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A Thai-Style Piece of the American Pie

Community Shop lets immigrants accomplish together what they can't individually: own their own business.

July 02, 2002|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Talk of the future comes up a lot in this small, new Hollywood Boulevard storefront that is not part of the Hollywood business boom but offers a boost of a different kind. Here in Thai Town, where elderly and young people work and live, and where recent immigrants meditate on Friday nights and exercise together at the Western Avenue Metro Rail Station on Saturday mornings, this new business heralds a young community's triumphs.

Twenty-four women and one man collaborated on the creation of the Thai Town Community Shop, a specialty gift cooperative that sells original handcrafts, clothes, jewelry and silk fabrics crafted by the owners themselves or imported from Thailand. An unlikely cast of restaurant cooks, garment workers, single mothers and elderly retired women created this enterprise, pooling their resources--$1,000 each--for a chance at jointly owning a business they could never manage individually. They all take turns sitting in the colorful shop waiting for customers while painting clay vases for handmade orchids or sewing ornate clothing.

So far, their products, which also include specialty foods, have attracted locals as well as tourists from around the world. But the 2-month-old shop has also become a community center of sorts for recent immigrants seeking advice in dealing with their new life. The owners' longtime experience living in Los Angeles has made them want to be helpful to newcomers. Upstairs, where rugs, lamps, candles and shawls are displayed for sale, there is also a Buddhist altar for group meditations or individual prayer that is always available. Sometimes visitors come in just seeking emotional support, and they find plenty of it here.

Since the 1960s, east Hollywood has been home to an estimated 80,000 Thai immigrants. Two years ago the city named six blocks of Hollywood Boulevard, between Normandie and Western, the nation's first Thai Town as a tribute to the area's cultural identity. To these people, the Community Shop is a catalyst for economic independence, but more important, it advances their dream to make the area a mecca for those seeking traditional Thai culture.

Penny Bhusiririt is a Thai interpreter who has lived in Los Angeles since 1979; the shop, at 5228 Hollywood Blvd., has already become more than her daily stop for rice. "It's important for Americans to see our special crafts and that we are proud of our products," she said. "I normally go to the Bangkok Market for my food, but this helps the community, so I come in here. This place brings the community together like no other business around here. We have a Thai Town, so it makes sense to me that we have a shop like this that sells products direct from Thailand and allows us to show our culture to other people."

Chutima Vucharatavintara, 49, came up with the idea for this creative cooperative, and she sees the opening of the Thai Community Shop as a step toward self-sufficiency of her people. For 14 years, Vucharatavintara has been the glue of L.A.'s Thai community, taking the sick and poor into her own home as if she were running a shelter. Working at the Thai Community Development Center, Vucharatavintara has helped thousands of Thai immigrants settle in Los Angeles. The idea of bringing these strangers together for the co-op struck her when she wondered who would help those who depend on her when she retires and leaves Los Angeles.

"I had to find a way to help them help themselves," Vucharatavintara said. "I won't retire for another six or seven years, but I had to start now to find ways to help them do things themselves. We want more people to join the cooperative so it can be like a big family. That way, when people have problems, they know they can always come here. These people didn't know each other, and now they love each other like family."

Prakorb Amornkul, who owned a pharmacy in Thailand before immigrating to the U.S. 25 years ago, believes the cooperative offers the only chance she would ever have of becoming an entrepreneur in her adopted country.

"I like that it's a group of us trying to do the same thing because we all help each other," said the mother of four, who has held a variety of service jobs in Los Angeles. "It's very tough coming to this country and working so hard at all these jobs when you were used to running your own business."

Although she hasn't yet given up her full-time factory job making purses, Saovaluk Thakhammi, 40, also welcomes the notion of being her own boss. But truth be told, she derives more satisfaction from her contribution to the store: bright pink, orange and yellow orchids, crafted from Japanese and Thai clay, that resemble those grown in northern Thailand.

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