HISTORY OF THE LOS ANGELES
KONG CHOW BNENBOLENT ASSOCIATION
KWAN GUNG TEMPLE
By Gilbert Leong, our late member of Board of Directors
Gold was discovered in California around 1849. Chinese migrated to America. Some worked in the gold mines; others on the railroads and still others in the fisheries and in forestry.
A Kong Chow association was formed in San Francisco around 1849. With the help of some San Francisco members, a ten year lease was acquired on a small plot of land off Ferguson Alley in Los Angeles. A modest two story brick building was the beginning of the Kong Chow Association of Los Angeles and was dedicated with its temple on the second floor in 1891. A balcony overlooked a courtyard entrance to this historic building. There was no street frontage, not even on Ferguson Alley. Entrance was gained through an alley from an alley.
The original association and temple was in use until 1947 when old Chinatown was demolished for the building of the Union Railroad Station. In this old location, Chinese from Sun Wui met and worshiped from 1891 to 1947, a span of 44 years.
My father, Leong Jeung (梁長) was active in the association during this period. He operated a family restaurant nearby. Many times I was asked to deliver dim sum up to the association meetings. Passing through the downstairs, I saw large earthenware pots, used to transport the skeletal bones of the deceased back to China for burial. That was a must for all good Chinese in those days, but it was a creepy feeling for a native teenager. The association meetings were mostly attended by men. Women may have worshiped in the temple and prayed for male child birth or for the departed ancestors. Parties, dinners, and socials were rarely held except for the lunar New Year.
Membership was minimal and yet records and books were kept by the faithful few members, before the ball-point or perhaps even the fountain pen was invented.
There was an interim period of thirteen years, after the association and temple building was demolished, the Kong Chow members had no home. They met in each others places of business or at some restaurant to plan for the future. Artifacts, statues of deities, altars, drums, gongs, the eight foot gilded and bearded Kwan Gung himself, tapestries and teakwood furniture and sundry paraphernalia were miraculously stored for safekeeping in non-fireproof or theft-proof garages of several members. This had to be the "Miracle of the Kwan Gung Temple!"
Some of the early Kong Chow members who gave so much of their time, energy and support were Louie Kwan, who loved Ng Ga Pay liquor (五加皮酒) and always had a cigar stub in his mouth. He was only five feet tall, but he was a Louie and very helpful and influential. Today we have many Louies in our organization. Others to be remembered were George Lem, court interpreter and cafe owner. Yip Ying, Clarence Yip, Louie Jake, Leong Jeung, T.B. Chew Sr. and Jr., Garding Louie, an herbalist, writer and historian. Liu Lew, Dick Wong, Chiang Siu Yin, and others.
Out of this group of faithful and dedicated Kong Chow members who trace their roots back to Sun Wui and Hawk Saan emerge two dominant personalities Dan Louie, Sr. and Lin Yet who were strong of will and mind, who never gave up. These two leaders plotted and planned for a new building and mobilized the membership to meet the task. A 76 foot x 74 foot plot on North Broadway right next to Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA 中華會館) was purchased for $25,000 plus with private streets on two other sides. Some members questioned the prime location. Dan Louie and Lum Wong spent weeks on the road to big cities and small towns north, east, south, and west, wherever there were Sun Wui people who would invest in building bonds for our new building. A targeted goal of $172,000 was met. Mission accomplished! I was commissioned to plan a two story building featuring an association hall, complete with offices, kitchen, restrooms, and a Kwan Gung Temple on the second floor. Ground floor was planned for four tenants. Due to the small size of the property, no parking was provided, only a parking affidavit, permissible at that time.
On September 25, 1960, the new building was dedicated. Delegates form San Francisco, New York, Chicago, etc. came to celebrate. A Buddhist priest led a procession of members and friends carrying flags, weapons, altars, artifacts, and finally Kwan Gung himself amid incense, firecrackers, the drum beat of the lion dance and the exotic blare and din of Chinese musical instruments. It was indeed an unusual, colorful and impressive show. Fox-Movie-Tone News was there. This was before television news. The ornate but heavy, solid, gilded Kwan Gung was carried up two flights of stairs on a dozen young backs and finally and permanently enthroned on his canopied dais facing East and the Rising Sun each day. Gongs were sounded, drums beaten, clarinets blared while the priest chanted and dedicated the temple with all its deities amid the aroma of sandalwood incense, gunpowder and wine. A whole roast pig, a chicken, fish, fresh fruit, flowers, and paper money was offered to the gods to ensure the peace and prosperity of the Kong Chow Benevolent Association and the Kwan Gung Temple embracing all its members and families for the good life and real happiness. Refreshments and a buffet dinner were served downstairs by a bevy of beautifully gowned ladies and young ladies of the Association.
In February of 1974, it was Chinese New Year time, East-West Federal Savings and Loan opened for business occupying the ground floor of our building. The bank financed the remodeling of the 5200 square foot facility. East-West is now on its third lease. Due to the prime location, owner and tenant relationship has been mutually beneficial. East-West is now a full-fledged state-wide bank with twenty-two branches stretching form San Diego, Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay area.
Kong Chow Benevolent Association, yesterday and today, from its inception, had annual election of officers. Positions were held by those members who migrated to America who could speak, read and write Chinese. Meetings were conducted; books and records were kept in Chinese. Today, as we are in the 90's, things have gradually changed. We have had the leadership of officers who are bi-lingual. We now have American-born with some knowledge of Chinese participating, Meetings are conducted and records are kept bi-lingual, for after all, we are Chinese-Americans. We enjoy the rights and privileges of these United States of America. God bless America! We as Chinese-Americans, members of the Kong Chow Association can also be law abiding, tax paying citizens with a right to vote. Unfortunately, during the last ten years or so, the association has experienced some un-thoughtful action form certain dissidents. This has been through unthinking ignorance, causing undue waste of time, energy and expense that has hurt the association. With the intelligence, goodwill, and dedication of 90% of the membership who place the honor and good name of the Kong Chow Benevolent Association above all else, Kong Chow Association will overcome such nuisances and prevail.
For many years, since occupying our prestigious location in the heart of Broadway Chinatown 1960-1993, the Kong Chow Association and the Kwan Gung Temple were frequented by members and new immigrants form China. Tourists included a visit to the Temple while sight seeing our city. Our Association activities have been to ring out the old year, celebrate the New Year with a banquet. Thanksgiving, and building anniversaries were also festive. Today Kong Chow is stronger than ever. We have experienced gradual change. We now have a solid tenant and substantial income. Because we are state chartered, nonprofit organization, we are unlike most Chinese organizations that are not state licensed and so chartered. Our work is to look out for the needs of the elderly and the welfare and education of children. Award scholarships to aspiring students seeking college education. No longer do we tolerate "outsiders," non-members to daily abuse out quarters for a mah-jong and gaming hangout. We now have a salaried office manager and secretary who look after the needs of the association and the temple six days a week. This has been a big factor in the improved operation of the association to occupy its rightful place in the Los Angeles Chinese community. We pull our share in support of civic affairs, regardless of outside meaningless pressures. We kow-tow to no one. We try to keep an open mind in dealing with conditions of our two countries and of this changing world.
Fifty years ago, I was not a member of Kong Chow. My father was. He was a contemporary of the Yips, the Lums, Chews, and other pioneer members form the village of Sun Wui. I was an A.B.C. (American Born Chinese (土著仔), not interested in old Chinatown organizations and petty local politics. did not enjoy the company of older people who did not know who Bing Crosby was, or what songs were on the Hit Parade that week, or what the latest movie was, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, or Clark Gable or the Barrymores. I joined.
I honored the advice of elders who talked geomancy (風水). They said the temple must be on top. The front and back doors should not be in a straight line, lest all the good luck will go out the back door. Our building should be higher that others, etc. I followed their advice. I did my job and have no regrets. Today I am one of the older men in Kong Chow. When I go to the market, sometimes younger people will step aside and let Ah Bok (阿伯) be waited on first, sometimes! When I go to the barber, he gives me a senior citizen's rate. There is not much hair to cut. I get my Spring dinner (春宴）gratis. It has been fun!
The future of Kong Chow is bright. It holds its place of honor in the community and shares in its activities. We are enjoying the fellowship of new members with new life and new ideas. Our meetings and activities are now bilingual. The newer members enjoy dancing and the new craze karaoke singing with sub-titles in Chinese. Others threaten to use tapes of Elvis and the Beatles where you do not have to read Chinese. We have increased our scholarship awards. We are donating to colleges in Sun Wui and have responded to flood relief in China. Members are interested in class instructions on dancing, kung fu, cooking, learning Mandarin and Cantonese, calligraphy, and brush painting. These ambitious plans are in our future, and the future is bright, thanks to the foresight of our pioneer members and their pursuit until the realization of a dream comes true.
Long live the Kong Chow Association of Los Angeles, U.S.A. Gung Hay Fat Choy to our brotherhood of Kong Chow Association members the world over.