by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times includes on the front page of the “California” section a very interesting article by Hailey Branson-Potts about the F. Suie One Asian antique store in Pasadena. Noted as one of the oldest of its kind in the country, the enterprise is remarkable in that it has been open continuously since 1888 and this is even more amazing given its specialized nature. As Branson-Potts explained founder Fong See migrated from China at age 14 in 1871, the year of the horrific massacre in Los Angeles of nineteen Chinese by a mob of whites and Latinos.
The last half of the 19th century included the immigration of many Chinese, who were routinely subject to all manner of terrible treatment in their adopted country, but people like See persevered to make a better life amid the immense challenges facing them from a very hostile majority population during an era that included, as just one instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting their immigration to the United States.
See began his career in Sacramento “by selling crotchless underwear made from Chinese silk to brothels” and, his granddaughter Leslee Leong, who owns the store with her husband Joe Schulman, added that “he would have fancy underwear made for fancy white ladies.” He hired Leticie “Ticie” Pruett, a white woman, as a salesperson and, when the two fell in love but could not wed because of interracial marriage bans in California, they had an attorney create a social contract instead. It was Mrs. See who suggested selling antiques and, despite the continuing scourge of anti-Asian sentiment, the couple found their avenue to success in burgeoning Los Angeles, roughly a quarter century after the massacre.
By the late 1890s, the business was established on First Street between Spring and Broadway and, soon afterward, on Spring Street south of Third, and it was readily apparent that Fong See proved particularly prescient when it came to selecting locations for the main store and later branches, choosing sites that were in prime business districts. Spring Street was the commercial district of downtown at the time and an early ad for an auction (these were frequently conducted for the firm when it was time for clearance of existing inventory to make way for new items picked up on Fong See’s frequent trips to Asia.) There were some challenges in the early years, however.
For example, in November 1900, the Los Angeles Times reported “a squad of police officers raided a Spring-street lottery joint last night and arrested three Chinamen for conducting the illegal business.” It then added that “in appearance the establishment of the F. Suie One Company . . . is an eminently respectable curio store for the sale of Oriental antiques.” It described See as “an affable Mongolian, who speaks good English, wears English clothes and has an American wife.” Purportedly, the article continued, “his legitimate business pays well, but the profits are limited,” so it was alleged he sold lottery tickets on the sly as it was all profit.
It was reported that he’d been arrested and convicted on the same charge eight months before and paid a $200 fine. Given this, it was added, See developed a complicated system of passwords and countersigns to get to the room where tickets were available. The issue of the illegality of lottery tickets is a complicated one, especially when the attention of Anglo authorities was directed at people of color, such as the Chinese. Notable, too, is the mixed depiction of See by the Times.
Over time, however, the business did well, even as the plight of Asians continued to be very difficult, including laws banning land ownership and the open ridicule, through caricatures and stereotypes, directed toward them. A great deal of this success was due to the growing interest in the exoticism of Asian societies and cultures and F. Suie One Company was able to establish a second location, by 1901, in the historic Chinatown area, with the first one being at 414 S. Main, just south of the Pico House hotel in the Plaza, the historic core of the Angel City.
Within four years, a second store was opened on Spring, south of 4th, a likely recognition of the importance of that section of town for clientele. As the main shopping district shifted southwest, this location moved to Hill and 9th streets and then to 7th and Flower, as the former was becoming the prime spot for that aspect of the local economy. By the early Twenties, another move was made a couple blocks to the east near where the 110 Freeway cuts through downtown. In winter 1906, the Plaza location was moved to 510 N. Los Angeles Street to the east of the Plaza and this store continued to operate there for many decades.
Further success led the Sees to open branches, including one in downtown Pasadena, also in early 1906, where well-heeled customers from that city would, presumably, support the enterprise, though, after more than 15 years, the expiration of a lease caused a closure; Pomona, where a downtown store opened the following year; Hollywood, where by 1922, a store was opened in “Grauman’s Court,” which, somewhat incongruously was in the courtyard of Sid Grauman’s famous Egyptian Theatre, not his later Chinese Theatre; and Long Beach, where also in the early Twenties, a shop was opened in the famous Pike amusement park.
The significant expansion of the business and the opening of those branches culminated in plans in 1923, the peak year of a regional real estate boom that began at the start of the decade, to take a 89-year lease at a site at the southwest corner of Seventh and Bixel streets with the store to be the ground floor occupant of a planned 12-story, height-limit, half-million dollar commercial building.
It was reported in the Times that the architecture was to be “primarily of an Oriental character,” making it a novelty for a period when Renaissance Revival and other “classical” styles were generally standard. A carved marble exterior to the main entrance was to be inspired by a temple in Peking (Beijing). The store was to have a miniature Buddhist Temple inside, a display patio for garden furniture and other outdoor offerings, and a luxuriously appointed showroom. The structure, however, was never built.
Still, the Roaring Twenties looks to have been the heyday, despite the imposition of America’s first immigration laws in 1924, of the F. Suie One Company. Advertising was frequent, articles about the business fairly commonplace, including from the Times, and the operation of four stores was testament to its popularity. Asian exoticism continued to be in vogue, including antiques, art, decorative pieces, clothing and the massive interest in mah-jongg. Celebrations of the Chinese New Year, generally a month or so after ours, were also promoted in company ads.
In fact, the inventory-wide auctions and big sales largely vanished after the end of World War I, though returned in winter 1927 with a sale that was “necessary due to condemnation proceedings in the process of lowering 7th Street.” That summer, however, F. Suie One returned to Pasadena with an opening on South Los Robles Avenue. Because of the destruction of the 7th Street building, the company opened its new branch at another prime location, on Wilshire Boulevard two blocks east of the Ambassador Hotel, where, it can be assumed, tourists staying at the luxury hostelry would patronize the store.
By 1931, there was a return to the Seventh Street shopping district with a new store at 7th and Flower, though it does look as if the onset and worsening of the Great Depression had an effect on the business as was the case for most. The branches at Long Beach and Hollywood were closed and, eventually, the Chinatown store was relocated when that area of the Plaza was redeveloped with the building of Union Station during the Thirties and reopened in “China City,” another tourist-oriented project led by Christine Sterling, who spearheaded the development of Olvera Street into a “Mexican marketplace,” and now the city’s Chinatown.
Still, the store persevered and remained open through ensuing decades and moved to its current location on East Colorado Boulevard near Pasadena City College in the early Eighties. In 1995, Lisa See, the great-granddaughter of Fong and Letty See and cousin of Leslee Leong, wrote On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, which spawned a museum exhibition that appeared at the Autry Museum of the American West and The Smithsonian Institution and an opera.
As for F. Suie One, it remains open, but as Branson-Potts writes about in her article, there is the struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty about the future given Leslee Leong and Joe Schulman’s ages, as they are both well into their seventies, and the fact that their children will not, apparently, take over when that time comes. The piece concludes with Schulman saying “we don’t have any plans of retiring. We love to do this. But we won’t live forever.” This past May, the Huntington Library acquired the Leong family papers.
The Homestead collection has a pair of artifacts related to F. Suie One Company. The first is a small pamphlet with, on the front cover, a beautiful colorful stylized image of a young Chinese woman in traditional clothing with something of an abstract oval decorative element behind her, while the back cover has the Seventh Street store address. The inside states that company was an importer of Chinese art and an interior decorator, with teak furniture, rugs and porcelains. The addresses of the four branches in Los Angeles (with phone numbers for those two locations), Hollywood and Long Beach are given along with the motto “FOR EVERYTHING CHINESE.” The date March 2, 1924 is written in pencil at the top and it would appear this was acquired by a tourist because the back cover shows signs that the item was pasted-down into an album or scrapbook.
The second object is a photograph, dated 12 August 1925, and showing the F. Suie One Company store on Los Angeles Street from the northeast. The three-story brick structure has a very large sign painting for the store on its northern side, while the business name is on a sign over the northern most entrance to the first floor portion. An older wooden building with a steeply pitched gabled roof and dormer windows is to its south and a two-story brick structure with awnings along its first-floor front and along the second-story windows and a single-story brick building at the corner are to the north. The Plaza and Olvera Street were just behind these buildings.
So, it was great to see the Times article, both because it highlighted the struggles of a small family-owned business like F. Suie One Company (much bigger though it once was) which represents an important element of Chinese-American history in greater Los Angeles and because the Homestead happens to have a couple of 1920s artifacts relating to the business. Let’s hope that, somehow, the store can continue to operate for as long as possible.