Family Business Holds Out Hope In Chinatown
The bright red Chinese lanterns that once lined the district have faded to a dark, dingy orange. Large, glass display windows are marred by graffiti and clad with iron bars. Neon lights flicker on and off at night. "There was a lot of activity, and all the time," Fong, 69, said. "The stores used to be open at night. There was so much to see—things like organ grinder monkeys."
The once-bustling Chinatown from Fong's childhood is gone. His family’s shop is now nestled between abandoned storefronts and postmodern art galleries.
Almost half of the buildings in the neighborhood are run-down or abandoned family-owned properties according to the Business Improvement District of Chinatown, whose mission is to plan and manage the rebirth of Chinatown. Now the stores are open for just a few hours each day. Many vendors only set up shop on weekends.
"All the businesses are barely making it," Fong said.
The disintegration of Chinatown began in the 1980s, according to Kim Benjamin, president of the Business Improvement District.
"The problem is these people just don't like change," Benjamin said. "They've owned the buildings for decades and are used to the way things are." Over the last 25 years, very little has changed in Chinatown—unlike nearby Little Tokyo and Koreatown, which have both undergone renovations and upgrades, Benjamin said. "Little Tokyo had their act together in some sense," she said. "They got ahead of the curve. They updated everything in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the economy got bad." Often when Chinatown business owners began to retire or die, their families held onto the properties without maintaining business.
“The buildings become family legacy properties and the families have no economic driving force to fix them up or do anything with them,” Benjamin explained. “They're just abandoned." Fong decided to break the cycle and return to Chinatown. After studying architecture at USC for two years and getting his masters of fine arts at Otis College of Art and Design, Fong moved to San Francisco to work as creative director in the magazine industry, and as a graphic designer for McGraw-Hill in Berkeley.
But when Fong's parents grew old and were no longer able to keep up the family business, he moved back to Chinatown. Fong said his father kept coming into the store until his death last year. Instead of leaving his parents’ business to ruin like so many other nearby shops, Fong took control.
"I never looked forward to taking over my dad's shop," Fong said.
Now he runs his family’s business just a few doors down from another antique shop, The Jade Tree. An elderly married couple, Siu and Kenneth Lee, run the nearby store together. Siu Lee is an elderly woman who takes pride in her now 70-year-old business. She is one of the few vendors left who very meticulously preserves her store. "The Chinese generation is getting old," she said. "They don't want to change, they don’t want to do anything.
Many of the buildings are empty not because they can't rent it, they just don't want to do anything. They just want to let it rot. " The store is overflowing with antiques ranging from hand-painted floral vases to porcelain statues of Chinese philosophers and beautiful hand-carved jade jewelry. Siu said she worries about the future of Chinatown. Now her own husband's grandniece, who the couple helped put through college, won’t even visit their shop.
"If you don’t draw the young people to Chinatown then there's no buying power," Siu said. "We don’t know what the future will be of Chinatown but, Chinatown should open to the general public... Chinatown is still a Chinatown only for the Chinese. I think if we think that way Chinatown has no hope."
But the future for Chinatown doesn’t look promising for the newer vendors. Five years ago, Sharon Sekhon opened the Studio for Southern Californian History. She was part of a movement of younger, non-Chinese who wanted to revitalize the historic district, but a low visit numbers forced her to close shop. "All the Chinese are gone,” said Sekhon as she packed up the last remnants of her studio. “I don't know what the future is going to hold.”
It's a common concern among the new businesses that have opened in Chinatown hoping to bring a new clientele to the district. Boutiques like the Flock Shop and Chemline both moved to Chinatown in an effort to revitalize. But after several years of business, they’ve become discouraged by the growing number of empty businesses deterring pedestrian traffic. The owners at both stores are now considering relocation.
"The fact that the refusal is there to do anything—that's why I'm afraid of staying here," said Averi Bell, creative director at Chemline. "What is my future going to be like if this is the attitude?"
But Fong is holding out hope for Chinatown. The back of his store looks similar to The Jade Tree: cluttered and filled with Chinese treasures. On the back wall is a portrait of his grandparents, and hung from the ceiling are koi fish his grandfather made from silk and bamboo. The store is exactly as artist Leo Politi described it in his 1970s children's book, "Mr. Fong's Toy Shop."
But much as changed at the front of the store. To the left sits a desk for a new travel agency Fong has opened with a business partner. And on the right, the glass cases are filled with contemporary jewelry to appeal to a younger generation. The most significant change is to the front wall. It doesn’t feature a traditional Chinese painting, a scroll of calligraphy or even a picture of family like the rest of the store. Rather, it’s barren. Fong said he wants to turn the front of the space into a gallery like many of the businesses moving in around him.
"When businesses began shutting down, art galleries came in," Fong said. "But there's no actual retail so it's difficult for the shops because there's not a large group of them."
Below the store lies the solution to the bare front wall. Among countless brown boxes of Chinese antiques is a small makeshift art studio. There is a collection of oil paints, brushes and an easel on top of a table. In the center of his small studio are several large canvases ranging in size from 3 to 5 feet.
Fong plans to get back to his painting to eventually display inside the shop. "In the past, I couldn't see myself taking over this store and having a curated gallery in Chinatown," said Fong. "With the changes, there's a wide range of things I can do here. So for me this change is good. I'm not your typical Chinese owner."
Reach Contributor Tiara Chiaramonte here.