How to Own a Home (if You're a Chinese Immigrant)

Choy Residence_Top.jpg

At the turn of the 20th century, and only until the passing of the Immigration Act of 1965, Chinese-Americans - as did most ethnic minorities in Los Angeles - did not own any property.

The idea of displacing Chinatown to create what is now Union Station began to percolate in the minds of civic leaders in Los Angeles as early as 1912, due in part to its proximity to downtown and the river as well as to the hubs of rail companies. What sealed the deal however, was the fact that the residents of Old Chinatown did not own a single acre of land.

Twenty years later in 1938, discriminatory property rights laws, such as the California Alien Land Law of 1913, along with eminent domain forced many Chinese immigrants and business owners to surrender their property and relocate.

What came after was perhaps one of the most intriguing legal maneuvers put in place by any immigrant group in Los Angeles at the time.

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Under the vision and direction of Peter SooHoo, a relocation plan that circumvented these discriminatory property rights laws began to take shape. He and other wealthy merchants retained a lawyer to help them articulate a business plan for the creation of a new Chinatown, and developed a corporation that allowed them to own the land collectively.

New Chinatown | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
New Chinatown | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Once the business plan was in place Chinese-American civic leaders began to work on the specifics. At the center of this urban renewal was the plan to create a commercial hub, recreating the "idyllic charm of Old China" to attract tourists and Angelinos alike. As Christine Sterling had done with Olvera Street, SooHoo and the corporation hired two Anglo architects to design the look and feel of the main plaza and sell the idea of "exotic orientalism" to the larger L.A population. Mixed-use dwellings, with businesses on the first floor and homes on the second floor (think Chung King Road), provided housing to some displaced residents, but not many.

New Chinatown was an immediate success because it was planned and executed from inception as a brilliant business proposition and a media campaign. But did it really provide the necessary social and public services for a dislocated community? And did it reflect the growing aspirations of a first generation of Chinese-Americans to be seen and treated equally as Americans?

A subtle but incredibly poignant exhibition at the Chinese-American Museum (part of the PST cycle) - Breaking Ground: Chinese-American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) curated by Steve Wong - puts many of these issues into perspective.

Cathay Bank, designed by Eugene Choy |<br /> Photo by Dan Kaufman / Studio Kaufman used with permission
Cathay Bank, designed by Eugene Choy |Photo by Dan Kaufman / Studio Kaufman used with permission

One of Chinatown's most prominent business leaders, F. Chow Chan, owner of Phoenix Bakery and partner of the New Chinatown Co., wanted to obtain a loan to build himself a home in the "suburbs" of Silver Lake. Chan however, was unable to secure a loan due to his immigrant status. He realized that if the Chinese community were to grow, it needed a commercial engine and financial services to support it.

For over a decade Chan organized the community to apply for a bank charter. In 1962 Cathay Bank was born. Consequential with his actions, Chan hired a young Eugene Choy, the first Chinese-American to join the American Institute of Architects in California, to design and build Cathay Bank: the first major financial service institution for Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles (and the second in the U.S.).

The Cathay Bank building, located on Alpine and Broadway Streets, is a classic landmark of International Style Modernism. The building cleverly bridges two languages (and two generations) that articulate the inner and public struggles of the Chinese community at the time.

Eugene Choy embraces an international language that erases all signs of "ethnicity" in favor of a post-war aesthetic and American optimism, while his client Chan forces him to include signs and gestures of his heritage visible on the roof lines of the building. The structure captures the dynamics of the Chinese-Americans during the Post-War years; it is literally and figuratively a public service to the community, one that embraces the new and the old with equal elegance and optimism.

Cathay Bank roofline | Photo by KCET Departures
Cathay Bank roofline | Photo by KCET Departures
Cathay Bank interior | Photo by Dan Kaufman / Studio Kaufman used with permission
Cathay Bank interior | Photo by Dan Kaufman / Studio Kaufman used with permission

F. Chow Chan never moved to Silver Lake, but created the engine and services that allowed a new generation of Chinese-American to finally own their own land and property. Architect Eugene Choy, who built the Cathay Bank, was one of them. Despite racial covenants in Silver Lake, Choy was able to secure a loan and convince his neighbors to allow him to build a modernist structure - a novelty at the time (the house went up in the late 30's) - on a 50-foot-wide hillside lot.

No longer quoting ancestry or ethnicity, Choy's personal home is a celebration of American style modernism in its pure form. With its clean details and lines, as well as its cool embrace of 50's life style, Choy's brilliant architectural home signals the arrival of Chinese in America.

Watching Choy with family friends in the patio of his house, is the perfect portrait and reminder that its takes a village - and lots of perseverance - to finally be at home in America.

Choy Residence <br /> © J. Paul GettyTrust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)
Choy Residence © J. Paul GettyTrust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) also includes work from Gilbert Leong, brother of Fong See Leong, a pioneer Chinese-American family immortalized in Lisa See's memoir, On Gold Mountain; designer Helen Lui Fong, whose roadside vernacular language can be found in restaurant chains such as Norms and others; and the prolific Gin Wong, principal designer of the masterful CBS Television City and the Los Angeles International Airport.

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