Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) at CAM

Last night I went to the member’s preview of Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) at the Chinese American Museum. The Pacific Standard Time-affiliated show’s topic is self-explanatory and very cool, showcasing styles from Googie to Modernist with some photography by Julius Shulman.

The first floor was dedicated to Gin D. Wong (b. 1922). Glancing up from the short, informative, and impressive video, I noticed that the man was actually in the room. When he stepped away from his family to revisit some of his work, I asked for a quick photo.

If you live in Los Angeles or have even visited it, you’ve seen Wong’s work at LAX–an appropriate job since he decided to become an architect while serving in the Air Force during WWII. Other major works include CBS Television City on Melrose and Fairfax and the iconic Transamerica building in San Francisco.

The upstairs gallery features the work of three other architects. Immediately, I saw the drawings of the Bank of America located right up the street in Chinatown. Gilbert Leong (1911-1996) was responsible for many of Chinatown’s most-loved buildings, including the first Phoenix Bakery and the Kong Chow Association building.

When he wasn’t doing themed projects in Chinatown, Leong sculpted fine art and designed affordable, Modernist-leaning tract homes in the suburbs. I thought it was as nice as it was important that the curators showed his non-Oriental work.

The work of Helen Liu Fong (1927-2005) enjoy the most unique presentation. The Googie style of coffee-shop architecture that she helped develop (as seen at Pann’s in Westchester or Norm’s on La Cienega) are exhibited via vintage, eye-popping 3-D viewers. Looking into them is truly like traveling back in time.

There are also artifacts from the Holiday Bowl, where she decorated the cocktail lounge. The Crenshaw landmark was a J.A. hot-spot that was also frequented by African Americans and Chinese Americans in the area. I looked for my parents’ names on the scorecard but was disappointed.

Although the personal residence of Eugene Kinn Choy (1912-1991) was eventually featured in magazines for its tasteful Modernist style, the architect had to overcome discrimination from neighbors and banks to build it on a Silver Lake hillside lot. His part of the exhibit showed the invitation to his open house, photos of the family lounging in the swank backyard, and nice pieces of Danish Modern furniture.

On the way home we drove by one of Choy’s commercial projects. I’ve always liked the Cathay Bank building’s understated blend of Modernist ideas with traditional Chinese aesthetics, and now I better understand why. The show is worth seeing because it adds information and appreciation to buildings that many of us have grown up with or see every day. And you don’t have to live in a Silver Lake home that was renovated by a Chinese American architect to get that–although it probably doesn’t hurt.

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