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Japanese Lends Hand to Chinatown Hospital

December 05, 1989|PENELOPE MC MILLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The French Hospital in Chinatown, originally built to serve French immigrants, but which local Chinese doctors have been trying to save from closing, has a new benefactor, who is Japanese.

Zensaburo Hara, an entrepreneur who lives in Japan but has a home in Beverly Hills, has signed a joint-venture agreement with the Pacific Alliance Medical Center, the doctors and other investors who recently completed the purchase of French Hospital, "to improve and expand" the 129-year-old facility.

Hara, the founder of Hara Health Industry, a Japanese company that manufactures portable whirlpool baths, said Monday through an interpreter that his company will rehabilitate the existing 155-bed facility while plans are completed for a new 150-bed hospital to replace it. Hara said he also plans to build a multistory medical office building and parking structure next to the new hospital.

Hara, 63, would not disclose the dollar amount of his financial support. But Dr. S. Y. Wong, the hospital's chief of staff who led the doctors' effort to buy the hospital, said: "For me, this is winning the Lotto, from Mr. Hara."

"It's a unique situation for a hospital," Deanne La Rue, director of communications for the Hospital Council of Southern California, said, "with help coming from an outside foreign group, combined with the doctors trying to save it and the high degree of community interest."

The hospital, founded in 1860 to serve the French immigrant settlement that once surrounded its two-acre property on West College Street, is now in the heart of Chinatown. According to hospital data, its patients are 55% Asian, 23% Latino and 19% black.

The hospital had been financially ailing for the last three years, with a declining income because of its high proportion of poor, uninsured patients and lower payments from Medicare and Medi-Cal.

French Hospital remained under the control of descendants of French settlers, however, until Wong and the other doctors who formed the Pacific Alliance Medical Center opened a four-month escrow last summer to buy the facility for $4.2 million. The group also took a six-year option to buy the land for another $10 million.

The group was motivated by the conviction that the area needed a "community hospital," Wong said.

But he added, "We needed to find someone to provide the financial resources."

Wong's group put feelers out to Asian communities, he said, in Los Angeles and abroad. Hara said he heard about it in Tokyo last August. Although Hara had donated money to various projects in Japan helping the handicapped, he said: "I wanted to go beyond a donation and become more actively involved. I wanted to provide some sort of social service."

Though it was "not necessarily a hospital" he had in mind, Hara said that at the point he heard about French Hospital's plight, "the timing was appropriate." The fact that the hospital is in Los Angeles, which he visits often, and "serves immigrants and ethnic groups" were major factors in his choice, he said.

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