Friday, June 11, 2010

Remembering a Chinatown Treasure

Dick Avakian, Chinatown, Fresno,  David Owens
Dick Avakian, Chinatown Fresno, 1999 Photo David Owens
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Dick Avakian: Remembering a Living Treasure in Old Town Chinatown
By David Owens
June 11, 2010
Dick Avakian's Dick's Menswear has been a fixture in Fresno's Chinatown for longer than most of us have been alive. It was impossible to pass by his shop at 1526 Kern St ( Between F Street and China Alley) and not stop in to hear the latest happenings.

Even now, after he has been gone over a year I still turn my head to look  straight through the door where he would sit in the middle of a long row of chairs reading The Fresno Bee. And usually involved in a  conversation or helping a customer at the same time.

 No, he really is gone. The sign is there, the store is open and there are some nice people there -- but it's not the same. Dick was a central personality in the fabric of Chinatown. He officially retired from his shop in 2003, but he came down to Chinatown every morning to his building on Tulare Street, a block from his shop. It was a little harder to find him, but he was there reading the paper and taking care of his properties.

Dick never gave up on Chinatown, he saw it go through the Tong wars, prohibition, the anti-suspender laws and the redevelopment projects that made it almost a ghost town.

Yick Fun and Officer Clif Sayers, China Alley, 1920s courtesy of Dick Avakian
Dick was born on December 4, 1915, in Fresno, Ca. In Chinatown. His parents, Dick and Verkin Avakian.,  had escaped the Armenian genocide and came to America. And like many others,  they came to Fresno and found a place to work and a place to call home.
He graduated from Roosevelt High School and Fresno State College.

Dick was born into the family shoe business on Tulare Street. After he served in the U.S. Army in Panama, he returned to Fresno and  grew the business to include many quality brands and moved it's present location on Kern Street. He also owned the Aki Hardware building on Kern and F, and the New Shanghai Restaurant building on Tulare and G Streets.  The restaurant took up the entire 2nd floor, 7,500 square-feet. When Dick "retired" his office became one of the first floor offices.

A few years back Fresno Bee Columnist Eli Setencich wrote a column about how the world passed through Dick's Menswear. From farmworkers to mayors, contractors to white collar, there was always a lively conversation and a feeling of being in the know. There were no worries about Robert's rules of order or political correctness. Well, maybe a little.  People spoke their minds. There was a row of a dozen  chairs all facing Dick on his shoe-fitting stool. Dick was the judge, listened and gave out verdicts. But he listened.

When I walked into the store he would always call out, "Sit down and tell me all about it." So I would sit and we would talk about Fresno and Chinatown and the world. Dick knew something about a lot of things and could offer an opinion with a basis for it.

Dick was grounded in practical experience. One day I wanted to invite him to participate in a meeting about Chinatown Study project formed by Michael Yada and the Chinatown Revitalization group, a grassroots organization formed by local citizens and chartered by the city. Dick replied, "I'll give you your study group on Chinatown. He walked to the back a few minutes and came back with a heavy box load of city studies and plans for Chinatown. "I've sat on every committee and meeting you can imagine and it all ends the same. Nobody wants to do anything! They all say Chinatown has the best location, buildings and potential, but look what they did. Nothing!"   Dick did come to the meeting and he did offer good input.

He was always treasured, even by those who did not always agree with him. Chinatown revitalization wanted him to be the Grand Marshal for the Chinese New Year Parade. Dick almost fell off his stool at that idea. What, do I look like someone who should be paraded around Chinatown as a Grand Marshal! Get somebody else, that Kathi Omachi over at Chinatown revitalization would be a good Grand Marshal, not me!" And he smiled.

"What you gonna do with that white elephant you got? Nobody wants a theater. Level the floor and make a warehouse, then it could be useful."  Dick used that line to start a conversation. He loved to get a rise out of  people and let them show their true colors.  He had a different greeting for every regular customer and he liked to take a shot at using the local cultural vernaculars. Some of it could not be repeated. as if  I could remember it anyway!

 When Dick decided it was time to turn the shop over to someone else Joan Obra at  The Fresno Bee wrote on September 18, 2003:
"Surrounded by stacks of Levi's jeans and Panama hats; walls covered by Stacy Adams, Red Wing and Dexter shoes; and piles of Patrick James dress shirts, owner Dick Avakian offered this explanation for shutting his doors: "My body is telling me it's time to quit. I'm wore out -- What do you want from me?"
After he took a seat, Avakian added: "I wouldn't sit if I could lie down." 
 Dick always had a smile to punctuate his pointed words and took pleasure in studying all who came by.
He gave out verbal nuggets for free. And if you wanted to buy something, he was all business.


Dick Avakian passed away on Tuesday, January 13, 2009, at the age of 93 and is buried at Ararat Cemetary,  in Fresno, California.

He gave large donations to the  Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church and Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School..

Dick Avakian tribute from The Fresno Bee.

1 comment:

  1. GoodWork! Lot's of good information here. I lived through much of this, but never bothered to take notes. Ricardo...