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

December 11, 2005

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 present.

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 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 anything."

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 family 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 Angelenos 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 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 said:

"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."