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[R.I.P.] Gim Fong (10/17/05) Beacon and Long-Termed Merchant in L.A.'s Chinatown

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  • madchinaman
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 12, 2006
      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
      same again."

      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
      anything down."

      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
      the opera.

      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
      in 2001.

      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
      wonderful taste."

      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
      together receipts.

      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
      that's it.

      "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."


      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.'
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