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New Lease on Life for Little Tokyo Landmark

The longtime site of a popular restaurant and gathering spot for Japanese Americans reopens a decade after quake forced closure.

January 11, 2004|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

To downtown diners, the Far East Building in Little Tokyo was the place where steaming plates of almond duck and sweet and sour pork were dished up for decades beneath a neon Chop Suey sign.

To Hollywood, the 1896 Beaux Arts-style building was the perfect setting for famed fictional detective Philip Marlowe to meet up with tough guy Moose Malloy in the film version of Raymond Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely."

And to the Japanese American community, Far East was the gathering spot where families left homeless and penniless by the internment received a warm welcome after World War II.

The Little Tokyo institution reopened last week, nearly a decade after being shuttered by the Northridge earthquake. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles) and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry were among more than 200 people who celebrated the $3.8-million makeover at a ceremony in front of the building in the 300 block of East 1st Street.

"This building has survived the glamorous '20s, the Great Depression and the painful internment," Roybal-Allard said. "Today we are here together to celebrate a happier time."

The renovated building has space for a restaurant, 16 apartments for the poor, a computer learning center to provide job training for community members and a small interpretive center where the building's rich history will be recounted.

The structure was one of 13 along or near East 1st Street to be listed as a National Historic Landmark. In a nod to the building's past, renovators worked to preserve its original flavor. "We wanted to bring the building back as close to the way it was as possible," said project manager Erich Nakano of the Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corp. "We think it's important for it to continue to remind people of its history and the history of Little Tokyo."

That means a restaurant scheduled to open in late April will be furnished with the wooden booths, tables and chairs from the building's most famous tenant: the Far East Cafe. The floors will be covered with a rich red linoleum similar to the original. The menu will feature a combination of new, fusion dishes as well as traditional fare.

"We're playing to the nostalgia aspect," said co-owner Don Tahara, who will operate the restaurant with Senor Fish owner Enrique Ramirez. "Everyone seems to have fond memories of the restaurant, so we feel it's necessary to have some of the more traditional items that the Far East had."

The renovated building has a variety of modern touches. They range from air conditioning and high-speed Internet access to apartments with individual kitchens and bathrooms -- amenities that were shared in the old configuration.

During the yearlong remodeling, Nakano said, renovators discovered an 1896 parcel map that showed the building, which previously was thought to have been constructed in 1909. In addition to containing a hotel and restaurant, the three-story structure was once the site of a chicken-sexing school.

But it was the Far East Cafe, which was opened in the mid-1930s by Look Mar Jung and his family, that drew countless Japanese American families, deal-making politicians and hungry bureaucrats.

Ets Yoshiyama, who grew up two blocks from the cafe, recalled how Japanese American farmers from Norwalk and Downey would make Saturday pilgrimages to dine there, just as Yoshiyama's family did. "Everybody loved the almond duck and the hom yu" -- steamed, salted pork flavored with fish and bean curd -- said the 78-year-old San Luis Obispo resident.

Eating at the cafe was "a big treat," added Harry Yamamoto, 83, of Fullerton, who also grew up near the restaurant.

Most Japanese American families rooted in Southern California, according to Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, have memories of the Far East Cafe, in part because it became a popular gathering spot after funerals and weddings.

"There aren't many buildings where you can say my father and my grandfather used to come here," Watanabe said. "It's the kind of resource we'd like to keep in the community, not just to preserve its history but because it helps second, third and fourth generations make a connection to their history."

The Jung family, who were Chinese Americans, managed to keep the cafe running even during the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. When their loyal Japanese American customers returned from internment camps, the Jung family welcomed them back by providing struggling families with living space in the restaurant's basement and food on credit.

The restaurant, however, could not survive the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which badly damaged the building and forced its closing. The Jung family eventually donated the building to the Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corp.

"There's a lot of history, a lot of fond memories," said Andrew Chong, a grandson of one of the founders who worked at the cafe for 12 years, along with his grandfather, father, brother, uncles and cousins. "It represents the hard work we all did for the future generations."

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