Alex Cheung Antique and the fadeaway of Chinatown
There are 19 art galleries on Chung King Road in Chinatown. But few of them opens to the public. Among those 19, only one is run by a local resident.
Alex Cheung, who has been opening his “Alex Cheung Antique” for 45 years, is the only Chinatown resident left here on Chung King Road. But he has decided to go back home soon after the clearance sale.
He moved here 45 years ago. Born in Shanghai, China, Cheung spent most of his time before 18 years old in Hong Kong. Moving together with his parents to Hong Kong when he was only four years ago, he received his education there, an experience he described as “infiltrated by the tension between pro-Communists and the government and the British colonial rule.”
“It was a weird time. It seemed to me that everyone before 25 was a left(ist) and after 25 was a right(ist),” Cheung said. And he devoted his passion and talent towards the political activities, such as the Riot Hong Kong in 1967.
“I was anti-government, anti-rich, and anti-corruption. I was also a popular cartoonist at that time,” Cheung proudly said, “but I burnt them all because they are all political satire and I was afraid that they'd get me caught.”
That was Cheung’s teenage years. Passionate, reckless, adventurous. “I was young and I had nothing to lose,” he always says, “so why afraid?”
Cheung carried on his passion and proactivity throughout his life. When he was 18, he made a big decision for himself: coming to the United States.
But Cheung said there was no “decision” being made. “I left my home without a clear goal. I was thinking about traveling around the world at first, but then I narrowed it down to the US somehow,” Cheung said with understatement, “So I traveled around the US: New York, Los Angeles, Florida, etc.”
“At that time Hong Kong was a mess. And I wonder: ‘is other country also like that?’” Cheung said, “I thought young people should see more. And then I just go[went].”
When the 18-year-old Alex Cheung left Hong Kong alone, he brought nothing with him but several suitcases of jewelry, 500 dollars he borrowed from friends and two skills: cooking and radio fixing. “I was thinking: I got to survive, so I learned to cook and fix radio set before I set foot. Believe it or not, I was a certified cook,” Cheung said as he was going through his storage for the certification.
But Cheung did not end up being a cook or repairman because he found the jewelry business lucrative and effortless. “At that time, anything with a China mark on it sells well. They’ve seen Japanese antiques, but they have never seen such Chinese (things),” Cheung said, “also because of the 5-year embargo, no Chinese merchandise comes in.” Cheung started selling lightweight jewelry like necklaces, rings and beads because “they are easy to bring with.”
And Cheung just figured his own way out. “I went to the telephone booth, going through my number list, and call people one by one, asking ‘I have little items do you want?’” he said, “we had CorningWare party at that time, which was really a fashion, so I just created my own ‘jewelry party and trade jewelry with people.”
“Young lady likes me, and my necklace,” Cheung said, “and everybody likes me.”
Cheung had not had a physical antique store until he decided to stay in Los Angeles. “I was picky. Florida (was) too hot; New York (was) snowing and freezing; Los Angeles was peaceful, and it was flat, not like San Francisco.” he said, “but the moment I made my final decision was when someone from LA sent me a letter, saying ‘the welcome mat is always in front of the house.’ That line touched my heart.”
Therefore, Cheung, carrying boxes of jewelry from his hometown, throw down roots in Los Angeles.
And things just turned out well for him. He dealt with local buyers while remaining active politically and socially. “Everyone wants to do business with China, but they have no idea how,” Cheung said, “I did speech about China, and everyone like(s) to talk to me.”
Everything seemed going so smoothly. Cheung became a local “public figure,” and his business was increasingly prosperous. But he admitted that he faced so many hardships and challenges: “The language. I speak broken ‘Chinglish’ and people don’t always understand me. I could not read or write English. And I don’t speak Spanish,” Cheung said, “there is no past, present, future tense in my sentence, and I always mix he and she because Chinese don’t differentiate that.”
But the language barrier did not stop him even a little. As an inquisitive learner, he taught himself everything: using the computer, writing fluent English emails, and even keeping up with the technology. “I have WeChat,” he laughed, “most people at seventies even don’t know how to use computer!”
Another challenge back then was the isolation he faced when he first moved to this entirely new environment. But he was able to adapt quickly and perfectly and find a home in Chinatown. In the 1990s, he had three stores selling furniture and porcelain in Chinatown. He also has a magical and fascinating public relations skill: he met with America’s president, father of the current Chinese president Xi, and other heavyweight politicians. He went to Andrews Air Force Base to see the Air Force One, and he visited People’s Hall in China.
It was a golden age for Cheung, and it was a golden age for Chinatown. “Just outside my store, there used to be Mexican acrobats playing with his monkey. There were music, vendors, and crowds of people,” Cheung always shows visitors the old pictures of Chung King Road, where people gather together to bond.
But Chinatown is not such a home anymore.
If you walk on Chung King Road today, you can barely see any people. It was extremely quiet since all the stores are closed. “The old shop owners all moved out around eight years ago. Stores were bought by rich exotic artists who do not care about the local community,” Cheung said, “they never open. They live upstairs and do their painting all day without talking to anyone.” “Ghost town” is the word Cheung use now to describe one of the busiest streets in Chinatown in the past.
Cheung was one of many Chinese who witnessed the transformation Chinatown went through. “Chinatown, where it is right now, was created by the US government during the war when the Japanese invaded China. (It was built) to show the friendship with China,” Cheung recalled.
What happened to Chung King Road is a microcosm of the gentrification going on in the whole Chinatown. Cheung said that old shop owners were moving out because of the rent increase and people lost their interest in Chinatown. “They now go to Monterey Park.” Cheung said with grief, “now I feel so lonely here. I will go home and grow my tomatoes after I sell everything.”