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Eastern Exposure

Artworks contained in their Newport Beach home help George and Arlene Cheng keep in touch with their Chinese heritage.

September 02, 2000|ANN CONWAY

In the spotlight: The Oriental treasure-filled residence of retired ophthalmologist George Cheng and his wife, Arlene, of Newport Beach. The performing-arts philanthropists--after whom Cheng Hall at the Irvine Barclay Theatre is named--relish the time they spend among the museum-quality artworks they have collected over the years. "They inspire us--give us a lot to think about," Arlene said.

The home they wanted: The Chengs moved from San Clemente to Newport Beach about a decade ago because they wanted to be closer to Orange County's performing-arts scene, said Arlene, a founder of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra's Chinese-American League.

"We loved San Clemente, but we decided it was too far away from the Barclay Theatre and the Orange County Performing Arts Center," she said.

Their two-story, 3,000-square-foot waterfront home on Newport Bay appealed to the couple because it offered an ever-changing view. "We love to watch the boats go by--Sundays are especially nice," George said.

Signs of the good life: No sooner do guests step into the Cheng household than they are met with one of its many Chinese symbols: Carp, a sign of plenty, have been hand-painted on the ceramic tile entry floor.

"It makes people feel good to see the fish--to come into a home filled with wishes of prosperity and good luck," Arlene said.

In the living room, perched upon a Chinese altar-style table, are three colorful antique porcelain figures. "They represent longevity, prosperity and wisdom," Arlene said. "They're at least 100 years old."

A miniature pomegranate tree--also symbolizing longevity--sits on a ledge between the kitchen and the living-room area. "You often see Chinese people having pomegranates around them on their birthdays," Arlene said.

The most dramatic example of Chinese symbolism in the Cheng household is found on a reverse-painted glass screen that provides a backdrop for a bamboo-framed sofa. "The screen has been painted from the back to make the beautiful image on the front," Arlene said.

Eighteen fairies are depicted on the 80-year-old screen, each representing a magical Chinese entity that can help "the poor, the downtrodden." "They can do anything," Arlene said. "They're a wonderful part of the lore of China."

Special treasures: Though just about every nook of the Cheng residence is adorned with collected artworks--watercolor paintings, framed fabrics worn by Chinese royalty, figures carved from ivory, jade--there's nothing more valuable to the couple than the time they spend with their four children and nine grandchildren.

"We love to have them visit," Arlene said. "But I'm not sure this is our grandkids' favorite place to play. I'm always having to say, 'Don't touch this; don't touch that.' "

After members of their family have paid a visit, the Chengs find consolation in their artful surroundings.

"We know we're going to miss [the children], and the beauty of the art gives us a lift," Arlene said.


Ann Conway can be reached at (714) 966-5952 or by e-mail at

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