Words by Teena Apeles
Personal Space: Each month, writer and home-tour addict Teena Apeles gives us a peek into the spaces of AA+PI creatives around the country. She’ll explore what’s out in the open—from their unique collections and family heirlooms to quirky tchotchkes and vintage furniture finds—and delve into the stories behind them, to find out what makes each person’s house a home.
Since 2007, Emmy Award–winning writer Jessica Gao has lived in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, a densely populated, vibrant neighborhood rich in culinary offerings, live entertainment venues, and some of the best international markets in the city. She loves her particular area of the neighborhood so much that, at the beginning of 2022, she moved into a 1909 Craftsman bungalow just blocks from her last residence. The longtime Angeleno actually purchased the bungalow before seeing it in person, as she spent much of last year in Atlanta filming her recent Marvel series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.
If you, like my family, spent every Thursday evening from mid-August through mid-October watching the latest episode, you’ll recognize Gao’s name from the “created by” credits in She-Hulk’s opening sequence. Or maybe you know her from the other TV shows she’s contributed to, such as Rick & Morty, Corporate, Silicon Valley, and Robot Chicken. Through Crab Club, her production company with partners Ken Cheng and Jimmy O. Yang, Gao was an executive producer of the Joy Ko film Easter Sunday, released earlier this year.
Fun fact: Gao’s fiancé, artist Truck Torrence aka 100% Soft, produced the merchandise for She-Hulk and even designed the show’s logo. “He made all the Marvel emojis, so he’s done work for Marvel before I ever did,” she notes. As we sit down to chat at her dining room table, Gao shows me the vintage Art Deco engagement ring she picked out and Torrence purchased from an estate jeweler. And then shares, “we’re raising a beautiful cat,” motioning to a dramatic portrait of Admiral Whiskers behind her, placed prominently above one of the coolest home bars you’ll ever see.The bar was the first thing Gao purchased when she moved in. “It was listed online as a 1970s Asian-style bar.’ So I was like, ’Oh, hello’—and, it’s made in Taiwan!” the veteran TV writer adds. Her liquor of choice to stock in the bar? “Well, this is a whiskey household and I specifically am a scotch drinker. I love scotch...my favorite of all time is Oban,” she continues, holding up the bottle. “This is a special Distiller’s Edition, the 14-year-old one is fantastic, and you can get it in Costco. I’m a big Costco fan! I love Costco more than anybody.”
Gao nicknamed her home “Soho House Koreatown” as it’s a hub for a lot of her friends due to its large communal rooms and surprisingly easy street parking—practically unheard of in Koreatown.
The lighter tone wood bar contrasts nicely with their Craftsman’s well-preserved dark wood wall paneling that flows from the dining room into the adjoining living room, which features a striking plaster carving above the fireplace and, hanging from the wood beams, dungeonesque lanterns that are original to the Craftsman. “I think the house flippers did such a good job of preserving the period details that you want,” says Gao, “but modernizing where you would want it to be modern, like the kitchen and the bathrooms.”
Gao nicknamed her home “Soho House Koreatown” as it’s a hub for a lot of her friends due to its large communal rooms and surprisingly easy street parking—practically unheard of in Koreatown. The dining room table is a focal point for her guests while she cooks in the open kitchen. “I was searching and searching for a dining table that would be big and something high quality that would last, could possibly be an heirloom and would fit the style of this room,” Gao shares, noting she wasn’t having any luck finding one at the usual chain furniture stores. “And it just popped into my head. I was like, who makes good tables?” She ended up ordering a dining room set made by the Amish.
Being in Koreatown, we inevitably talk about which Korean market we like to patronize. “It depends on my needs. My current favorite is the new H Mart on 6th. But before that, California Market on Western and 5th was my be-all, end-all, and I didn’t think anybody could knock it out,” says Gao. “Part of the reason I love H Mart now is because they have a lot of Chinese stuff. So I don’t have to drive all the way to Monterey Park to go to 99 Ranch Market and buy all the Chinese stuff I needed.”
On the other side of the dining room wall is Gao’s brightly colored home office, the one room they painted upon moving in, and where Admiral Whiskers often joins her Zoom meetings. A large white cube bookcase, adorned in Kawaii plushies, is on the right as you enter, and at the right edge, a large, menacing Abominable Snowman figurine seemingly ready to attack the 2018 Emmy Award she received for Outstanding Animated Program, for the Rick & Morty “Pickle Rick” episode. “It used to just sit in the box,” Gao admits, “and then when we moved to this house, my fiancé was like, ‘You have to display it.’”
“I love that in TV, you get to keep spending time with these characters...You can stay with these characters and these stories for years, if you wanted to. I love that things can grow and develop and characters change over time.”
Gao is currently co-writing a heist film for Warner Bros., but TV is definitely where her heart is: “I love that in TV, you get to keep spending time with these characters. It’s not just you watch a story and then you’re done with it. You can stay with these characters and these stories for years, if you wanted to. I love that things can grow and develop and characters change over time.” From watching TV to making it, Gao especially appreciates the collaborative process of producing a series. “Some of the happiest times of my life are in the writer’s room because when you’re in a good writer’s room, it just feels like cheating. It feels unbelievable that you’re getting paid to show up with people who are now your friends and all you have to do is make each other laugh every day. And it’s so fun to just start conjuring something out of nothing.”
In the cubby hole beneath her Emmy are the books she can’t live without, “books that I read in childhood that I love so much that I reread every single year,” including Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. There’s also Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles that Gao describes as “very nerdy, but tongue-in-cheek fantasy about a princess who runs away from the royal court and then goes to work as a dragon’s assistant.” And then the last title in the trio is Dracula. “This edition is great because it’s illustrated by Edward Gorey, whom I love.”
On the wall facing the bookcase is work by another artist she is a huge fan of, SoCal native Jaime Hernandez: a black and red illustration of two women on stage rocking out in front of a crowd. If you’re a fan of the legendary Los Bros Hernandez (Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario) series’ Love & Rockets, which first debuted in 1981—and in Gao’s words, “the best comic book series of all time” (I concur)—you would immediately identify the punk rockers as the characters Maggie and Hopey. Diehards may even recognize the illustrations as the cover of the #24 issue. Another cubby of her bookcase has all 11 books from the Love & Rockets Library.
“I wasn’t even at quarter-life age, but I was having this existential crisis of what I should do because I felt like I was just being left in the dust.”
There was a time that Gao also wanted to be an artist. When she was an undergraduate at UCLA, Gao majored in art and focused on pen and ink drawings but soon realized it wasn’t the career path for her. Though her passion for comic books endured. “I organized comic book conventions in college and that’s actually how I met so many of my comic book friends—Jordan Crane, Martin Cendreda, John Pham, Steve Weissman—all a generation older than me and they all had careers,” remembers Gao. After graduation she spent some time in England, then moved back to L.A. and worked odd jobs before turning to her friends for some direction. “I wasn’t even at quarter-life age, but I was having this existential crisis of what I should do because I felt like I was just being left in the dust.”
She asked them, “What should I do with my life?” Their answer, across the board: “be a writer.” After some quick reflection, Gao decided on becoming an animation writer and then emailed everybody she knew, saying, “If you know how, tell me.” One person responded, a friend at Nickelodeon who told her about their yearlong writing fellowship. “I Googled, 'What is a spec script?’, 'How to write a spec script’, and I wrote one and got this writing fellowship,” she says. “And then from there, I got hired on a show as a writer, it was called The Mighty B!. That’s how I got started, and I’ve been writing ever since. I had no plan B.”
Gao has been working in the industry now for more than 15 years. Even with her list of accomplishments, it doesn’t mean that everyone in the industry is going to automatically respect her. “What’s nice is that for me at least, I’m at a point in my career where I actually have the privilege of being like, ‘I don’t fucking need this. I don’t need to be treated like this,’” she says, knowing this isn’t the case for everyone. “I have options, and I don’t take that lightly. I don’t have to be afraid of how it’ll affect my future earning and my future job opportunities to kind of stand my ground when it comes to asking for a little bit of respect at a basic level of decency.”
As for getting praise from her family, the only child (“the only retirement plan,” Gao jokes) of immigrants from Beijing says that initially it was difficult for her parents to understand what her job was, because they grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. “They didn’t have a TV at home. There were no sitcoms. So even the concept of what a sitcom is is completely foreign to them,” she explains. “My parents’ idea of television is either like a long-running drama, which is what was Chinese television when they were watching TV, or state-run variety shows.”
When Gao tried to describe what a TV sitcom is to them, her mom’s response was, “Some people just say jokes to each other for half an hour? Who wants to watch that?” Then when Gao got the She-Hulk job, she remembers calling her mom to tell her the good news, and “she asked me to spell Marvel so she could look up the company.”
Her parents don’t live too far away, so they do come to visit, but not for very long, Gao notes. “If they come here, they usually try to pair it with an errand they have to run around here, or they have to come by to drop something off.” (Sound familiar?)
It’s now been 10 months that Gao has lived in the Craftsman and thankfully there have been no major issues with having a home that is more than a century old. She reveals that despite only seeing it on FaceTime before finalizing the sale, she and Torrence knew from the get-go that the home was meant to theirs. “My Chinese zodiac animal is a pig, and when he went out to the backyard, the only thing that the owners had left was a little pig statue,” she says. “And so we were like, ‘This is a sign.’”
Published on November 2, 2022
Words by Teena Apeles
Teena Apeles writes about art, culture, design, activism, and history, and edits books on an even wider range of subjects. Her latest book, 52 Things to Do in Los Angeles, is now available from Moon Travel Guides. She is also the founder of the creative collective Narrated Objects, which produces books and experiences to showcase the diverse voices of Los Angeles.
Photography by Samanta Helou Hernandez
Samanta Helou Hernandez is a multimedia journalist and photographer covering culture, identity, and social issues. She's published with LA Times, Playboy, and PRI "The World," among others. In 2017, she launched "This Side of Hoover," an ongoing visual archive of gentrification and resilience in East Hollywood. Her work has been exhibited at The International Center of Photography in New York City and The Mexican Consulate of Los Angeles.