Joined: Apr 09, 2003
From: LA-2547 mls east Hawaii &5500 Easter Is
|Posted: 2006-11-22 8:20 pm  Permalink|
Did anyone see the Steve Lopez article which references Trader Vic's?
It really shows how TV is part of Southern California history.
Keeping Father Time in check
November 22, 2006
My favorite route to the office takes me along Riverside Drive in Silver Lake, through the hilly parkland around the Police Academy and Dodger Stadium and onto Broadway in Chinatown, where there's always an eye-catching scene.
Just past the Phoenix Bakery is Central Plaza, which is always alive with activity. At the center of the action, up to a dozen men are clustered around a table, peering down as if they'd never seen anything so fascinating in their long lives.
Gotta check this out, I'd been telling myself for months. But I was always in a rush. On Tuesday morning, I decided to make time.
I parked, walked under a pagoda and past a statue of Sun Yat-Sen, billed on a plaque as the founder of modern China. Two dozen people, mostly retired men, were milling about, reading Chinese newspapers, sipping coffee from Wonder Bakery and closing in around that table.
I shouldered my way in and watched two men take turns moving wooden disks with Chinese lettering across a checked game board. The players and even the spectators were too riveted to notice me, and they didn't look like they wanted to be interrupted.
I strolled over to the Hop Sing Tong Benevolent Assn., a private clubhouse, where William Mah appeared in the doorway and asked what I was after.
"What's that game?" I asked.
Do they bet on it?
"Sometimes," Mah said, but money wasn't the point.
He told me to hold on while he went to retrieve his friend Wong Yee.
"Hello," said Mr. Yee, smiling as he shook my hand.
I asked him if he'd hung around this plaza long, and Yee threw his head back and laughed.
"All my life," he said, asking me to guess his age and then saving me the trouble.
"I came from China in 1931 at the age of 17," he said. "I'm 92."
He went to San Francisco first, where he delivered newspapers, then to Fresno, where he was a kitchen boy in a Chinese restaurant. Next stop was Los Angeles, where, during World War II, he was ferried over to Santa Catalina Island to build ships for the Pacific fleet. And then it was back to the restaurant business, including a long stint at a restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Mr. Yee's accent is thick, though, and I couldn't understand the name he was saying. One of his friends overheard and tried to help out, but I couldn't understand him either. Now a third guy was in the game, and the three of them began spelling it out.
They threw up their hands in triumph and patted me on the back.
Mr. Yee said Central Plaza has been his social hall for more than half a century, especially since retirement and his wife's death in 1988. He lives nearby, catches the bus at 7:30 and has coffee and Mexican sweet bread every morning at Wonder Bakery. Then he plays chess or mah-jongg at the Hop Sing clubhouse, throwing a few pennies on the table to make it more interesting. At 1:30 he heads home for a nap.
"What else can I do, an old man like me?"
I asked if he missed the country he grew up in.
"I don't know," he said. "It was a long time ago, and I don't remember much. You have to go where you can find something better. This is my second life."
A woman named Stella Wong stopped by on her way to a game of mah-jongg and said she was Mr. Wong's cousin. Then along came Jimmy Wong, another cousin who claimed to be 71.
You don't look it, I said.
"I played poker with Moses," Jimmy said.
"We're all cousins," he went on, pointing to Stella and Mr. Yee and a few others who were milling about, smoking Chinese cigarettes and taking some sun. "We're all from the same village in Canton."
Jimmy took it upon himself to escort me around, and Mr. Yee joined the party, the ambassador and mayor of Central Plaza. I asked Jimmy if there was a chess king in the crowd of regulars, and he said there was no league, no standings and no legendary player.
"There's no such thing as the best. We do this for happiness. That's the reward."
Jimmy runs the Chinatown Mission, a nonprofit social and business service organization, near what used to be Little Joe's restaurant. His office is in the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn. building, where the main auditorium has photos of George Washington and Sun Yat-Sen, and monthly meetings address issues like the beautification plan for the Chinese cemetery at 1st Street and Eastern Avenue. It's a subject close to the hearts of Chinese people, Jimmy said.
"Before, you couldn't bury Chinese people anywhere, because of the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882. You couldn't buy land." So people would secretly dig wherever they had to.
As we walked and talked, I noticed that Mr. Yee was checking his cellphone, which seemed a bit odd for an old-school gent of 92. I asked who he called on that phone.
"His girlfriend," Jimmy said.
Mr. Yee smiled like a teen.
Only one? I asked.
"That's a secret," Jimmy said, and Mr. Yee smiled again.
Jimmy, who's lived in South L.A. forever and has watched its colors change, struck me as a guy who makes things happen. And indeed, he said his current project is to raise $15 million for a Taoist temple.
"I've got two bucks right now," he said, "but Noah didn't have much wood when he started to build his ark."
He said he'd been a chef, a bartender and the poker columnist for Gambling Times. After he got a journalism degree from Cal State L.A. in 1957, he tried to find work at the L.A. Times but was told that with his name, the only work for him was in the kitchen.
"That's what they said," he insisted, saying he didn't take it personally. But he wasn't bothered, he said, because a proud man can't be offended by someone who's ignorant.
The three of us walked back toward the plaza, and when we passed the Grand Star Bar, Jimmy said he used to be a chef there and often chatted up a regular customer by the name of Henry Miller. Yes, that Henry Miller.
"He'd say, 'What do you want to talk about, Jimmy?' And I'd say, 'Don't talk about anything. Just drink.' "
And if they did talk, what about?
"It was Henry Miller," Jimmy said. "Sex."
Jimmy said lots of celebrities hung out in Chinatown back in the day, tipping a glass at Leopold's, the Golden Pagoda, the Rice Bowl, the General Lee and the Grand Star.
"You know why they came here? If you want to fool around with someone else's wife, this is a good place. Here, we don't talk."
Back in the Central Plaza, Mr. Yee plopped onto a bench and found an old friend to talk to, Jimmy excused himself to go to a meeting and a new game of Chinese chess drew a crowd.
Los Angeles is a thousand and one such places, little pockets where the people of the world make their lives and the untold stories stretch beyond the horizon.
[ This Message was edited by: christiki295 2006-11-22 20:22 ]