Opened in 1952 by Gim and Choy Fong, Fong's gift shop is one of the oldest and most iconic shops on Chung King Road, the tucked-away Chinatown plaza that's been largely populated by art galleries in recent years. Fong's is the place where you can find anything from antique Chinese glassware and furniture to handmade jewelry and vintage trinkets. But the 62-year-old shop at 943 Chung King Road is hoping to sell much of that merchandise this Saturday at a "cash mob" aimed at raising money for their upcoming move to a smaller, less expensive storefront on nearby Hill Street.
Mason Fong, the 71-year-old nephew of Gim and Choy, found out three months ago that his New York-based landlord was nearly doubling the rent, from $1,600 to $3,000 a month. Business had been slow in recent years, with an influx of foot traffic only during monthly gallery openings and the annual Chinese New Year Festival. Fong, a painter who now resides in Austin, Texas, had been wondering even before his landlord raised the rent whether he'd have to close down the shop. "On a daily basis, it's pretty dead," he tells the Weekly. It doesn't help that many of the neighboring galleries and art studios are closed for most of the week, giving the appearance of an empty plaza.
Fong says his uncle Gim was never actually on a lease, and that rent was paid month-to-month for 60 years until the property was purchased by a new owner two years ago. When the building went up for sale, Fong, a graduate of Otis College of Art and Design who made his living as a commercial graphic designer, couldn't afford to purchase it. Art galleries "revitalized the area but they didn't exactly help the businesses. They made rents go higher," says Fong.
For that reason, he struggled to find a new Chinatown storefront that he and his daughter Charlie, who manages the shop from L.A., could actually afford. He even considered moving the entire shop to Austin, but ultimately decided it was too much of a hassle. After all, the gift shop's massive inventory includes not just the ground floor of art and antiques from all over the world and the giant lanterns made by his grandfather in the shapes of goldfish and owls, but also an equal-sized basement stock-piled with "really old stuff."
Four generations of Fongs have operated the Chinatown gift shop, which was immortalized in author and illustrator Leo Politi's 1978 children's book, Mr. Fong's Toyshop. It was also the setting for author Lisa See's 1995 novel On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. The novel chronicles the life of See's great grandfather Fong See, who was Gim Fong's uncle and helped finance the antique store on Chung King Road after his original shop in L.A.'s former China City burned down.
If there's anyone who knows what it's like to inherit a family-owned business in Chinatown, it's hotelier Peter Kwong, whose family has owned and operated the Best Western Dragon Gate Inn on Hill Street and the Royal Pagoda Motel on Broadway for generations. When Kwong heard that Fong's was losing its lease, he offered Fong a storefront in his family's Dragon Gate shopping center for a fraction of the rent that Fong had been paying on glitzier Chung King Road.
"Peter Kwong sought us out and was willing to invite us to move in there because he wanted to bring some of the old Chinatown into his property and have a place for his customers to shop at," says Fong, whose last day on Chung King Road is April 30. He hopes that the new location, at 818 N. Hill Street, will attract business from international tourists and Best Western guests looking to take home a piece of old Chinatown - something more authentic than the ubiquitous paper lanterns and straw hats found on bustling Broadway.
The new space will be much smaller and shabbier than the one on Chung King Road, but it includes a back storage room that Fong hopes to someday turn into the very thing that drove him out of Chung King Road: an art gallery.
Fong's Cash Mob takes places this Saturday, March 22 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Fong's, 943 Chung King Road, Chinatown. (213) 626-5904, fongsla.com.
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