Echoes of Asia in L.A.

For unparalleled diversity in Asian culture and Hollywood movie magic, Los Angeles is the place to be

Some years ago I traveled to Taiwan and to save costs I stayed in a super cheap, somewhat dilapidated and terribly grimy guesthouse called Amigo, located in Taipei New City. There I struck up a friendship with an American couple, Jerami Johnson (JJ) and Michelle, who had come to try their hand at teaching English. Jerami and I shared a common interest in photography and we enjoyed discussing different camera techniques. Later they moved back to the States and I moved to Vietnam to work, though we would still talk via the Internet on a regular basis. On his return JJ had an unusual request, he wanted to buy a cyclo and start a business driving tourists up and down Venice Beach. So, I went all over Ho Chi Minh city going to different cyclo workshops sourcing one for him. It was amazing to learn that there were so many different models, styles and, of course, prices for cyclos. After a few weeks searching, word was out and I would literally have a band of cyclo drivers camped out at my office calling out that they had the best price for a new cyclo.

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Fast forward a few years and I was heading to the States on business with a weekend stopover in L.A. JJ and Michelle were kind enough to let me stay at their home. JJ picked me up in his old beat up beige colored ford Bronco jeep. He proceeded to take the long scenic route back to his home. We stopped off at Long Beach to see the supersized container ships berthed at one of America’s busiest ports. While stopping next to a police motorcycle rider with a mean looking machine gun holstered on the back of the bike, I commented on the excessive fire power. JJ explained that a few years ago there had been a bank robbery and pursuant siege where the police were heavily out gunned by the criminals. Ever since then the police had lobbied the city to carry far more firepower.

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JJ‘s home was located in Echo Park, downtown L.A. He explained that it was one of the oldest suburbs in L.A. and that the homes were built during the Victorian era. The area and the houses feature in countless Hollywood movies. In fact, owners of the houses make a substantial side income renting out their homes to Hollywood production companies. Driving around, JJ pointed out the houses that were featured in Top Gun, Back to the Future and Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video.

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Saturday morning JJ dropped me off in nearby Chinatown to start my exploration of downtown L.A., in particular my fascination of how Asian communities have influenced the making of American cities. In the Vietnamese and Chinese languages “America” means “beautiful country.” The Chinese settlers came to America in search of wealth and a new beginning but many were coerced into laborious manual work such as constructing the railroads. I was impressed to see how the Asian community holds onto the old traditions and culture through the various social clubs and facilities in the area such as kung fu, ping-pong and lion dancing. There were many older people using the facilities and there were even heated games of co tuong being played in the park grounds. In the local library a great majority of the books were dedicated to Asian languages and a very large section of Vietnamese novels and literature.

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L.A. is a massive urban sprawl, but within the downtown area there is a public light rail system which links up its inner areas. Purchasing the all-day pass, I jumped on and took the train down to Little Tokyo. The receptionist at the front desk of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Centre was a middle-aged man who proudly told me he was fourth generation American-Japanese. Inside told the story of the Japanese immigrants who made America home as well as the difficult time during WWII for these families who were rounded up and kept in internment camps. The movie Snow Falling on Cedars came to mind as I read about their lives in America in the 20th century. A special Japanese Manga exhibition was also being displayed in the contemporary art section showcasing the exploits of a samurai bunny named Miyamoto Usagi in the comic book series Usagi Yojimbo. On my way out, in the gift shop I purchased a black umbrella with a handle shaped liked a samurai sword grip. Over the years I would always get quite a bit of enjoyment every time I snapped open the umbrella in defiance of the rain.

From Tokyo Town I headed over to Korea Town—150 city blocks spanning 10 streets and 15 avenues. Korea Town is primarily a mix of Asian and Hispanic ethnic groups and it is the most densely populated suburb in L.A. The single biggest ethnic population is by far the Koreans and walking down the main street I passed the Korean consulate and Woori bank (“woori” means “our bank”, one of Korea’s largest banking institutions). Sitting in the Korean restaurant getting a late lunch, I could hear not only Korean but also multiple Asian languages being spoken around me. In the 21st century a new wave of Korean economic migration is now focused on Vietnam, with a sizeable Korean population living in areas such as Phu My Hung in District 7, HCMC.

Sunday I took the subway up to the start of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The street is like a circus sideshow with many people dressed as different movie characters, from Marilyn Monroe to Bumblebee. Movie stars names, from today and yesteryear, some with their handprints and signatures, adorn the sidewalk leading up to the Chinese and Dolby Theatres.

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At the top of the hill I found Universal Studios. Walking up to the ticket booth the seller suggested I purchase the after 2pm discounted “Front of the Line Pass,” allowing me to jump ahead of the queues at all rides. The first ride began with a dinosaur 3D rollercoaster ride, and then we jumped on a tour through the various movie lots and stage sets. Passing through old fake  New York neighborhoods and even a fully downed Boeing 747 mock crash site. It gave me some insight into how Hollywood can create some of the tricks that make movies magical.

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Although Waterworld was a box office flop the spinoff act at Universal has become a popular tourist attraction. The fire from the action packed explosions radiates off the stage straight into your face and add to the spectacle. The Blues Brothers is one of my all-time favorite movies and the music performance from the Jake and Elwood team will have you toe tapping in the audience. The final show I saw was the Hollywood Animal Actors: a trained Vietnamese potbelly pig, the monkey from the Pirates of the Caribbean and a desert fox. The show highlighted the strong bond between the animals and their trusted trainers who help get the animals to perform on camera.

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My feet swollen and blistered from walking on pavement for two days straight, I returned to Echo Park, just on dusk to rendezvous with JJ. He then drove us out to see a photography exhibition his friend was putting on. The highways crisscross through L.A. looking like lit up serpents, snaking their way through the landscape taking us to far off suburbs in the valley. Passing through Orange County, I caught a glimpse of that familiar Vietnamese script I’m so used to, adorning restaurants, businesses and shop fronts.

The exhibition was being held in a professional photography retail store. It documented the life of Jeff Decker, famous artist, historian, collector and, since 2009, Haley-Davidson’s official sculptor. At the exhibition JJ introduced me to his friends Jeff Decker and Chandler Scott. Jeff was wearing a cool leather biker jacket with his trademark name “Decker” on the front. He handed me his business card, which was on a thick piece of white cardboard, embossed on it were just one cool logo and below his name Jeff Decker with no other contact information. Chandler was sporting a gruff beard and wearing the coolest old western hat. Later I’d learn he had actually made that hat and after growing up in L.A. had now moved to Utah to resurrect a dying art form by starting the Tatton Baird hatters, custom made felt and fur hats like those from the Old West.

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After the exhibition we all went over to a local Mexican restaurant known for its super cheap, no fuss meals. The restaurant was open till late into the night and it was a favorite hangout for young people returning from a night out and needing some fast food to soak up the alcohol in their systems. JJ asked me what I wanted but not really knowing Mexican food well I said, “I guess I like the quesadilla.” They all laughed and said it’s “ke-sa-dilla” because having lived in Vietnam I pronounced the “que” like the Vietnamese word for “hometown.”

The last day, with only a few hours before my flight, we got to talking about the roads we’d taken through our journey of life. I asked JJ, “Whatever happened to the cyclo?” He replied, “I’ll show you.” He took me to the garage at the front of his house and lifted the roller door shutter and inside the garage rested his two greatest possessions—the cyclo and a custom built Harley-Davidson chopper. He explained that after a short-lived career on Venice Beach he had to shelf his business because the insurance coverage was just too high. He later turned his hobby and passion of photography into a profession, working as the onset photographer for the Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage.

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Today JJ is a freelance photographer based in Japan (follow him on Instagram @photobyjj). He shipped his beloved chopper over and cruises through the scenic villages, forests and rice fields on the back roads of country Japan. A free spirit with camera always in hand, he’s living the Asian dream of documenting everyday life in Japan as well as the interesting and often bizarre alternative subcultures that seem to thrive on that amazing archipelago.

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Images by David Muller and Jerami Johnson (Instagram@photobyjj)

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