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Historic Cafe Gets Restoration Funds

August 06, 2003|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

For six decades, the Far East Cafe in Little Tokyo, with a huge Chop Suey sign hanging from the building, was part of Japanese American life in Southern California.

Countless family milestones, from wedding receptions to funeral gatherings, were marked inside the Chinese restaurant, which offered the type of food that pleased the Japanese palate.

There isn't a Japanese American over 40 whose life wasn't touched by the place, said Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, who went there with his parents as a boy.

But after the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged the 1896 Beaux Arts-style building, the famous restaurant and 26-room hotel above it were closed.

On Tuesday a restoration effort received $75,000 from the NationalTrust for Historic Preservation. The $3.8-million project, begun last year with funds from public and private sources, is expected to be completed by fall.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, who attended a celebration at the site at 347 E. 1st St. said Tuesday that he remembers "coming here with my mom and dad and my sister Janice. When I was a deputy city attorney, I remember joining my colleagues for lunch here -- whether it was wonton soup or eating that strange dish that the sign outside advertised: chop suey."

When he sat in one of Far East's straight-backed booths, Hahn said, he felt as if he were in a Raymond Chandler novel.

"If walls could talk," said nurse Elizabeth Asawa, whose wedding reception was there in 1968, "boy would they tell you secrets." For her, the cafe was like a home away from home, where she enjoyed visiting with friends.

And, she said, "serving portions were humongous. You would eat half and take the rest home."

After World War II, the restaurant provided Japanese Americans returning from internment camps a place to eat and retain their culture. Later, the building was featured in numerous movies, including "Farewell, My Lovely."

In the old days, Asawa said, the booths had curtains that people could draw for privacy. You couldn't see their faces, but you could always hear them, she said.

The building also had the distinction of being the home of a "chicken-sexing" school -- the art of quickly determining the gender of chickens, Watanabe said.

The Mar family, which owned the building and operated the restaurant from 1936 until 1994, donated it to the Little Tokyo Service Center, which has undertaken numerous revitalization projects in Little Tokyo and other ethnic communities.

When the work is done, the center plans to open a restaurant in the Far East Cafe space, add a community computer learning center and offer 16 units of low-income housing, half of them for the formerly homeless.

Tonight, the building will be featured on Home and Garden Television in the "Restore America" series.

"Once you step a foot in here, you're back in time again," Asawa said, beaming as she walked around inside the restaurant under renovation. "Oh, memories. Good memories," she said, as she pointed to her favorite booth near the front of the restaurant.

"It's a very special building," Watanabe said. "It's a part of history, a part of community and our heritage."

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