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Mastering a Rare Craft--by Trial and Error

Taste / Trends

May 05, 1985|BEVIS HILLIER

TV Guide, which could encapsulate "The Decameron" in two lines ("Not rated. Partial nudity . . ."), recently summarized a movie in these words:

" 'The Great Skycopter Rescue' (1981). Hang gliders vs. bikers in California (where else?)." Where else, indeed? Anything goes, anything can happen in California. For example, would you believe that a man in Westwood has built a 25-foot-high model of Rouen Cathedral in his front garden--using old aerosol cans? Well, if you would believe it, you would be wrong. I made it up. But there is a man in Chinatown who molds exquisite transparent enamel bowls over those aluminum floats that go into toilet tanks. His name is Gim Fong.

A few months ago I wrote about Robert Kuo, who sells Chinese cloisonne enamels on Melrose Avenue. In cloisonne work, thin strips of metal are soldered to a metal surface to form small "cells" into which different-colored enamels are poured.

Gim Fong, who has an Oriental-antiques and decorative-arts shop on Chungking Road in Chinatown, specializes in a much rarer kind of enamel-work: \o7 plique a jour.\f7 The technique is similar to cloisonne but involves removing the back plate to leave translucent or transparent enamels held together only by wires, giving the effect of miniature stained-glass panels.

Fong has been learning his art the hard way--by trial and error. He is happy if one piece in three comes from the kiln unscathed. Somebody recently suggested that Fong set up a studio to teach his rare art, and he is considering the possibility but says: "How can I set up as a teacher when I, myself, don't have full control over the medium?"

Old Chinatown, near Alameda and Los Angeles streets, was Fong's birthplace in 1931. His uncle came to Los Angeles from Canton (Hwangchow), China in the 1880s to sell antiques. Fong's father came in 1901 to help the brother. One of Gim Fong's brothers is Danny Ho Fong of Tropi-Cal furniture. His sister is dress designer Lonnie Fong (the Choey of Theo & Choey Co.).

In 1934, the family returned to Canton.

So Gim Fong has early memories of pagoda roofs and brocaded silks; but in 1936, with the Japanese invading China and with Chinese troops training directly in front of the Fongs' house, family members were advised, as American citizens, to leave the country.

They returned to Los Angeles, where Fong was educated at Castelar School. He was a prodigy in art classes. On a shelf of his Chinatown shop, he keeps a green-glazed elephant that he made when he was 7 years old; it bears the impress of his childish fingers. It shows an absolute mastery of animal form and of molding technique. The teacher for whom he made it gave him the highest mark possible. Fong recalls that another teacher, who kept him after school as a punishment, demanded that he make her a similar elephant. Fong refused and went on refusing in spite of all threats. That story tells us two things about Gim Fong. He is innately, instinctually talented as an artist; and though outwardly the mildest of men, he is determined and tenacious.

Fong studied design at Los Angeles City College. "They liked everything I designed, and I discovered (I didn't know before) that I had talent--because, as children, we took it for granted. We drew to amuse ourselves. We didn't have the money to buy expensive toys. What we did every year was buy damaged toys in the after-Christmas sales at the big department stores; we'd take them home and repair them. That's how we got so adept with our hands. We had a lot of fun taking the things apart and putting them together again, and I've gone on doing that all my life--taking things apart and seeing how they work."

Fong graduated to amateur automobile repairs. (He is still a car enthusiast and regularly tinkers with the innards of his 1948 Cisitalia coupe.) He served in the Army at the tail end of the Korean War. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., with the 82nd Airborne Division and worked on airplanes. The techniques that he learned as an aircraft mechanic--soldering, welding, heat treating and metal forming--have come in useful in his enamel work.

Upon his discharge from the army, Fong took over his father's antique business in Chinatown. He married in 1956 and has two daughters. Fong and his wife live in Monterey Park.

In the shop, Fong specializes in selling miniatures, ivories, lacquered furniture (some set with mother-of-pearl), cricket cages, embroideries and antique Chinese clothing, including the robes of emperors, court officials and priests. "These robes and other textiles are museum pieces," he says. "They were probably brought from China by clipper ship in the early 1900s. I have one bedspread beautifully embroidered with flowers in satin stitch, and in the middle are some initials, perhaps those of a ship's captain."

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