Monkey shines on 82nd Avenue
New Year celebrations at Legin spotlight an emerging community
Thousands of Chinese-Americans are welcoming the Year of the Monkey in Portland with pounding drums, Golden Monkey puppet shows, Cantonese opera and a highflying mix of martial arts and dance.
Inside the banquet hall of Legin Restaurant, the festivities reach a pitch with sword-slinging kung fu artists and writhing dragons. Out in the parking lot, there is not a space to be found. Cars pull up and idle as customers hustle up to the to-go window for freshly roasted pork and duck.
The festivities are taking place roughly 6 miles from Portland's Chinatown, at the corner of Southeast 82nd Avenue and Division Street, inside a remodeled former bowling alley that serves as a de facto community center for a community on the rise.
Legin Restaurant (pronounced lay-ZHIN), the city's largest Chinese restaurant, does more than serve up chicken feet and shark fin soup. The 26,000-square-foot complex plays host to everything from weddings, funerals and birthdays to the most popular Elvis impersonator among Asian seniors. With its dual mission of preserving Chinese culture and expanding its business presence, Legin stands at the center of an ethnic business boom that has community members hoping for big things in the Year of the Monkey, which started Thursday.
'There's no other large gathering place for Chinese-Americans and Asian-Americans in Portland,' says Bill Chin, who was among those celebrating the New Year this week. 'Legin fills in that gap.' Chin, a legal writing professor at Lewis & Clark College, grew up speaking Cantonese in his family's Southeast Portland home.
Because it is the setting for so many special occasions, Legin has become a cultural center for many of the 100,000-plus Asians in and around Portland, 21,662 of whom are fully or partially Chinese-American, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Why there and not in Chinatown?
About 14 percent of the more than 22,000 people who live in the five census tracts surrounding Legin are Asians. By contrast, there are fewer than 100 Asians (2.6 percent) living in the 3,600-person census tract that contains Chinatown.
That's why the big Chinese New Year festival is celebrated at Legin, says Rosaline Hui, editor of the Portland Chinese Times, which has its office near the intersection of Southeast 79th Avenue and Powell Boulevard. 'It's the biggest place, and the Chinese people are all around here. Even the elderly people who can't drive can just walk there or take a bus.'
Legin also serves as a symbol of the entrepreneurial spirit of Portland's Chinese-American community, Chin adds. 'With many Chinese-Americans, we recognize and appreciate prosperity and success,' he says. 'You go out there, you take your chances, and if you succeed, well, you've shown good effort, good wisdom.'
Legin is far from alone in finding prosperity on 82nd Avenue. Dozens of Chinese-owned restaurants, herb shops, video stores, seafood markets, hair salons, investment firms and martial arts centers have sprouted up in between the car lots, taverns and fast-food joints that have long dominated the sprawling area.
Helen Ying, president of the Portland lodge of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance National Organization, says, 'I grew up not far from 82nd, and I remember there used to be just two (Chinese) restaurants to choose from in the neighborhood. Today there are more than a dozen, and then there are all these other businesses as well. Eighty-second is a booming place for Chinese business.'
8 plus 2 makes 'easy money'
Chin and Ying credit relatively cheap rents, easy accessibility and ample parking, as well as demographics, for the success of the Chinese businesses on Southeast 82nd.
Chinese community members say there are two other factors: the hunger of immigrant business owners to invest, save and build; and the mystical power of the numbers eight and two in combination.
Many Chinese people consider eight the luckiest of numbers. In Hong Kong, a personal license plate with the number eight can cost millions. That's because the phonetic sound of eight, 'baat' in Cantonese and somewhere between 'pa' and 'ba' in Mandarin, resembles the word for 'prosperity.'
Similarly, the word for 'two' is associated with the Chinese word for 'easy,' according to native Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.
So for a significant number of Portland's Chinese Americans, 82nd sounds a lot like 'easy money.'
But Legin's general manager and part owner, Kristina Kuo, says she knows from experience that business success rarely comes easily. Her parents, Siou and Kham Bounketh, were entrepreneurs in Laos, running a construction company and a grocery store before the communists took power and abolished private property.
'They went from being very rich to being refugees,' Kuo says. 'They lost everything.'
Kham Bounketh says she and her husband came to the United States by way of a refugee camp in Thailand, arriving in Portland in 1976.
'We knew no one,' she says. 'We had $20 in our pockets, and five kids.'
For a while they attended classes that were provided for free to refugees. But Bounketh recalls how her husband soon tired of depending on government assistance. 'He just wanted to work. We both wanted to work.'
She took two jobs, doubling as an interpreter and a receptionist at a doctor's office. Over time she and her husband amassed their savings until they had enough to invest in a restaurant with four other partners. They bought out their partners in 1997, and the restaurant has been thriving ever since.
Its menu features nearly 300 items. It serves dim sum to up to 1,000 people on a typical Sunday. It ships in about 500 pounds of Maine lobster a week, and sells about 3,000 pounds of duck.
Revenues neared $3 million last year, Kuo says. The restaurant employs 58 people, all of whom speak Cantonese.
During the busy summer months at Legin, it is not unusual to go to dinner there and find yourself among throngs of debonair young Chinese-Americans, arriving in limousines, dressed in tuxedos and gowns. On a busy weekend Legin will host three weddings; last year the restaurant did about 90 of them.
Kuo says she expects the growth to continue, both at Legin and throughout the surrounding neighborhood.
'You watch; in a few years, 82nd will be the new Chinatown,' Kuo predicts. 'The business here just keeps getting better.'
Monkey brings energy
It's standing room only in the sharp red banquet room as the festival continues.
People crowd in for a better view of the martial artists, or to get their fortunes read, or to check out Chinese television stations available via satellite. There are calligraphy demonstrations and cell phone service booths. The woman selling good luck charms is all out of monkeys.
The Year of the Monkey replaces the Year of the Sheep. The sheep is associated with kindness and comfort but is considered a bit docile in Chinese astrology.
The monkey, on the other hand, 'represents energy and a sense of humor,' Hui says. 'The monkey is very energetic, and that means the economy will become very energetic.'
The monkey is one of 12 animals honored cyclically in a lunar calendar tradition that goes back 5,000 years in China. Legend has it that Buddha invited all of the animals to celebrate the new year with him, and he rewarded the 12 that showed up with their own years.
Under the tradition, years exhibit the qualities of their chosen animal, as do people born in those years.
The monkey is a trickster and a player, lauded for his imagination but feared for his opportunism. Among the people born in monkey years are Elizabeth Taylor, Rudolph Giuliani, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and actress Lucy Liu.