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CHINATOWN : Photographer Pays Tribute to 4 Women

August 14, 1994|TOMMY LI

One woman flew commercial planes for a living in the 1930s and '40s.

Another opened one of the first restaurants in Chinatown in 1946 and continued cooking meals there until she reached the age of 95.

A third helped lead the drive for a Chinatown branch library, which opened in 1977. And a fourth devoted 25 years of her life as a teacher, assistant principal and principal on Los Angeles Unified School District campuses.

Despite their different occupations, these women can be considered four of a kind--recognized in the Chinatown community as living Chinese American pioneers of their day.

Artist/photographer Carol Nye became so fascinated with the background and contributions of aviator Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, restaurateur Yiu Hai (Mama Quon) Seto, librarian Ruby Ling Louie and educator Ella Yee Quan that she initiated a public art project featuring the four.

Nye's work is on display outside the Metro Plaza Hotel, 658 N. Spring St. in Chinatown.

Titled "Chinese American Women of Los Angeles," four large black-and-white photo murals are attached along the hotel facade. Each consists of a woman's portrait juxtaposed with images related to the subject. A brief biography of each woman is inscribed onto plaques below the murals.

The murals, which range in size from 8-by-10-foot to 13-by-10-foot, also include imprints of Chinese characters and English words identifying the four women, who all live in Chinatown except for Quan, a Highland Park resident.

Nye explained that she had four main objectives for the $13,000 city-funded exhibit: bring contemporary Asian American art to an area lacking a much-needed museum; raise community awareness about Chinese American women's contributions; provide role models for youths, and counter historical stereotypes that portray Asian women as "sensual objects or housewives."

"In the Chinese American culture, we don't have many role models," said the West Hills free-lance photographer, who was raised in Macau and now runs her own photo studio in the San Fernando Valley.

And those who made significant contributions, like the four featured women, often maintained a low profile, Nye said.

The artist eventually learned about the four after interviewing Chinatown residents and reading the book, "Linking Our Lives," published by the Chinese Historical Society. She then contacted them for interviews and photo sessions.

"The spirit of these women is just unbelievable," Nye said. "Mama Quon, (for example), cooked all her life" at the Grand Star Restaurant on Sun Mun Way.

Cheung, who retired in the 1940s, flew with Amelia Earhart, Nye said, and was a member of the 99 Club when the famed pilot was president.

After seeing her larger-than-life portrait, 63-year-old librarian Ruby Ling Louie felt a sense of nostalgia.

"The Metro Plaza is on the site of the old China City, which is where my parents had their three shops," Louie said. "The tribute to the women is important because I think they symbolize my mother and my mother-in-law . . . who didn't (make) any mark except for their children."

But Chinatown activist Don Toy would like Nye to develop follow-up programs to explain the project.

"If people just drive by and see (the murals), they wouldn't know who the women are," Toy said. "There needs to be additional types of events to tie it in together. . . . People have to participate and have that emotional link."

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