Neighbor of The Month
We are delighted to introduce you to Michael Ham as part of our “Neighbor of the Month” series-an effort started in 2013 to highlight Elysian Valley residents and stakeholders. It is our sincere hope that doing so contributes in some fashion to better know one another, build, grow and appreciate the make-up of our community. The NW thanks Michael for his contribution to EV. If you missed our earlier recognitions (Robert Garcia, Frank & Lucy, Raul Martinez, Bob Berg, Pauline Pritchett, Ronald Muir, Susan Campos, Mrs. Lau Wong Svi Ching, Tracy Stone & Allen Anderson, Carl Dickerson, Mary Cardona, Marie Rae Gurule, Jed Donaldson, Francisco Gonzalez, Eduardo and Margarita Mora, and Ramona Lopez), we invite you to visit … https://evnw.wordpress.com/category/neighbor-of-the-month-2/
Michael Ham is 79 years young and has called Elysian Valley home for 42 years. He was born in China and is the eldest of six siblings. At two months old his family moved to Burma (modern day Myanmar), fleeing Japan’s military attack on China. Burma was a safe haven under British control at the time, says Michael. In 1969 many were fleeing Burma’s civil war to multiple neighboring countries and a lucky few to America. “I was one of the lucky ones”, says Michael.
His first home in America was in South Los Angeles. “I had only a 4thgrade education and worked at a small mom and pop grocery story on 42nd Street, earning approximately $400 per month.” His mom worked as a seamstress. In 1970, Michael became a meat cutter for the Ralph’s grocery store on 102nd St. and Avalon. Having landed this job with zero experience, Michael recalls buying pastries for the meat cutters in exchange for their teaching. He went on to work 9 years for Ralphs.
In 1974, Michael bought a residential property on the 2400 block of Shoredale Ave. for $5000. The house at this site had burned to the ground during a fire under the previous owner. Here, Michael built a new 3 bedroom, 2 bath house for $31,000 dollars. He remembers like properties from the same design construction company selling for $28K in Highland Park at the time. In this house, he and his wife raised two college graduate children, one an IT specialist and the other a school teacher.
In 1978, Michael had the opportunity to partner with a friend to start a business in jade jewelry “without knowing a single thing about jade” says Michael. His friend who was the expert did not speak English and Michael did. Together, they went on to open Win Sun Co (a jade and jewelry store) on Hill St. in Chinatown. Michael recalls making weekly trips to San Francisco to buy 24K gold in wholesale.
During this time and again aided by his ability to speak fluent English, he became a location liaison between the Hollywood filming industry and Chinatown property owners. He did this for approximately 20 years and has fond memories of the many movie stars that came to Chinatown and filmed at or near his store. Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hours was filmed at this location and the actor is a favorite of Michael. Other recognized films and TV shows he helped bring to Chinatown include The A-Team, TJ Hooker, Rush Hour & Lethal Weapon 4. Michael’s 15 minutes of fame in film is a voiceover for “80 Days Around the World”. He remembers being paid $700 per day for this work and occasionally still received minor royalties from the film showing anywhere in the world.
While raising a family and running a successful jewelry business, Michael often opened his home to complete strangers in need. He assisted them with shelter, food and everyday basic life needs. Many went on to be very successful in life. When asked why he did this, he attributes it to having a natural desire to help, serve and make a difference in others.
“The American system is the only system in the world that does not care who you are or what you are so long as you are hard-working, honest and straight forward, you have a chance to make it”, says Michael, in response to the question of what is it that makes someone like himself rise to be successful. Michael retired in 2009 after a 35 year store business run. While in retirement, Michael found himself brokering luxury vehicles to China. He did this for 5 years and found great satisfaction in meeting people and driving high-end vehicles.
When asked what it is about Elysian Valley that he likes, Michael says “the location is so convenient and people are so friendly from one end of the street to another end.” Everybody is nice here, says Michael. His favorite site in Elysian Valley is the pedestrian/bike path space. A space which he recalls being exclusively pedestrian for many years. He walks it daily and it’s where he has made so many friends. He likes the quietness of the morning and that everyone knows each other on a first name basis. When asked how he feels about the present bike path, Michael expresses regret for the safety disrespect that some cyclist show community residents. He wants this small minority of rogue cyclist to recognize the unique space that is the Elysian Valley stretch of the path and to enjoy it as a recreational slow zone.
Generally speaking, Michael likes the changes that have come to Elysian Valley of late, which include services and rise in property values. He hopes that with this change comes a state of the art community center that serves “people like us in need of recreational activities and services,” says Michael.
Michael has been happily married for 45 years and cannot see himself living anywhere else. He is “proud to be a citizen of this community where if you smile at people, people smile back.”