[R.I.P.] Gim Fong (10/17/05) Beacon and Long-Termed Merchant in L.A.'s Chinatown
- A Beacon in Chinatown
A museum-like store, run part time by family since the death of
patriarch Gim Fong, evokes the area's heyday.
By David Pierson
Times Staff Writer
On a late Saturday morning in Chinatown, shopkeepers began unlocking
their storefronts with a noisy clang. Elderly men shuffled to a
Central Plaza bakery to slurp milk tea and devour freshly baked
buns. And hungry tourists murmured outside dim sum restaurants while
waiting to be seated.
Away from the activity on a nearby pedestrian lane named Chung King
Road, Shirley Fong and her two daughters, Kelly Kawashima and Jamie
Fong, prepared for customers by dusting the floor of their family
gift shop, Fong's Oriental Works of Art.
It's an enchanting, museum-like space cluttered with thousands of
painstakingly made Asian figurines, ceramics and cloisonne sitting
on antique shelves and in glass cases. With its dimly lighted
interior and jade ornaments, the business evokes a long-gone era
when the Far East still represented mystery and exoticism.
The women are still getting used to their temporary role as stewards
of the 53-year-old shop. Almost always, the ritual of opening the
store fell to Shirley's husband, family patriarch Gim Fong, who died
Oct. 17 of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 74.
Every Tuesday through Sunday, Fong left his Monterey Park home and
took the 10 Freeway to Chinatown so he could slide open the steel
gates under the red vintage Fong's neon facade by 11 a.m.
A soft-spoken man whose ancestors arrived in the U.S. in the 1860s,
Fong belonged to one of the early generations of Chinese Americans
born and raised in America. He witnessed Chinatown's heyday between
the 1950s and 1970s. He endured its steep decline in the 1980s and
early 1990s. And unlike other old-timers, he kept his store open
when the trendy art galleries opened because he thought they
signaled a neighborhood revival.
Fong's death reverberated across Chinatown. As one of the longest-
tenured merchants in the neighborhood, he was one of Chinatown's
unofficial historians, the man to show old photographs and letters
because he could explain what life was like there years ago.
"He was a reminder of the past and embraced it because he was
willing to talk about it in such an engaging way," said Lisa See,
Fong's distant cousin and author of "On Gold Mountain," a book that
documents the rise of the Fong family from makers of racy underwear
in Sacramento around the turn of the 20th century to successful
Asian antiquities dealers in a fledgling Los Angeles to the
See said Fong's death takes on more significance in Chinatown
because it reflects a massive generational shift. The original
Cantonese families who founded Chinatown and established L.A.'s
Chinese community are re vanishing quickly from Chinatown,
replaced by a new generation of Chinese, whether American-born or
from other parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.
Fong's store reflects an older Chinatown era. Though most shops in
the district sell inexpensive trinkets to tourists, Fong's is a
throwback to the days when the district also had high-end stores.
The shop was one of several on Chung King Road offering imports,
including rosewood furniture and rare jade bracelets.
At Fong's, shoppers could find a $20 jade Buddha as well as rare
snuff bottles and embroidered artwork for between $3,000 and $5,000.
"He touched everything in that store," Shirley Fong said, fighting
back tears. "He didn't just buy a dozen of this and a dozen of that.
He picked it up and looked at it. He loved every piece he sold.
That's why he had so many things hidden away. He couldn't part with
Gim Fong was a member of one of the city's most important pioneering
Chinese American families, a clan that helped the Chinese enter
society's mainstream at a time when institutional racism prevented
them from owning property or marrying outside their race. Many of
those old families have left Chinatown in the last 100 years.
"The new players in Chinatown will come and go, but Gim was one of
the originals in Chinatown," said George Yu, who heads the Chinatown
Business Improvement District. "I can't say [old-timers] gave up on
Chinatown; they just left because they figured it would never be the
Born in 1931 in Old Chinatown which was leveled to make room for
Union Station Gim Fong was the youngest of eight children. He and
his ffamily lived briefly in Canton during the Great Depression but
moved back to Los Angeles after the Japanese invasion of their
country. His father, Fong Yun, opened an antique shop on Ord Street
across from where Phillipe's restaurant is today. It burned down, so
in 1952 he moved to the space on Chung King Road.
"Some people have lived their whole lives in L.A. and never knew
there was a street back here," said Shirley Fong, 70.
The store was celebrated by famous Los Angeles artist Leo Politi in
his children's books "Moy Moy" and "Mr. Fong's Toy Shop."
Gim Fong served in the Army from 1953 to 1955, working mainly as an
airplane mechanic for the 82nd Airborne Division. Learning to
solder, weld and treat metal led him later in life to his great
expertise: cloisonne and plique-a-jour, forms of intricate enamel
work that he used to make miniature bowls.
For his creations, he soldered together wire frames that looked like
capillaries, filling the spaces in between with colored enamels.
Fong sold many of these, but not the ones he made. They meant too
much to him. One bowl from another manufacturer in a glass cabinet
at the store was about the size of a tennis ball split in half and
looked like a Tiffany lampshade. It cost $125.
"He used trial and error," his wife said. "A lot of times, he'd burn
the piece. He could never duplicate anything because he never wrote
Fong married her in 1956, a year after they met at a UCLA beach
party. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister and later
introduced her husband to Christianity. She also introduced him to
When his father died in 1972, Fong took over the business and
enjoyed the booming interest in Chinese culture produced by
President Nixon's groundbreaking visit to China.
In a 1972 interview for a Los Angeles Times article on how Chinese
viewed the summit meeting, he said: "Everyone is thinking of new
possibilities. This will open up trade and there will be a better
atmosphere for peace. I am for peace. If Red China can give it to
us, then why not?"
Chinatown was so busy in those years that Fong's sometimes stayed
open past midnight on weekends.
"We had so much fun in the old days," Fong told a Times interviewer
The store looks much as it did during the Richard Nixon presidency,
with its many wares some no bigger than a thumbnail taking up ev
every inch of space in the rectangular room. The floor is still
outfitted with the same off-white tiles. The neon "Fong's" sign
still glows brightly, though only on weekends since Fong died. And
the owl kite and goldfish lantern his father made still hang above
the store, as they have for decades.
Shirley Fong said the shop brings in about half the customers it did
in the 1970s, but the store still commands a loyal clientele that
complements the usual weekend tourists.
David and Barbara Goux started shopping at Fong's five years ago.
The Long Beach residents said they were charmed by Fong, who sated
their interest in snuff bottles.
"He was such a gentleman," Barbara Goux said at the store
recently. "He had wonderful taste and he wanted to share that
At his funeral, dozens of loved ones and customers wrote some of
their favorite memories of Fong to share with his family. "He looked
beyond each single figurine and Peking glass vase I bought and
shared stories that came to mind when looking at them," one of
Fong's regular patrons wrote. "Somehow time always managed to stand
still when inside the store, a small haven away from the madness of
the big city."
Almost two months after his death, Fong still looms over his store
with his famous smile. It's on view in a glossy framed photograph on
a wall. He greeted visitors with this smile and saying "May I help
you?" Parents would tell their children not to touch anything for
fear they would break the delicate displays, but Fong let the
youngsters hold whatever item they wanted.
Since their father died, Kawashima, 45, and Jamie Fong, 42, have
been helping their mother, who opens the store only on weekends
because it's the only time of the week they can guarantee that there
will be customers. During the week, Kawashima is a librarian at a
private school and Jamie Fong is an accountant for Toyota. The store
for decades had been solely Fong's domain, but his wife knew what to
do one recent Saturday, wrapping items in tissue and stapling
Soon, Fong's older brother, Charles, will try running the store.
He's 94 and doesn't walk very well, so he has solicited the help of
some of his sons.
"It's very hard to give up" the store, Shirley Fong said. "They've
been in this business all their lives."
For the daughters, there was always the issue of the store's future.
Fong had spoken of retiring in two years. Jamie Fong said she
wondered if he was disappointed that she and her sister would not
take over and continue a century-old family tradition.
It wasn't until she read an article in a British magazine profiling
Chinatown's new art district that she knew how he felt. In it, Fong
"The first generation, they're all gone. There are only a few
original owners that are still here; most of them will die out and
"When I leave, this is going to be closed. My kids aren't going to
work for peanuts. I sent them to school so they won't do this.
As in any case of a predominantly middle-class Caucasian sector
claiming an under-developed inner-city neighbourhood, there are
cultural difficulties which linger somewhere between gentrification
and colonisation. Some suggest that the new gallerists are actively
participating with the already established business community,
rather than in spite of it.
Mary Goldman insists that Chinatown remains 90% Chinese-American and
that business leaders have welcomed the redirection of visitors to
this long-neglected area. Gim Fong, the seventy-one year old owner
and proprietor of Fong's Oriental Works of Art, which is a couple of
doors down from China Art Objects, agrees. When asked if business
has improved recently because of the prominence of his newer
neighbours, he says, `It picked up a little bit because people have
finally noticed Chinatown. It brings a lot of people who have never
seen us before. Now we have a different group of people here, we
have a mixed group, not all Chinese.'
Fong, a master artisan known for his delicate miniatures, points to
a yellowing picture of himself in uniform secured high above his
cash register and recalls his first days on Chung King Road. `I was
drafted in 1952,' he remembers, `that's the year we started the
store.' Then, it was he and his brothers and sisters who ran the
business, members of LA's first generation of Chinese-American kids
to grow up in old China City, and later, what is now Chinatown.
Chung King Road was then a satellite of the main market place, a
larger pedestrian shopping centre on the other side of Hill Avenue,
which today is in a similar state of disrepair, partial occupancy
and some renewed interest. Fong describes the 1950s as the hey-day
of the area, with shoppers bustling about and a thriving culture
dominated by Chinese-Americans and recent immigrants. As was the
case all over America, the race riots of the 1960s left urban
centres isolated and neglected, as residents and visitors alike were
drawn to the relative safety of the suburbs. Like other cities that
underwent this transformation, Los Angeles was left with a desolate
downtown and Chung King Road never fully recovered.
Fong admits that the area is experiencing a recovery, though he is
uncertain about the future of the Chinese-owned businesses, many of
which have been there as long as he has. `The first generation,
they're all gone.
There are only a few original owners that are still here, most of
them will die out and that's it.' Though these are most often family
businesses, Fong says they will not likely be passed down to another
generation. Fong admits, as he stands among his immense treasure of
little jade frogs, gold monkeys, tiny decorated pavilions and wooden
boxes, `when I leave this is going to be closed. My kids aren't
going to work for peanuts. I sent them to school so they won't do
this. That's progress.' I asked Fong how the older generation feels
about the art scene that dominates the street's life with noisy
evening openings and daytime gallery hopping.
`Some of the older generation are not that happy about it,' he
concedes hesitantly. `They can't speak their language, they don't
have the customs, and they get kind of freaked out when they see
those guys with all of this make-up on. It's culture shock. But the
younger generation understands. And that's what's coming in here,
the younger generation.'