If power in L.A. can be measured by the ability to cut the line at Howlin' Ray's, then George Yu is our city's sovereign. Since the late 1970s, as executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, Yu has been involved in various efforts encouraging the neighborhood's growth, from attracting new entrepreneurs to minimizing the influence of gangs. But it wasn't until a few years ago that Yu realized the singular power of restaurants to attract large crowds.
He's responsible for the revitalization of Chinatown's Far East Plaza, a two-story building wrapped around a courtyard that contains a now-empty fountain. Today the plaza is one of the most dynamic food centers in L.A., where hot spots include new Filipino restaurant LASA, Taiwanese restaurant Lao Tao and Howlin' Ray's, the fried chicken place with the four-hour lines.
Yu was born in Taiwan to Chinese refugee parents. His father was an officer in the Nationalist army and his mother came from a prominent Beijing-area family. His parents divorced but both moved to Southern California when Yu was a child. His primary memory of moving here? “When I came to the United States it was really culture shock. Because there was none of the same snacks,” he says.
His family made due with the limited Asian groceries they could find. Sesame paste, which in Taiwan is commonly paired with cold noodles, was re-created by the Yu family with Skippy peanut butter and salt.
Yu started dealing with food professionally in the late 1970s, when he joined the company that built, and still owns, Far East Plaza. In an extremely forward-thinking decision, every storefront was zoned for restaurant use. It would take almost three decades before the genius of that decision was fully realized.
“I don't think anybody could have predicted the San Gabriel Valley coming into its own like that back in the '70s. My mom actually purchased a property in 1977. She found a property in Monterey Park. And back then, we said, 'Mom … Monterey Park, I've barely heard of it.'” Two months after the sale went through, the previous owner returned, offering to buy back the building for twice what he'd sold it for.
In the 1980s Yu's attention turned from Chinatown to pursuits in other parts of L.A., including a chain of one-hour photo stores. Still, he knew that Chinatown had cachet among a certain cohort of Angelenos. “Many of the places [in Far East Plaza] were open late at night, until after midnight for sure. Because there was no other place to go. So that's where foodies back then went. There was certainly quite a lot of white folks waiting in line for these places,” he says.
“The first 10
But it was still the bad old days, when gangs were running extortion schemes against small business owners and the rotting corpses of rats hit by cars would fester in the streets for weeks. Yu, responding to both the entreaties of Far East Plaza's owner and the dearth of government services in Chinatown, returned his focus to the neighborhood. “I ended up going on a lot of health inspections with tenants just to translate with the health department.” He also had city forms and health codes translated into Chinese. Then, in 2001 the Business Improvement District was implemented.
“The first 10, 12 years of the BID, I paid such little focus to Far East Plaza. And that's my fault, but there was so much other stuff that we needed to do in the rest of the community,” Yu says. Once basic health and safety issues were addressed, Yu turned his attention to bringing a new generation of restaurateurs to Far East Plaza. The game had changed since the 1970s.
“It's different from the original Chinese restaurants [in America] where people are typically not educated. They fall into it because it's something to do to make ends meet — versus all these new guys, who are very educated. They have a plan and they have a passion,” he says.
Some old-time restaurants remain, but Yu's new vision of Far East Plaza began with meeting Kogi founder Roy Choi and his director of business development (among other roles and titles), Natasha Phan. Once Choi's restaurant Chego was installed at the Plaza, Yu saw the power of hot-ticket restaurants and felt a new pull to help the community of independent, imaginative L.A. restaurateurs and chefs.
Yu looks for a mix of drive and personality when he goes into business with new restaurant tenants. Eggslut's Alvin Cailan, who ran culinary incubator Unit 120 in the Plaza, came to Yu's attention at a festival.
“In talking with all these young people, one thing led to another,” Yu says. “I kept telling them, 'Really try to not take on investors. We'll find a way to make it work.' We're in a little bit of a unique situation here, because I would never charge them rent until their store actually opens.”
Yu's role has changed in many ways. It seems a lot more fun now than during the decades in which his most frequent phone calls were to exterminators and security companies. Scores of Angelenos would agree that there's no better reward for a career spent working to a moment when Howlin' Ray's exists in a shopping center in Chinatown.