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Nelson Moy Sr., 79; Live Poultry Shop Grew to Gourmet Firm


Nelson Moy Sr., who turned one of Chinatown's first live poultry shops into a food business that now supplies many of Los Angeles' ritziest establishments, died of liver cancer Nov. 19 at Good Samaritan Hospital. He was 79.

The native of Canton, China, bought a small live poultry shop on Broadway in 1952 and found success catering to the special culinary needs of the city's burgeoning Chinese American population.

A customer could pick a flapping chicken from a cage at Moy's United Poultry, have it slaughtered and cleaned, and take home the carcass still warm. It was not a place for the squeamish, but by killing the fowl on the premises, Moy ensured freshness.

In the 1960s, he expanded into the Chinese deli business, offering roasted ducks, barbecued pork and other Cantonese favorites. When his son, Nelson Jr., joined the company in the mid-1970s, it began supplying Spago, Patina and other well-known restaurants with gourmet foods, including free-range turkeys and truffles.

In the early 1960s, Moy also built a motel in Chinatown, the Moytel, which he later converted to apartments. He lived most of his life in a modest house on a hill above Chinatown.

"He started humbly," said Irvin Lai, president of the Chinese Historical Society. "But he had the American enterprise mentality and got a lot of business."

Moy immigrated in 1937 when he was 14, joining his father who had helped build the railroads and settled in Southern California.

He dropped out of high school to work on his father's farm in La Puente before marrying Mary Quon, whose family ran a prominent Chinatown restaurant, in 1947.

That year, Moy joined an uncle, Lem Quon, in the kitchen at the Formosa Cafe, the legendary Hollywood hangout favored by such stars as Ava Gardner and Clark Gable. He stayed only a few years, until he was sidelined by illness.

In 1952, he purchased United Poultry from a cousin and set about developing the small store. He sold live ducks, squab, lobsters, even turtles, but chickens were the main attraction.

He plunged into the trade as immigration restrictions were easing, allowing the city's Chinese American population to grow. Expanding along with the community was the demand for freshly killed fowl. This appetite could not be satisfied in the typical American market, where the chickens were dead far too long for Chinese tastes.

"The Chinese insist on fresh-killed chicken," Nelson Moy Jr. said, explaining the vital role businesses such as his father's played in the immigrant community. "They want the chicken still warm when they cook it. There is no comparison in the flavor."

Moy and other Chinatown purveyors of live poultry also sold chickens still in possession of their heads and feet. Traditional Chinese believed that an incomplete bird brought bad luck and could not be presented to ancestors on special days.

Moy waged an uphill battle for years with government inspectors who did not understand the culture's culinary practices. In the mid-1980s, he gave up the fight and cleared out the squawking poultry.

"It was getting too messy," his son explained.

Now United sells free-range chickens that are grown and slaughtered in Petaluma and delivered the next day. Traditionalists can still find shops in Chinatown where the poultry clucks until moments before being sold, but such establishments are hard to find elsewhere. There are only 29 in Southern California, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Nelson Jr. oversaw the expansion into prepared and gourmet foods after becoming a partner and forming United Foods Inc. in 1975; his father retired in 1990. A third generation of the family is now helping run the food business, selling seafood, caviar, foie gras and Italian truffles as well as organic poultry to a clientele that has become largely non-Chinese.

In addition to his wife of 54 years and his son, Moy is survived by two daughters, Clorinda Lee Shepherd of Harbor City and Cindy Lee Fujimoto of La Canada, and eight grandchildren.

The funeral will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Alhambra True Light Presbyterian Church, 20 W. Commonwealth Ave. Mourners may join a procession through Chinatown before the burial at Forest Lawn Glendale.

Donations may be made to Friends of Chinatown Library, 536 W. College St., Los Angeles 90012.

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