I am a life-long Angeleno and proud of my Asian-American heritage. While I identify primarily as Vietnamese-American, my family's Chinese ancestral roots are not very far off from what I know of my family tree. Yet, despite recognizing this and countless trips to Chinatown as a kid, a teenager, and a young adult, I never ventured to the Chinese American Museum (located next to Chinatown in El Pueblo) until recently. It was the current Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) that brought me there and I think it was a perfect introduction.
Having not been through the museum before, I took the time to go through the permanent exhibition of Journeys (Chinese immigration to the United States with an emphasis on Chinese settlement in Los Angeles) and Sun Wing Wo General Store and Herb Shop (a recreation of an actual general store that existed between 1891-1948). The Chinese American Museum (CAMLA) is not a very large museum, but there is a depth, richness, and complexity to the journey(s) of Chinese Americans in America and in Los Angeles found in these exhibitions. I appreciated the visual analogy of rice in the Journeys timeline, in how it connects to heritage and cultural identification and number of people. The timeline in CAMLA's Journeys though reflecting a Chinese-American narrative is not strictly Chinese-American - it is shown as a timeline within America's many cultural and historical narratives that run alongside and overlap each other. You don't have to be Chinese to understand the impact of choices based on discrimination, sacrifices based on a desire for a better life, and the determination for a better tomorrow.
This was perfect foundation to then visit the current exhibition of Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980), to understanding the contributions of Chinese-Americans to Los Angeles' culture and landscape (and beyond). A part of Pacific Standard Time, this exhibition features four Chinese-American architects (Eugene Choy, Gilbert Leong, Helen Liu Fong, and Gin Wong) whose contributions were a part of Los Angeles' urban and visual landscape between 1945 and 1980. In this exhibition, stories are told not in just a visual sample of what was built, but includes blueprints, renderings, photos, and drawings of the process.
A number of these architects represented as "first Chinese-Americans" - Eugene Choy was the first Chinese-American to join the American Institute of Architects in California and Gilbert Leong was the first Chinese-American graduate from University of Southern California's architecture program. One of Choy's works can be seen in Chinatown, the Cathay Bank building on Alpine and Broadway.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibition are the six three-dimensional stereoscopic slides of landmark Googie buildings by Jack Laxer. Helen Liu Fong was instrumental in the creation of the Googie architectural style which became embraced and popularized by restaurants Norms, Denny's, and Bob's Big Boy. Have you seen Johnnie's Coffee Shop on Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax (or as the setting for scenes in many movies and commercials)? Helen Liu Fong designed its interior. Perhaps most resounding on a global scale is the pivotal work of Gin Wong on the original Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). His creation of LAX's satellite system is the blueprint for airports designed throughout the world.
It was a great experience to see Los Angeles in a different light, to understand LA history in a new way. It's an almost surreal experience, too. How often have I passed by a building without knowing its rich history or taken for granted an airport system that has always been there in my lifetime? For these ways and more, this lifelong Angeleno broke new ground and appreciates Los Angeles more than ever before.
I encourage a visit to Chinese American Museum for your own "breaking ground" experience if you haven't been there before and to see the "Breaking Ground" exhibition to build on your past visits. Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) closed June 3rd 2012.