Fam­ily bakery still rises in the yeast

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - frank.shy­ong@latimes.com Twit­ter: @frankshy­ong

The cakes kept com­ing out too small, too dry, too dense. Friends and rel­a­tives com­plained that Youlen Chan’s bak­ing was not like his fa­ther’s.

As a newly minted grad­u­ate of the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Bak­ing tak­ing over his fam­ily’s busi­ness, Youlen had no choice but to try again.

By the time he took charge in 1979, Phoenix Bakery had be­come a Chi­na­town in­sti­tu­tion, and his fa­ther’s straw­berry cake — two sponge rounds sep­a­rated by a gen­er­ous help­ing of straw­ber­ries, coated in lightly sweet cream frost­ing — was the bakery’s star prod­uct.

“The cake was good, but it wasn’t ‘Phoenix cake,’ ” Youlen said of his early ef­forts. “It wasn’t like his.”

It took Youlen, now 62, more than a year to fi­nally fig­ure out his dad’s recipe. His fa­ther, Lun Chan, left no blue­print be­yond a list of in­gre­di­ents. It was a strug­gle that would seem fa­mil­iar to any of the de­scen­dants of Phoenix Bakery’s orig­i­nal founders: up­hold the fam­ily legacy, but with­out spe­cific in­struc­tions about how.

“A lot of things in Chinese fam­i­lies are not nec­es­sar­ily said. Our par­ents never said, ‘Go to school and get good grades,’ ” Kathy Ceppi, whose fa­ther, Fung Chow Chan, and mother, Wai­hing, started the bakery and were soon joined by Lun.

“But you did it, be­cause it was un­der­stood.”

Phoenix Bakery, one of five re­main­ing busi­nesses that opened when Chi­na­town was estab­lished, turns 80 this year. Its sur­vival has re­quired the col­lec­tive ef­forts of a far-flung multi­gen­er­a­tional Chinese Amer­i­can fam­ily that in­cludes a pe­di­atric ther­a­pist in BelAir, an en­gi­neer in Sil­ver Lake, an ac­coun­tant in Pa­los Verdes and a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional in Ar­ca­dia — not to men­tion their sons, daugh­ters, hus­bands and wives.

Else­where in Chi­na­town, Phoenix Bakery’s con­tem­po­raries have not been so lucky. Ma Jen Low, estab­lished in 1878, closed awhile ago when the last re­main­ing fam­ily mem­ber in­volved with the busi­ness could no longer en­dure the long train rides from Or­ange County.

A group of ag­ing broth­ers trade shifts to keep the gift shop KG Louie open for a few hours a week, un­able to lure their chil­dren into the busi­ness.

And as Chi­na­town and other his­tor­i­cally eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties con­front gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, ris­ing rents and chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics, the ques­tion of who takes over the fam­ily busi­ness be­comes an ex­is­ten­tial one. What hap­pens to the neigh­bor­hood when its sons and daugh­ters leave?

Phoenix Bakery was estab­lished in 1938 at a time when racist laws and prac­tices pre­vented Chinese im­mi­grants from get­ting bank loans, own­ing homes in most neigh­bor­hoods and re­unit­ing with their fam­i­lies from abroad. Wai­hing sug­gested open­ing a bakery to re­mind peo­ple of the things they had to cel­e­brate.

The fam­ily pri­mar­ily sold Can­tonese sweets such as sesame and al­mond cook­ies to chop suey restau­rants and dime stores. A few years later, Lun Chan con­cocted the straw­berry cake that would es­tab­lish the bakery as a Chi­na­town in­sti­tu­tion by the 1960s.

Lun, Fung Chow and Wai­hing never asked their chil­dren to take over the bakery. But the lack of dis­cus­sion did not make the next gen­er­a­tion’s sense of obli­ga­tion any less pal­pa­ble, said Ken­neth Chan, who is Fung Chow and Wai­hing’s se­cond-old­est son. Their par­ents set an ex­am­ple of sac­ri­fice and work ethic that each child was ex­pected to live up to.

“My dad has al­ways preached this to me: Re­mem­ber where you came from,” said Ken­neth, 66.

All of the chil­dren worked as soon as they were old enough to be use­ful. They dipped but­ter­fly cook­ies in sweet glaze and washed cake pans.

“You never talked back or said it was bor­ing. Any­thing that needed to be done, you just did it,” Kathy said.

Fung Chow was an in­no­va­tive busi­ness­man who helped launch East West Bank and Cathay Bank to serve Asian im­mi­grants who were dis­crim­i­nated against by other fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions. He be­came one of Chi­na­town’s most well-known fig­ures, and his legacy loomed large over each of his chil­dren’s lives. So many in Chi­na­town re­lied on Fung Chow’s banks for loans and cel­e­brated their birthdays and wed­ding an­niver­saries with Lun’s cakes. Guest lists at Chan fam­ily wed­dings and fu­ner­als ran into the thou­sands.

And though Lun, Fung Chow and Wai­hing never put any pres­sure on any of their chil­dren to keep the bakery go­ing, aunts and un­cles lec­tured them on the im­por­tance of keep­ing the fam­ily busi­ness alive.

“They never pres­sured any of us to make the bakery our full-time life,” said Doulen, Lun’s old­est son. “But they never made a plan to sell the place. They never even talked about it. So we knew.”

Doulen stud­ied at UCLA and be­came an en­gi­neer for Hughes Air­craft. Leland, Lun’s youngest son, be­came a med­i­cal tech­ni­cian. And so the apron fell to Youlen, who was at the time a “to­tal bum” who didn’t have much of an in­ter­est in school.

Youlen dreamed up an am­bi­tious com­mis­sary to ri­val Porto’s, the lo­cal Cuban bakery chain, cre­at­ing plans for a cen­tral­ized bak­ing fa­cil­ity with mul­ti­ple satel­lite lo­ca­tions in Lin­coln Heights and Echo Park. He per­suaded the fam­ily board to in­vest thou­sands of dol­lars in new equip­ment that would al­low the bakery to pro­duce far more cakes and pas­tries with much less work.

“I wanted this place to get re­ally, re­ally big,” Youlen said.

But his new ma­chines and col­lege-ed­u­cated pro­duc­tion meth­ods failed to re­pro­duce his fa­ther’s straw­berry cake.

He con­sulted his pro­fes­sor at the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Bak­ing and ex­per­i­mented with adding ice to the mix­ture to help con­trol the tem­per­a­ture. He con­tacted the equip­ment man­u­fac­turer, which sent a tech­ni­cian out to puz­zle over the ma­chin­ery. But the cake still came out flat. Youlen started com­ing in on week­ends and his days off to bake cakes, la­bor­ing to cre­ate sponge that was as airy as the orig­i­nal. He be­gan to dread see­ing his fa­ther.

“It was never, ‘Hey, how are you do­ing, how are the kids?’ ” Youlen said. “It was al­ways, ‘How come you’re bak­ing so much? Why are you charg­ing so much for the but­ter­flies?’ ”

Each morn­ing he would ar­rive at the bakery around 9 a.m., tuck his surf board be­hind some crates in the ware­house, then bake and ice cakes un­til dusk. If there was still day­light, he’d drive down to Mal­ibu and do the one thing that eased the stress of hon­or­ing his fa­ther’s legacy: surf un­til it got dark.

Fi­nally, he fig­ured out that pump­ing the bat­ter through the ma­chin­ery was forc­ing the air from the mix­ture. Youlen ad­justed the con­fig­u­ra­tion of the ma­chines, and one day, out of the oven came a cake that re­sem­bled his fa­ther’s.

Youlen’s hard-won vic­tory did not elicit a vis­i­ble re­ac­tion from his fa­ther. A World War II vet­eran, Lun Chan “didn’t say much un­less you screwed up,” Youlen said.

Youlen un­der­stands that his la­bor even­tu­ally al­lowed his fa­ther to re­tire. But up un­til the day he died in 2016, his fa­ther never ex­pressed any sen­ti­ment about his son fol­low­ing in his foot­steps, Youlen said.

On a re­cent week­day, Kathy, her brother Ken­neth and Youlen sat around a ta­ble in the bakery and rem­i­nisced about their ex­pe­ri­ences work­ing there. Pay was 99 cents an hour. Shifts were manda­tory, and com­plain­ing was not al­lowed. Even­tu­ally, the sub­ject of their par­ents came up.

“Your dad was proud of you, though he might not have told you,” Kathy told Youlen. “He told me.”

“Yeah, well,” Youlen said. “It was the kind of thing where you knew they were happy but they never came out and said it.”

But as he fell silent, the cor­ner of his mouth slowly sloped into a smile.

Fung Chow Chan died in 2001, and Lun Chan passed away in 2016. Af­ter Fung Chow’s old­est son, Kel­logg, died last year, the fam­ily be­gan to se­ri­ously con­sider the long-term prospects of the bakery. Foot traf­fic in Chi­na­town was de­clin­ing, and the bakery on North Broad­way needed both ren­o­va­tion and in­no­va­tion.

“Are we go­ing to be the gen­er­a­tion that’s known for let­ting our par­ents’ legacy die?” Ken­neth re­mem­bers ask­ing.

Over the years, the nat­u­ral or­bits of their lives had taken the fam­ily far­ther and far­ther from Chi­na­town and the bakery. De­mand­ing ca­reers left less time to help out Youlen at the bakery. When Chi­na­town’s pre­mier ban­quet venue, Em­press Pavil­ion, closed, the fam­ily’s an­nual Chinese New Year’s cel­e­bra­tion moved to a dim sum restau­rant in Mon­terey Park. Most of the se­cond gen­er­a­tion moved to the sub­urbs, seek­ing af­ford­able homes and good schools for their chil­dren.

Their con­nec­tions to Chinese cul­ture had also faded with time. Eric Chan, Fung Chow’s grand­son, elected to play sports over at­tend­ing Chinese school on Satur­days. Kathy gave birth to An­drea Pur­cell, the fam­ily’s first mixed-race child. Span­ish is spo­ken more com­monly than Can­tonese in the third gen­er­a­tion. When the fam­ily vis­ited China a few years ago, it was as Amer­i­can tourists clad in match­ing bright red T-shirts that read “Chan Fam­ily Tour 1991.”

But the third gen­er­a­tion grew up in the ever-length­en­ing shadow of the bakery’s legacy in Chi­na­town, cel­e­brat­ing their birthdays with its cakes and watch­ing Chinese New Year’s pa­rades from its win­dows.

Many of them have stepped up to help keep the bakery alive. Eric, a fi­nance ex­ec­u­tive with Kaiser Per­ma­nente, serves on the bakery’s man­ag­ing board and launched a re­view of its fi­nances. Melissa, Lun’s grand­daugh­ter, runs the bakery’s Face­book and In­sta­gram ac­counts. Tif­fany, Fung Chow’s grand­daugh­ter, helped build the web­site and makes mar­ket­ing sug­ges­tions. And An­drea Pur­cell, Fung Chow’s old­est grand­daugh­ter, now brings her son and daugh­ter to help at the bakery.

For Pur­cell, the best legacy of the bakery isn’t the cake or the cook­ies — it’s the fam­ily that came to­gether around it.

“Grow­ing up, I had this mas­sive Chinese fam­ily that was ev­ery­where, and we saw them all the time,” she said. “It’s of greater value to me that we are a fam­ily than hav­ing this busi­ness.”

Gabriel S. Scar­lett Los An­ge­les Times By Frank Shy­ong

MELISSA CHAN puts the fin­ish­ing touch on a cake at Phoenix Bakery, a fam­ily-owned Chi­na­town in­sti­tu­tion for more than 80 years.

Pho­to­graphs by Gabriel S. Scar­lett Los An­ge­les Times

PHOENIX BAKERY was estab­lished in 1938 at a time when racist laws pre­vented Chinese im­mi­grants from get­ting bank loans, own­ing homes in most neigh­bor­hoods and re­unit­ing with their fam­i­lies from abroad.

IT TOOK Youlen Chan nearly a year to mas­ter Phoenix Bakery’s star prod­uct: his fa­ther’s straw­berry cake, two sponge rounds sep­a­rated by a gen­er­ous help­ing of straw­ber­ries, coated in lightly sweet cream frost­ing.

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