The Formosa Cafe Still Has Its Swagger — And A Room Devoted To Asian Actors
The first thing you notice when you walk into the rehabbed Formosa Cafe is the wallpaper. It's fire engine red and flocked with velvet pagodas and curlicues. Like the rest of the joint, it's authentically inauthentic.
"Over the two years of restoration, [the wallpaper] was one of the most important things to me," says Bobby Green, who oversaw the beloved bar and restaurant's revamp for 1933 Group.
During the renovation, crews probably peeled back 10 different wallpapers. Three of them were felted and red, and all were different, but none of them were spectacular, according to Green.
He tapped designer Tina Charad, whose work you can see in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, and the two of them collaborated on a new design that incorporated elements from the old wallpapers and featured the Formosa's pagoda logo. Then he found a supplier on the East Coast and ordered yards and yards of the stuff.
That's how most of the Formosa Cafe's latest iteration came to be. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something red.
Just past the entryway, which is decorated with collages of news clippings compiled by former owner Lem Quon, you might notice a glass portal in the floor.
It's in Bugsy Siegel's booth. During the 1940s, the gangster "ran a lot of his operations out of here," Green says. "The ownership at the time must have turned a blind eye to it or maybe was getting a slight kickback. Who knows? This is where he would sit."
People who owed the mobster money could show up at night and drop it through a slot, into the safe. Siegel could return the next day, when no one was around, and retrieve the cash. That way, he never had to be involved in a direct exchange.
In the 1990s, when Vince Jung, Quon's grandson, took over the Formosa, the safe hadn't been opened since Siegel's murder in 1947. Jung hired a safecracker -- the son of the guy who had installed the safe for Siegel -- to find out if the box held anything valuable.
In grand Geraldo-opening-Al-Capone's-vault tradition, it held nothing. But it inspired Green to showcase the safe. He removed the door, put a light inside, had a brass plaque made at a nearby trophy store and installed a glass door on top.
Green was lucky that Jung had stored many of the Formosa's decorations and ephemera after stepping away from the joint. By then, the Formosa's owners had fought off multiple attempts to destroy or redevelop the building, but the venue had fallen on hard times. Its seedy glamour wasn't all that seedy -- or all that glamorous. The drinks were bad. The food was terrible (not that people ever came here to eat). The vibe was dull.
The group that took over in 2015 made it worse. They revamped the restaurant, "replacing its red and black interior, lined with numerous celebrity portraits, with gray walls and a loathed mural." In the process, they stripped it of the charm that filmmaker John Waters and regulars loved.
The attempts to transform the Formosa into a high-end cocktail bar did not go well. "This place is so beloved by multiple generations of Angelenos," Green says. "There was backlash immediately." In late 2016 or early 2017, the Formosa shuttered with little warning.
When the 1933 Group stepped in, Green reached out to Jung, who had stored most of the Formosa's decorations rather than chucking them. "He had a lot of old photographs and there was still a lot of originality here," Green says. Jung ended up advising on the renovations.
The Formosa still had its original red leather booths, its main bar and its famous trolley car, dating back to 1902. It also had a back patio and an upstairs patio, which had been added in the 2000s, when smoking bans went into effect.
Prior to this overhaul, which reportedly cost $2.4 million, you had to step outside the Formosa and walk around the back to access the smoking patio. That space had always been disconnected from the rest of the venue. To link it to the main bar, Green tore down a wall, which had the added benefit of showing off the vintage Red Line trolley car. It also gave him a new room to work with. But what to do with the new backroom?
"I wanted to find a way to incorporate old Chinese Hollywood into the space," says Green. He had a representative from the 1933 Group reached out to filmmaker and author Arthur Dong to ask if he had photos of Chinese actresses they could use.
"My initial response was, 'Do I have photos of Nancy Kwan and Lisa Lu?," Dong says. "I have over 2,000 pieces of film ephemera that cover Chinese-Americans in Hollywood."
Dong had written the book Forbidden City, USA: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970 and made the 2007 documentary Hollywood Chinese. He was in the midst of writing his latest book, Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films, which comes out Oct. 17 from Angel City Press. It was a fortuitous connection. Dong had been collecting movie memorabilia since the 1960s, when he was a kid. But he didn't jump on board the project right away.
"I knew the history of the Formosa and I had a good time there," Dong says, "but I knew what it could also represent, which is a misappropriation of Chinese culture. After meeting Bobby, I felt they wanted to do it right. They had a particular Western lens, but they really wanted to honor this history."
Dong had curated exhibitions in libraries and museums but never a bar. He had to rethink how an exhibition could work in a space where people would be drinking and eating, not coming for an educational experience. "I didn't want it to inspire anybody to say, 'Hey, what a great idea for a costume. I can put on yellow face and start slanting my eyes up and mimicking Chinese people and parodying them in a racist way," he says.
Dong started by pulling headshots from his personal collection, which includes approximately 2,000 pieces of ephemera. He wanted to showcase Asian American actors who had worked in Hollywood from the early 1910s to about 1970.
"Chinese characters on screen have been played by people of other ethnic groups, including Japanese and Korean actors," Dong says. "I wanted to include their participation as well. You didn't need to be ethnically Chinese or of Chinese descent to be a part of the installation that I was designing. What was important was that you were portraying a Chinese character, like James Shigeta, who played a key role in Flower Drum Song."
Dong ultimately selected 61 photos and arranged them in chronological order along the upper beam of the Formosa's backroom.
He also created several themed boards highlighting specific topics, like Chinese Westerns, and movies such as The Good Earth. Each one has an informational card filled with details and lore.
The 1937 film, based on the book by Pearl S. Buck, follows a pair of Chinese farmers through good and bad times. "It was one of the first Hollywood epics to try to be sensitive to the portrayal of Chinese characters," Dong says. It also starred two white actors, in yellowface.
"I wanted to acknowledge that this happened," Dong says, "but what is not often talked about are the 75 or so supporting actors and speaking roles that were played by Asian American actors, or the thousands of Chinese actors and extras who were recruited from L.A.'s Chinatown for the bigger scenes." He decided to highlight the Chinese American and Asian American actors who participated in the film.
Green, for his part, expanded the backroom's small service bar by adding a coveted piece of local history -- an ornate, carved countertop and bar that had once been a fixture at Yee Mee Loo, a popular restaurant and bar in Chinatown. The piece is "known as the Kwan Yin bar, after the Chinese goddess of compassion," according to the L.A. Times.
Located at the corner of Spring and Ord streets, Yee Mee Loo closed in 1989. The bartender, Richard, "went on to work at the Good Luck Bar, which was sort of a semi-classy recreation of Yee Mee Loo," writes Eating L.A. (Good Luck Bar closed earlier this year.)
Claudia Low, who had overseen Yee Mee Loo for five decades, kept the backdrop and moved it to Cinnabar in Glendale. When that place closed, in 2005, she moved it to her living room. Green reached out to Low and she liked his pitch. He acquired the large piece and installed it behind the bar in the Formosa's backroom.
Research revealed that the bar was actually a prop that had come from the set of The Good Earth. "During that movie," Green says, "[the production team] went to China and brought over tons of antiques to use in the movie." One of them was this piece, which became a shrine where characters in the film went to pray. After filming wrapped, the shrine ended up at Yee Mee Loo where it became their bar. Now, it's at the Formosa.
"It's such an amazing intertangle of Chinese history, American history and Hollywood," Green says, "all mixed up into this crazy cocktail."