Tuesday, May 5, 2020

My First Celebrity Sighting

For something that happened over 60 years ago, I can vividly remember my first celebrity sighting.  It was around 1957 that I saw the legendary Buster Keaton, song and dance man Donald O'Connor and glamour girl Ann Blyth make personal appearances in the Thrifty Drug Store in the shopping center on the corner of La Brea Ave. and Rodeo Road, now known as Obama Blvd.  I particularly remember O'Connor being introduced and coming out in a brightly lit area with a fair number of spectators ringing the scene.  (Thanks to a parallel thread I started on a neighborhood message board, that was in the area normally occupied by the Thrifty diner.)

While I have thought about this event occasionally over the years, it never occurred to me to figure out the nature of that event.  I mean why those stars and at that location?  I guess one reason is that there really wasn't any way to get an answer, except maybe to ask my parents while they were alive.  But like so many other things, as I once wrote a few years ago, unknowable facts in the past become easily answered in the internet age.  And a simple Google search today for "Buster Keaton Donald O'Connor Ann Blyth" revealed instantaneously that Donald O'Connor and Ann Blyth starred in "The Buster Keaton Story" which was released in 1957.  So that appearance by the trio was a promotional event for the release of the movie.

It took a little more searching to figure out why they appeared at that particular location.  We moved into the adjacent Crenshaw area in 1952, and even then it was a largely a minority neighborhood, predominantly African-American, but with a relatively large concentration of Asian-Americans and a few holdover whites.  I could see such event at the nearby Crenshaw Center (now Baldwin Hills Plaza) which featured department stores and specialty shops, and whose 1947 opening indeed was star studded with Mel Torme, among others, celebrating the opening of this shopping center so newsworthy that it was covered in Life Magazine.  But the La Brea/Rodeo shopping center only contained Thrifty Drug Store, Alpha Beta Market, and a small arcade area that included a small barber shop, maybe a shoe shine stand, and a couple of other stores.  However after a little digging I discovered that the Thrifty drug store was the largest location of that chain in the country at the time and was reminded that the property was also home to Thrifty's corporate headquarters.  And when the complex opened in 1952, there was a star studded celebration that included Anne Baxter and Tony Martin.

So who knows what other big name celebrities may have passed through that modest looking shopping center over the years.. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

Chinese Restaurants Take A Pounding From The Pandemic

Obviously these are tough times for everybody, rougher for some than others.  Particularly hard hit is the restaurant industry due to the precarious economics of the business, where a restaurant operation can expect net profit of 3 percent on sales even in good times.   Even more precariously situated are restaurant workers, as restaurant wages are often 25 percent or more of restaurant costs, so it doesn’t take much of a decline in restaurant revenue in such a low margin industry to trigger labor cutbacks.

However, Chinese restaurants have been hit by a triple whammy during this pandemic.  Not only have they been buffeted by the general economic disaster as amplified in the restaurant industry, but they have suffered additionally for being Chinese restaurants.  This is because COVID 19 originated in China, and from the beginning has been associated with things Chinese, as indicated by unfortunate terms such as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.”  Immediately as the virus spread through China, business at Chinese restaurants in the United States, and indeed throughout the world, began to sink even before the rest of the world economy and other types of restaurants became impacted.

Startled by this unwelcome rise of xenophobia, the food community attempted to fight back.  Food bloggers around the country attempted to whip up support for neighborhood Chinese restaurants.  An organization called No Appetite For Ignorance started a campaign to support Chinese restaurants around the world by having Chinese food personalities, including the greatest Chinese food expert of all, Fuchshia Dunlop, highlight their favorite Chinese restaurants.   (You can check out my own recs here.)

Unfortunately this did not stanch the bleeding, and indeed one Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles neighborhood where I grew up, Kim’s Restaurant, had to shut its doors due to anti-Chinese harassment after serving the neighborhood for over 40 years.  Meanwhile, things got ugly at Taste of China Restaurant in Chesapeake, Virginia.  The restaurant owner saw her car vandalized with anti-Chinese graffiti and “Go Back To China” written on it.   People have run into the restaurant screaming anti-Chinese epithets and pouring water in the premises.  Fortunately both of these episodes had happy endings.  At Kim’s Restaurant, upset customers tracked down the restaurant owner and presented him with a ten page printout from the neighborhood online message board from customers decrying the anti-Chinese harassment and saying how much the customers missed the restaurant.  After seeing the extent of neighborhood support, Kim’s Restaurant reopened.  Meanwhile, the customers of Taste of China organized a takeout tailgate in the restaurant’s parking lot, overwhelming the restaurant with orders.  Unfortunately, the reported episodes of anti-Asian Covid 19 related bias have numbered in the thousands (not counting people calling up Chinese restaurants to order bat dishes) and most of the endings are not so happy.

Of course the early body blow to the Chinese restaurant industry can’t be blamed completely on anti-Chinese xenophobia.  Admittedly, Chinese-Americans themselves started abandoning Chinese restaurants even before the corona virus was making a conspicuous presence in the United States.  I remember exchanging Chinese New Year’s greetings with one of my old Chinese friends this past January.   But when the subject of our annual Chinese New Year lunch meeting came up, he told me that he was not going to set foot in a Chinese restaurant until the whole corona virus thing blew over.  And while Chinese New Year restaurant gatherings were not largely affected at the end in January, business at Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, which cater almost exclusively to Chinese diners, fell off throughout the month of February as Chinese-Americans went into a shelter-in-place before being ordered to do so by government officials.   I remember having lunch with another friend, a former Chinese restaurant owner, at the end of February and he estimated that business had already dropped by roughly 30 percent at San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants, at a time where dining out in the greater community had yet to decline.

Things started to crash a week into March when we drove up to one of the more popular Chinese restaurants, Henry’s Cuisine in Alhambra on an early Sunday evening and we weren’t even sure whether the restaurant was open or not.  At first we thought it was just kind of early for dinner, but we saw the sign on the door which indicated they were in fact open, but would be closing the following day until May, due to a sharp decline in business.  That first episode was quite a shock. But then in the next few days we heard of a few other Chinese restaurants doing the same thing.   Later in the week, cities started ordering dine in restaurants to cut their seating capacity by 50 percent, and by weekend, dine-in operations were ordered to shut, with only takeout or delivery permitted.

The closure of dine-in eating in the middle of March was obviously the watershed moment for restaurants in general and Chinese restaurants in particular.  Large Chinese restaurants with a high cost structure and smaller, marginal Chinese restaurants were the first to close, either on an interim or permanent basis.  Since then, Chinese restaurants have been struggling to adapt to a take out and delivery world.  Some which tried to make a go of takeout and delivery subsequently closed.  But others, like Woon in Los Angeles, closed initially on a strategic basis, and as their subsequent path became clear, re-opened for takeout and delivery.   Henry’s Cuisine did reopen for takeout in early May, but closed again after two days with plans to reopen again in a month.  Quite often the continuing operations came on a modified basis, including changes to hours, changes to the menu, adding inventories of food products and supplies for resale, refusing credit cards and taking cash only, and other adaptations.   

Industry statistics indicate that the closure rate for Chinese restaurants during the pandemic have been more than double than that of other categories of restaurants in the United States.  While part of that may be connected to the current stigma of being a Chinese restaurant, another factor is that a higher percentage of family owned Chinese restaurants are operating on a “shoestring” compared to other types of restaurants.  As celebrity Chinese American chef Ming Tsai has stated, the post-pandemic future for mom and pop restaurants in general is bleak, warning that half of these operations are not likely to survive.  https://finance.yahoo.com/news/ming-tsai-50-of-mom-and-pop-restaurants-cannot-get-through-coronavirus-pandemic-191715552.html?.tsrc=fin-srch    And mom and pop Chinese restaurants would seem to be at greater risk.

We all hope things return to normal as soon as possible with the least amount of disruption.  But realistically it is unavoidable that some restaurants will not reopen, and in this regard Chinese restaurants are more vulnerable.  Besides falling into economic distress at an earlier point in time and the xenophobia factor, there is a particularly high concentration of “mom and pop” Chinese restaurants      Unfortunately, then, it is quite likely that many of us will not have the opportunity to ever eat at some of our favorite Chinese restaurants again.