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For the record

SamWoRestaurantRecently I read an amusing story about “Edsel Ford Fong,” a legendary waiter at Sam Wo (aka Sam Woh), a former restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, who yelled at guests, ordered them around, and often refused their requests. For this outrageous behavior he earned lasting fame and is still remembered fondly long after his premature death in 1984.

As is usually true of  legends there are a few errors. In this case they encourage a somewhat distorted view of Americans of Chinese descent.

His name was not Edsel Ford Fong. It was Edsel Fung. His army, marriage, and divorce records give his middle initial as Y. The insertion of “Ford” – reproducing the name of Henry Ford’s son — must have been either an irresistible bit of showmanship on his part or someone else’s joke. How Fung became Fong I’m not sure.

According to R. B. Read’s The San Francisco Underground Gourmet, published in 1969, Edsel was commonly known as Eddie in the 1960s, his name not yet ossified into Edsel Ford Fong. Read wrote that the restaurant’s dining room on the second floor “is the province of Eddie, the archetypal Chinese waiter, so famous for his rudeness that he cultivates it. For Eddie, every Caucasian diner is a challenge and he moves in, barking, before you’ve sat down. If you don’t order within two minutes, you get a relentless verbal prodding which reduces many customers to the jellied state Eddie prefers, where they allow him to order for them. He shouts all orders down a dumbwaiter in a voice of heroic size. If Eddie doesn’t like you (he doesn’t like anybody, at least until the fifth visit), you have to ask for tea while awaiting your food.”

As the photograph shown above reveals, the restaurant was quite small despite its three stories. It readily comes to mind that Eddie’s performance tended to speed up diner turnover in this tourist-attraction spot which often had guests waiting to be seated.

Although it’s true that Edsel was a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, he was not a “Chinese waiter” as he is often described. His parents were born in China but he and most of his siblings were born in California. He served in the U.S. Army in World War II.

Often the legends quote his quips and remarks in broken English. Given that he was an American I have no doubt he spoke English like the native he was, not like a 1930s Hollywood character. He was no Charlie Chan, but he may have used broken English as part of his act. He was an actor. In fact, he had a role in the 1981 Chuck Norris movie An Eye for an Eye. It’s quite possible he was one of the legion of Californians who wait tables while trying to make it as an actor.

He may not have gone far in Hollywood but he was a smash hit at Sam Wo’s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Chin Foin

In the early 20th century Chin Foin was considered Chicago’s foremost Chinese restaurateur, being affiliated with four of the city’s leading Chinese restaurants: the King Yen [above] and King Joy restaurants and the Mandarin Inn and New Mandarin Inn. His exact degree of ownership and management of the four over time is difficult to determine but it’s clear that his participation was significant. He also ran an import business in Chicago called Wing Chong Hai & Co.

His first restaurant King Yen Lo began inauspiciously in 1902 upstairs from a saloon, the notorious establishment of alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna on the corner of Clark and Van Buren. Operating above or behind a saloon was not uncommon for Chinese restaurants and may reflect difficulties the Chinese encountered in renting property. Additionally, having a restaurant nearby or physically connected may have served the interests of saloon keepers who wanted to evade early closing laws by funneling drinks through an eating place.

Whatever the case, the King Yen restaurant was better than it had to be. Like the other restaurants Chin Foin would run, it appealed to the non-Chinese after-theater crowd and featured orchestral music and steaks and chops alongside chop suey and “Mandarin” dishes. The kitchen was open for inspection and a special section was reserved for women unaccompanied by men, important since women shoppers were known to be fond of Chinese food. It’s not clear how long he was actively involved with King Yen but he was still an owner in 1907 when a Chinese envoy attended a formal dinner held there for the christening of Chin Foin’s infant son Theodore.

The King Joy restaurant on W. Randolph [pictured, ca. 1910] was a much bigger venture. It was a component of an international Chinese organization meant to raise funds for political and economic modernization in China. Investors included Chinese living in China and America as well as non-Chinese Chicagoans who supplied $125,000 [more than $3M today] to build the thoroughly modern restaurant. It opened in December of 1906 with Chin Foin as manager.

The investors in China must have heard that running restaurants in America was very profitable because little more than a year after the restaurant’s opening they began to complain about not receiving any dividends. I don’t know how all that was sorted out but clearly Chin Foin’s personal wealth was growing, enabling his family to move to a posh neighborhood in 1912. The newspaper reported he was a wealthy Yale graduate, which brought a grudging acceptance from a non-Chinese woman who said she could hardly object to a Chinese neighbor since, she observed, “We have Negroes out here now, and a few Goths and Visigoths.”

The very Americanized Chin Foin had ambitions of running a type of restaurant that was scarcely Chinese at all. After opening the Mandarin Inn in 1911 and the New Mandarin Inn in 1919 [pictured], both on South Wabash, he announced he had taken a 25-year lease on a Wilson Avenue property formerly occupied by a car dealer. To be called the Mandarin Gardens, the restaurant was supposed to open in 1921 but never did as far as I can tell. Reflecting on the upward arc of his restaurant career, he said in 1920, “Now we’ve cut out the far east features and operate a strictly American restaurant, and that’s what the Mandarin Gardens will be.”

The New Mandarin Inn had also shed some of its Chinese-ness. Since its opening in 1911 it had broken with Chinese restaurant tradition by using linens on the tables and serving European wines. Although it served Chinese dishes, it also offered Sunday chicken dinners and, in 1921, served a high-priced Easter dinner with choices such as Blue Points on the Half Shell, New Orleans Gumbo, Lamb with Mint Jelly, Whipped Potatoes, and Strawberry Shortcake.

Sadly, Chin Foin’s plans were abruptly terminated in 1924 when he stepped into an empty elevator shaft at the New Mandarin Inn. The subsequent owner of that restaurant, Don Joy, added “Chinese” features such as dragons on the front and a simulated temple roof. Don Joy’s Mandarin Inn closed in 1928, later to become a nightclub (Club Royale) and, eventually in 1959, Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant. The building occupied by King Yen was razed in the teens for a new location of the John R. Thompson’s lunchroom chain, while King Joy became the Rialto Gardens (Chinese), and then one of Dario Toffenetti’s cafeterias.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Between courses: a Thanksgiving toast

As I wrote last year – and as everyone knows — Thanksgiving is not a big day for most restaurants and they tend to be closed. This holds true especially for ethnic restaurants which don’t ordinarily serve anything resembling the traditional American-style turkey dinner.

For those who work in Chinese restaurants the day is a grand romantic holiday. Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, explains why. Few Americans eat Chinese food on Thanksgiving and for this reason, writes Lee, “it’s the only day that the nation’s Chinese restaurant workers can consistently get off.” And this means they are able to plan weddings for this day. Lee continues, “Each year, tens of thousands of people, almost all Chinese restaurant workers or former workers, flood into Chinatown on Thanksgiving for hundreds of weddings. Banquet halls are booked more than a year in advance, instead of just a month or two, as is standard for the rest of the year. The marital marathon of multiple simultaneous seatings starts before noon and stretches well into the night.”

I highly recommend Lee’s book. She explores the history of restaurant staples of Chinese restaurants in America, past and present, such as chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, fortune cookies, and soy sauce — even take-home cartons. What I found of greatest interest, though, were her stories of Chinese Americans and newly arrived Chinese who operate restaurants, and who work long days cooking, serving, and delivering Chinese food.

This Thanksgiving I am going to toast the Chinese restaurant workers who are enjoying their wedding day or their anniversary, or just a rare day off.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Restaurant-ing on Thanksgiving

As a meal Thanksgiving dinner is steeped in agrarian values and customs that do not thrive in restaurants, which are primarily urban inventions. It is also incongruous to celebrate what has become a domestic festival in a commercial setting. Neither gourmet restaurants nor fast food eateries present the homeyness considered conducive to celebrating the holiday.

Nor is restaurant cuisine quite right for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving dinner represents the ne plus ultra of comfort food. According to consumer researchers Melanie Wallendorf and Eric Arnould (“‘We Gather Together’: Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day,” Journal of Consumer Research, June 1991), the typical dishes served are like baby food in that they are “baked, boiled, and mashed” foods which are soft in texture and prepared without much seasoning. The emphasis is on the presentation and consumption of abundance, which for participants implies almost compulsory overeating. Few people are interested in culinary innovation which, for most, threatens the essentially infantile pleasures of the occasion.

Despite restaurants’ apparent inadequacy in meeting the challenge of this American national gustatory ritual, there is some evidence that Thanksgiving restaurant-going has increased over the course of the past century. The tendency, though, is to see this more as symptom than innovation. The sentiment expressed in 1892, that Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant is a “rather melancholy thing” has not been eradicated.

One would think that the restaurants best positioned to capture the Thanksgiving trade would be those with Early American decor, or venerable restaurants that can reference tradition, such as Brooklyn’s Gage and Tollner, or those that stress home-based values, such as tea rooms. In the Los Angeles area, which seems to have had a fair amount of Thanksgiving restaurant trade in the 1920s, diners could choose from Ye Golden Lantern Tea Room or the Green Tea Pot of Pasadena, among others. Harder to understand, though, was the appeal of restaurants serving chop suey to the strains of Hawaiian music. About the same time Indianapolis was well supplied with dining out choices for the holiday, ranging from traditional Thanksgiving fare at the Friendly Inn to barbecue at Ye Log Cabin to a “Special Turkey Tostwich, 25c” at Ryker’s. The city’s Bamboo Inn offered two styles of Thanksgiving dinner, one with turkey and the usual trimmings and the other a Mandarin Dinner with Shrimp Egg Foo Young and Turkey Chop Suey.

Although the president of the Saga Corporation, a restaurant supplier, insisted in 1978 that eating out on Thanksgiving and Christmas had lost its stigma, events such as turkey dinners given by churches and soup kitchens for the poor and homeless, as well as explanations given by restaurant patrons in surveys, would indicate otherwise. They seem to suggest that dining in a restaurant on Thanksgiving is frequently a compensation for some sort of lack on the homefront rather than a positive attraction in its own right. Wallenberg and Arnould reported that only 1.8% of the people they surveyed said they would prefer to spend Thanksgiving in a restaurant than at home.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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