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Alhambra loses a piece of its history

A fire destroys a 75-year-old mall at Atlantic and Valley boulevards, the crossroads of L.A.'s Chinese community.

July 17, 2007|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

There were the Cantonese-speaking bakers on the corner, the Vietnamese-Chinese herbalist a few storefronts to the west and a mainland Chinese restaurant next door that made a pork stew named after Mao Tse-tung.

The salmon-colored stucco building in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley's Chinese business district is the story of three decades of Chinese immigration into the region -- an example of how Chinese from all over the world came to these suburbs, clawed out a living side by side and survived in this ever-burgeoning and competitive community.

But that story changed dramatically for the business owners shortly before 9 a.m. Monday, when flames originating from an attic above the bakery engulfed the rest of the building, collapsing the ceiling and reducing a mainstay in the community to rubble.

It took firefighters almost the entire day to extinguish the Valley Boulevard blaze, which destroyed 10 businesses in what many residents consider a crossroads of China and L.A.'s Chinese American community.

By then, a crowd had gathered and some were offering bittersweet memories.

"It's so sad," said nearby resident Thanh Hun Duong, 63, a Chinese immigrant from Vietnam who owns a struggling clothing store in Chinatown. "So many years of hard work finished in one day."

Many of the mostly Chinese-speaking onlookers Monday spoke of buying rare Chinese medicine at Tai Sheng Ginseng or stopping for cheap takeout at Happy Bakery, which opened in 1984, two decades before fancy Taiwanese bakeries and gourmet Cantonese dim sum houses started springing up in the San Gabriel Valley.

"I'd always get roast pork buns there," said Michael Lam, who was waiting to get into his printing business in a neighboring building that was closed-off by authorities. "If it wasn't any good, it wouldn't have been there over 20 years."

Judy Chan works several blocks north of Valley Boulevard and walked over to see the fire for herself after a friend alerted her about the coverage on television.

"I couldn't believe it," the importer/exporter from Shanghai said. "I just had lunch there yesterday. I buy my Chinese newspaper in that mall."

One of her favorite destinations was Hunan's Restaurant, an eatery whose owner moved from San Gabriel to the Alhambra location a year ago because he coveted its proximity to the corner of Valley and Atlantic boulevards.

"Everyone in the building got along well," said John Huang, the restaurant owner. "Some of the other owners would come in to eat and chat. There were people from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam. I feel sorry for them all. We all have losses."

He and two of his chefs were smoking cigarettes across the street from the restaurant Monday afternoon, behind a strip of yellow police tape, waiting to inspect the damage.

Huang, 47, said he was insured for fire and hoped to reopen, though he did not know when or where.

He was confident that customers would want to come back for his specialty, which was named in honor of his province's most famous son, Chairman Mao's Braised Pork w/ Garlic & Bamboo Chunks.

Officials said there were about 10 businesses in the building, including a travel agency, a dating service and an acupuncturist. All are believed to be owned by ethnic Chinese.

The three-alarm fire had firefighters dousing flames well into the afternoon.

One firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation. There was little hope of salvaging anything inside as gray smoke choked the neighboring residential streets and the structure's gnarled wood frames poked out of the debris.

Authorities believe the blaze was caused by an electrical problem above the bakery.

Two dated banners hanging to the facade survived the fire: one proclaiming the grand opening of Hunan's Restaurant and one belonging to a gift store advertising a Thanksgiving sale.

Records show the two-story building was built in 1932 and housed a market and a furniture store before the arrival of thousands of Chinese immigrants changed the face of Alhambra in the mid-1980s.

Today, half the city's 90,000 residents are of Asian descent. A third are Chinese.

Nowhere is that influence more apparent than Valley Boulevard, where Chinese signage stretches from the western end of Alhambra east to El Monte.

On the few blocks next to the burning building are tailors, dry cleaners and supermarkets that have been stationed there since the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived.

"I grew up here and have always known those stores to be there," said Milo Tam, 21, whose family is from Hong Kong and runs a dry cleaning business a few stores west of the gutted building. "I don't know what's going to happen to them. They put their whole lives into those businesses."

Stephan Sham, a city councilman of Chinese descent who moved to Alhambra three decades ago, said it was the end of a chapter for the structure, but not necessarily for the owners.

"These are small business owners trying to make it here," Sham said. "They're hard-working immigrants, and it's so sad to see their businesses burn down. But it may be an opportunity for the future. I hope they can come back and open a nicer store."

But that was an open question on Monday.

Peter Fong has owned the 75-year-old building since 1985 -- renting to a series of mostly immigrant business owners.

He said he has never been more pleased with the place: After years of struggle, many of the businesses were doing well, lifted by the economic boom in the larger San Gabriel Valley Chinese community.

But insurance agents told him Monday that he and his tenants were underinsured.

"They all want to come back," he said. "I feel so terrible for my tenants."

david.pierson@latimes.com

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