Gratitude in the City of Angels

Thien Hau Temple in Chinatown | Photo: Terrell Woods/Flickr/Creative Commons

In light of extreme weather conditions and nonstop political turmoil, there's no doubt 2014 has been a particularly tumultuous year. Nonetheless, across Los Angeles and Southern California there are still many groups working together to keep the faith and make things better. This week L.A. Letters celebrates these people and expresses gratitude for all they do to improve the future of Southern California. In spite of the contradictions alive in this time, it is important to be grateful for those aspiring to do right.


On many occasions in this column I have extolled the Los Angeles arts and literary community; I am very thankful for their efforts to raise the spirit of the city. Week after week different events, readings, and art shows all across Southern California are organized to inspire and uplift.

One particularly moving event took place last weekend at the Avenue 50 Studio. On Sunday November 23 a group of 18 poets gathered together in Highland Park at Avenue 50 to honor James Foley, the American journalist who was beheaded by ISIS in August after he had gone missing in Syria in 2012. The poet, teacher, and author from Tia Chucha Press, Luivette Resto had attended graduate school with Foley a decade ago in Massachusetts. Resto told me, "This is not about politics, it's about honoring an old friend that did not deserve what happened to him."

By all accounts Foley was a courageous teacher, writer, brother and friend. Resto wanted to make the event a ceremony to celebrate his life and pay tribute to him. She spoke with the poet and activist Karineh Mahdessian, and they invited a collection of some of the city's most thoughtful writers to honor Foley. These voices included Dennis Cruz, S.A. Griffin, Billy Burgos, Annette Cruz, Yago S. Cura, Millicent Accardi, Matt Vibes, Ángel García, Ashaki M. Jackson, Conney Williams, Ryan Nance, Rebecca Gonzales, Gloria Enedina Alvarez, Daniel Sosa, Iris De Anda, and William Gonzalez. Each poet honored Foley and read a poem for the occasion. Though many tears were shed, Foley's life was honored and remembered by the poet's powerful display of hope and faith.


There is a temple in Chinatown where gratitude is one of the central tenets of the space. The Thien Hau Temple on Yale, just west of Hill Street, is a Taoist temple run and operated by the Camau Association of America, a local benevolent, cultural and religious association primarily associated with local Vietnamese refugees from the Camau Province of Vietnam. The temple has 11 altars inside, and the 10th altar is dedicated to gratitude and remembering one's ancestors. Each altar has a sign in four languages: Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese and English.

Many people visit the temple when they are mourning, going through a difficult time, or when they want to remember their ancestors. Michael Le Tigre, also known as Michael Tiger, is a Trinidad-born writer and local intellectual closely affiliated with the temple. Over the last few years he has emerged as an ambassador, liaison, and tour guide for the temple. He was recently profiled in the L.A. Weekly for his work there and his magnanimous personality.

Tiger recently told me the temple's background history and why gratitude is so revered there. "Thien Hau is the Vietnamese version of the Chinese Imperial title conferred to the South Seas Goddess, originating in Fujian for the Chinese diaspora. Mazu or 'Mama' is her affectionate name. The Temple in Los Angeles' Chinatown was funded and built by Chinese 'boat people' refugees, who are truly grateful for her protection and guidance to survive shark-infested and pirates-controlled waters between South Vietnam and Thailand. That spirit and feeling of love and gratitude is felt the instant one enters our Temple."

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Tiger also told me, "While I do not pretend to know the full reason the Vietnamese-Chinese family elders from Camau chose and trusted me to represent them to the English speaking world as a Thien Hau Temple docent/tour guide, I have an attitude of gratitude fulfilling their need. I have been a member of the family now almost eight years, five of those as welcoming ambassador to Temple visitors."

As much as the space is home to many Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese worshippers, a diverse body of people from all across Southern California come to the temple to give thanks for the past year by burning incense and offering items like flowers and fruit at the respective altars. The temple is especially festive around the end of the year and before and after Chinese New Year.

The operators of the space like to keep it open to all, and they do not discriminate; most of all they just want people to visit the temple. I was recently there and saw not only local members but diverse Angelenos and some visitors that even looked like international tourists. "I am thrilled with gratitude to know East Europeans such as Ukrainians, Russians, Kazakhs, Czechs who may be nominal Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, or atheist/agnostic, yet feel comfortable absorbing the Temple's aesthetics which are the stunningly beautiful exterior expression of the deeper esoteric intention," says Tiger. He also tells me that "Latins, Mexicans, Argentinians, Colombians, Spanish, Cubans and Brazilians," continue to visit. The Thien Hau Temple is a sacred space in Chinatown where gratitude reigns supreme.


There are too many people and organizations to list them all, but here are a few key groups I am thankful for and would like to salute for their efforts: all of my colleagues at KCET Departures, especially Juan Devis, Justin Cram, and my editor Yosuke Kitazawa; my students at Southwest College, Woodbury University, the Stella Adler Theater, and St. Bernard's High School; Writ Large Press, the Museum of Neon Art, the Museum of Architecture and Design, Statement Magazine at Cal State L.A., Los Angeles Walks, Read on Till Morning, the Friends of the L.A. River, the Rissho Kosei-kai temple in Boyle Heights, Heyday Books, Angel City Press, and Tia Chucha Books.

Also a special tribute is in order to Allan Kornblum, the founder of Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, who passed away last week. Coffee House Press began in 1984 and for the last 30 years they have been one of the most progressive independent publishers in America. Kornblum has been a huge advocate for literary America and will be deeply missed.

I am thankful to all of the above mentioned emissaries. Salute to James Foley, the poets remembering him, Michael Tiger, the Thien Hau Temple, and all of the above-mentioned people and spaces. In spite of the chaos around us, there many things to be thankful for in the landscape of L.A. Letters. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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