Still Breaking Ground: Four Chinese Architects in Los Angeles


Pacific Standard Time is starting in Los Angeles. Between now and April, there will be hundreds of exhibitions and events about the art world of Southern California and it all begins with this very busy opening weekend.

One of the 125 exhibitions is Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) at the Chinese American Museum.

The four architects showcased in the exhibit, Eugene K. Choy, Gilbert L. Leong, Helen Liu Fong and Gin Wong range from Mid-Century Modern to Googie Architecture. If you haven't heard of these architects is because they are not featured in most of the critical studies of Los Angeles architectural history.

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As testament to the lack of information or writings about the aforementioned architects, I found only scant information on only two, using Google Search.

Helen Liu Fong passed away in 2005 at the age of 78, she left a legacy of iconic coffee shops in Southern California. One that is still standing, although empty is Johnie's Coffee at Wilshire and Fairfax. The blue and white overhang is a familiar site as you inch across the traffic during rush hour.

In 1948, the Supreme Court struck down the covenants that restricted the Chinese from owning land in California. Architect Gilbert Leong was a leader in helping the Chinese establish roots and build homes in Los Angeles. In 1973 after a long career designing buildings in Chinatown, he became a Founding Director of East West Bank where he oversaw many of the land developments that were just beginning to burgeon in Southern California. He was an active Director at East West Bank until his death in 1996. One of his projects that still stand today is the Chinese courtyard garden at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. Mr. Leong passed away in 1996, leaving a legacy of buildings and churches in Chinatown, including the Kong Chow Family Assn. and Temple. (To read more about the Kong Chow Family Assn. please read KCET's Departures article by Robert Eng here.)

I am looking forward to this exhibition, which is long due. They may not be ground breaking architects, but they broke a hard-scrabble ground that was born out of racism and exclusion for future Asian architects in Los Angeles.

Breaking Ground will open January 19, 2012 at the Chinese American Museum.
425 N. Los Angeles Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Image: Franklin Avenue 1953: Choy Residence by MidCentArc / creative commons

Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog

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