Interview with Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) co-curator Steven Wong

You might recall my gushing review after attending preview night at the Chinese American Museum for its current show, Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980). I returned to the Downtown L.A. destination when it wasn’t so crowded to talk to co-curator Steven Wong (above) about the show.

MW: Architecture can’t be easy to show in a museum because so much of it is felt when you walk in a building or stand in its shadow.

SW: It’s hard to show architecture in a museum, and to understand architecture as an art form is even harder. But it’s something we interact with on a daily basis. Everyone has a relationship with architecture whether it’s conscious or not. When I was doing research for the show, I realized that Chinese American architects were responsible for many iconic buildings that really molded my experience as an Angeleno growing up.

MW: I like how the upstairs section starts off very Oriental, and then gives way to different, less exotic styles.

SW: Yes, both Choy and Leong contributed to the development of Chinatown, which we wanted to showcase. Chinese Americans built Chinatown as an Orientalized and exoticized tourist destination. Racially discriminatory policies and social attitudes kept most Chinese relegated to working in Chinatown, so in many ways they were forced to develop their own economy based on tourism. But beyond the cultural playground for tourists, the Chinese architectual elements did convey a sense of community and home for new immigrants. Chinatown became a stepping stone for many, including these architects, to move on to bigger and better things, as shown later in the exhibit.


MW: Gilbert L. Leong’s Bank of America and especially Eugene Kinn Choy’s Cathay Bank building in Chinatown have rather modern forms under their Oriental flourishes.

SW: They’re still very modern buildings. All of the architects were put together because they are Modernists. But they were often beholden to their clients and the white idea of what Chinese architecture was supposed to be.

Courtesy of Barton Choy AIA. (c) J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

MW:  Choy’s Silver Lake residence is incredible–practically a Case Study home.

SW: And it was shot by Julius Shulman, who has several photos in the exhibition. I had been a fan of Julius Shulman’s architectural photography for some time, so it was an honor to exhibit his work. In fact, the entire show was just an excuse to show Shulman’s photos of the Chun-Wong food processing plant in Crenshaw. All jokes aside, Shulman’s photo of the Chun-Wong’s office with with old typewriters, the woman at the telephone switchboard, and suits in the back is one of my favorites of the exhibit.


MW: The section with Helen Liu Fong’s Googie work is quite striking with its 3-D slides of space-age coffee shops and artifacts from the Holiday Bowl on Crenshaw.

SW: It’s funny. Googie was once considered the bastard child of Modernism, but now conservationists are fighting to keep its examples from being torn down. And as an interior designer for Armet and Davis, she was very influential.

MW: Of all the artists, Gin D. Wong’s body of work is probably the most seen and the least Asian in style. Everyone knows the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, but who knew there was a Chinese American architect behind it?

SW: He’s the only surviving architect from the show, and what I got out of interviewing him is that he doesn’t like to look back. LAX, CBS Television City–everything he does is built with change in mind. He’s always looking ahead and that’s probably why he’s still working today.


MW: Any chance this show can travel or otherwise live on after it closes in June?

SW: Wouldn’t it be great if we could combine it with Chinese American architects from other cities?


Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980) runs until June 3, 2012 at the Chinese American Museum. Check the site for talks, tours, and other programming related to the exhibit.