing to do whatever he can to make that happen.

In response to your question, there are a number of reasons why I have second thoughts about acquiring the building. One, is that the money available to make a purchase belongs to my five brothers as well as myself and would be tied up in this property indefinitely.

Another reason is economic as well. How long do I want to stay with a business that is barely making a profit? If I haven't succeeded in making this a viable business venture by now, how long do I intend to continue? Is it enough to have the satisfaction of continuing the legacy of a family business that has evolved from my grandfather's original business in China City in the '40's?
When I enter my shop each day, I am surrounded by artifacts created by my grandfather's own hands, two giant fish and an owl, created from strips of bamboo and rattan, skinned with silk and details painted on the surface with his own hand. In a glass case, a lifetime of work by my uncle Gim, compressed into a dozen or so exquisitely detailed cloisonne and plique-a-jour pieces of art, made from wire twisted into delicate images of dragons, flowers and abstract designs, filled with melted enamel colors. Hanging from the ceiling, 20 foot bamboos, woven into a grid structure that has held up for over 50 years, designed and crafted by my uncle and his brothers. These are only the most obvious artifacts of the family. Everything in the shop has been created or modified by Gim or someone in the family. The basement is filled with objects that tell me something about my uncles and aunt. Uncle number four, Ming Haw came down to the basement one day and said, "I built that table!" And my aunt Choey Lon told me that she chose the lettering style of our sign back in '52 and it was her idea to paint it red and hang it perpendicular to the front wall. It has been photographed by countless admirers and has appeared in movies including "Blade Runner" and is seen every evening during the opening sequence of the Craig Ferguson Late Late Show. Rummaging around in the basement one evening, I came accross a box containing his personal collection of beautiful old fountain pens. I know these were prized by him, and chosen for the collection by a person with great sensitivity to the meaning of objects reflecting a moment in time revealing a way of thinking and a way of life that is gone, that can teach us values that we have lost.

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Hi Mason - have you decided if you are going to keep the shop or not? If the answer is no, then, where are all those objects, memories and artifacts going to go?
We would like to do something with you to celebrate each one of them in a special way - perhaps a slideshow with a narration or something of the sort? Let me know if you are interested and we will make it happen....

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Hi Juan - Yes, I've decided against trying to buy the building in order to keep the shop open. It was a purely financial decision concluding that the mortgage payments would be too much for the shop to generate. Even if the building could not find a buyer, I realized that I could not continue doing business for much longer
at the rent I was paying, so I am considering moving the shop to a location with lower rent. The problem resulting from that decision is the cost of moving and trying to recreate an environment with the charm of the current location. Regarding the artifacts from the shop which are most meaningful to me, and which I think are defining elements of the shop and the people who created and maintained it's existence, I would start with the fish and owl kites made by my grandfather. Next would be the miniature model of my uncle Gim's fantasy shop. Then the Fong's neon sign, which was the first inspired collaboration between my aunt Choey Lon and her brothers. Another creative inspiration of aunt Choey's was the bamboo ceiling structure, which enables the hanging display of products, giving the shop it's tremendous visual impact.
Also important is the portrait of my grandparents above the loft, and the sign bearing my grandfather's name, Fong Yun. The cloisonne and plique-a-jour pieces made by Gim are also important. One important artifact which I have never displayed, but was an important part of the shop's history, is the full sized rickshaw which has been in the basement unassembled. Gim had wheeled it out to display in front of the shop each day for years.
I'm sure I can think of more, but this is what has come to my mind at the moment. I think a slide show would be real nice. Thank you for offering that.
Mason