442: Helen Liu Fong was an architect whose style was ahead of its time

The Los Angeleno was an important figure in the Googie architectural movement, which was known for its futuristic-inspired style

Helen Liu Fong was an important figure in the Googie architectural movement.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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Helen Liu Fong (Jan. 14, 1927-April 17, 2005) knew she wanted to be an architect by the age of 12. She might have only had a vague idea of what that meant at the time (something to do with building houses), but once she entered the field, she went on to become an important figure in the Googie architectural movement. And in a time when there were very few female architects, let alone Chinese American women, Fong was one of the first women to join the American Institute of Architects, a networking organization for professionals in the industry.

Born in Los Angeles’ Chinatown to Chinese immigrant parents—her father had arrived through Angel Island in San Francisco Bay and used false documents to bring his wife and oldest son to the United States, before settling in Los Angeles—Fong was one of five children and grew up working in her family’s laundry business. She attended the University of California, Los Angeles for two years before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated in 1949, with a degree in city planning from the school of architecture.

A beige building in the Googie architectural style with the sign "Norms."

The first Norm's Restaurant was designed by Helen Liu Fong.

Sharon VanderKaay

At the time, as an Asian American woman, it wasn’t easy for Fong to find work as an architect. Her first job after graduating was as a secretary for architect and fellow Chinese American, Eugene Kinn Choy in Los Angeles. Fong worked for Choy for two years before moving on to the architectural firm Armet & Davis, which was in the same building as Choy’s firm. She started as a junior draftsman, and it was there that she made a name for herself.

The firm’s namesakes, Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, were just about to start working on The Clock restaurant in Los Angeles’ Westchester neighborhood, their first project in the Googie style. Googie architecture is known for its futuristic look inspired by car culture, jets, and the Atomic and Space ages. Wong described it as a “Jetson kind of aesthetic,” referring to the animated show, The Jetsons, that aired in the early 1960s and whose look was actually inspired by the style.

The Clock was also one of Fong’s first projects with the firm and she soon became known for her interior design work on their signature Googie-style coffee shops. In addition, “Fong had (a) renowned attention to detail and seamlessly integrated interior and exterior elements,” according to the Los Angeles Conservancy, an organization focused on recognizing, preserving and revitalizing the area’s historic architectural and cultural resources.

Pann's Restaurant in Los Angeles was designed by Helen Liu Fong and is still operating today.

Wally Gobetz

Although Googie architecture’s popularity waned after the 1970s, examples of the style still live on—and one of the best-preserved examples is Pann’s, a Los Angeles restaurant designed by Fong, which opened in 1958 and is still in business today. Fong’s other projects from that time include the first Norm’s Restaurant, Johnie’s Coffee Shop, and the Holiday Bowl bowling alley on Crenshaw Boulevard. The latter was founded in 1958 by Japanese Americans and played a significant part in the community’s rebuilding process following their illegal and unconstitutional incarceration during World War II.

Fong remained at Armet & Davis, where she worked her way up to associate, until she retired in the late 1970s. Fong died in 2005 in Glendora, California at the age of 78.

Published on January 11, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.