Historical notes on Chinese restaurants in Portland, Maine.
THE "CHOP SUEY JOINT" ERA
Portland's early Chinese restaurants were often referred to by the non-Chinese community as "chop suey joints" after their most popular dish. (3) "Chop suey" can be loosely translated as "leftovers" or "hash" and usually consisted of a mix of stir-fried vegetables and meat in a brown sauce. Other American Chinese dishes served up in the early twentieth century included chow mein, fried rice, egg foo young, and egg rolls. Chow mein, that second staple of American Chinese restaurants, was a one-dish main course most often consisting of fried noodles with chopped chicken, mushrooms, and onions.
An October 8, 1884, newspaper article on the Portland Chinese community's celebration of the Moon Festival contained the earliest known local description of a Chinese food item, reporting that moon cakes were "made of rice and wheat flour, and filled with a mixture of watermelon seeds, almonds, walnuts, and a Chinese aromatic seed called gee ma, made into a thick paste with quince jelly." (4) This delicacy was consumed by Portland's Chinese community members and not served in Portland's earliest Chinese restaurant.
When Ar Tee Lam opened what is believed to be Maine's first Chinese restaurant at 1 Custom House Wharf in 1880, Portland's population of 33,810 included nine Chinese men. At that time Ar Tee Lam was twenty-five years old and single, although his census return indicated that he lived with a twenty-one-year-old white servant woman named Lizzie Barbarck. (5) When he registered to vote on November 28, 1891, he said that he had lived in Portland for thirty-three years, making his year of arrival approximately 1858. (6) He first appeared in the Portland directory as "R. T. Lamb," a cigar maker, in 1873. (7) From 1875 to 1879 he was listed at addresses on Federal Street where he was a tobacconist. He lived at the 1 Custom House Wharf premises while he ran his restaurant.
Nothing is known of the specific cuisine offered, which most likely consisted of the types of Americanized Chinese dishes described above, along with types of American food more familiar to the fishermen, longshoremen, sailors, and warehouse laborers of Portland's waterfront. Similarly, nothing is known of the restaurant's staff, which likely consisted of Mr. Lam and Ms. Barbarck and perhaps a few others. The restaurant's name is not known. All references to it in the Portland City directories merely used Mr. Lam's name.
When Mr. Lam opened his restaurant, the Portland directory listed 39 "eating houses" and "oyster and lunch rooms" including a lunch room operated by Joseph E. Conway in the Island Steamers ferry house a few doors away at 5 Custom House Wharf. Among Mr. Lam's other neighbors on Custom House Wharf were a billiard saloon, a sailmaker, four fish dealers, a truckman, and a combination tea store and meat market. (8) Mr. Lam's restaurant closed in about 1893.
About a decade later, Charlie Sing opened Portland's second Chinese restaurant, the Oriental, located on the second floor at 23 Free Street just around the corner from Monument Square, the heart of downtown Portland. (9) Like Mr. Lam's restaurant, nothing is known of the cuisine served by the Oriental although it too probably served typically New England-style food along with heavily Americanized Chinese dishes. Mr. Sing and his employee lived in a room on the third floor.
That block of Free Street was an eclectic place. The Ancient Order of Hibernians meeting rooms were at number 10 and the Socialist Party's headquarters were at number 14. Quong Chong's laundry was at number 29. Also on that block were a furrier, two furniture stores, a hardware store, three artists, four tailors, a print shop, two plumbers, the James Bailey Company, which manufactured carriages and automobiles, the James Bailey Company's saddlery, a carpet dealer, a harness maker, a wholesale druggist, a hairdresser, a machinist, a non-Chinese laundry, a grocer, an upholsterer, and thirteen residential units. (10)
Mr. Sing's restaurant, which was popular with soldiers and sailors stationed at the various forts around Portland harbor, generated significant controversy; the presence of that many servicemen attracted Portland's lewd women and encouraged the restaurant's reputation as a place for rowdy behavior. On August 31, 1903, Mr. Sing asked two soldiers (one who had been a frequent customer) to leave because they were making too much noise and causing a disturbance. The soldiers returned, one holding a revolver and the other carrying a brick that he threw through the door glass, fragments of which struck Mr. Sing in the face. He received approximately a dozen stitches from Dr. Leighton, the police surgeon. A crowd of probably two hundred gathered outside. More than two-thirds of them were soldiers, sailors, and their lady friends who "seemed to feel deeply hurt that they were not to be permitted to patronize this place last evening as usual." (11)
A few days later the Portland municipal officials, who were said to have personally observed the place, directed the police department to close the restaurant. The newspaper report observed that the proprietor had run the place with the best of intentions but did not have the physical ability to enforce propriety and that the place had "been used for purposes that even the most hardened rounder would balk at" with the "result there has been nothing that the frequenters of the place would stop at." (12)
Mr. Sing hired an attorney and challenged the closure. The restaurant reopened with its hours restricted to an 8:00 p.m. closing time pending a license revocation hearing before the Board of Aldermen. The hearing stretched over three separate weekly meetings. The city solicitor opened by relying on a provision of the victualer's license ordinance that allowed revocation based on "reveling or riotous conduct or drunkenness and excess therein." (13) The Portland police officer assigned to the daytime Free Street beat testified that he often saw drunken soldiers, other citizens, and "bums" there, especially on Sundays. He also testified that he never saw any disturbances there during the day and that he had never seen any liquor sold or given away at that restaurant. The officer testified that, although he did not know of any lewd women being kept by Mr. Sing, Mr. Sing's room on the third floor had two beds set up for use by himself and his employee and two mattresses on the floor.
An Alderman objected to Mr. Sing's lawyer's attempt to demonstrate that the soldiers bought their liquor elsewhere and brought it to Sing's. The lawyer said that he wanted to show there were many other places where liquor was openly and illegally sold and that the effects of their lawbreaking were being blamed on Mr. Sing. (14) The officer said that people went up to Mr. Sing's drunk and disorderly, did whatever they pleased with Mr. Sing, and smashed things up. Later testimony showed that when Mr. Sing attempted to keep order, his patrons put him in the back room and kept him there.
A neighbor woman complained that there was often a crowd around the restaurant's street-level door in such number and using such foul language that decent people did not pass up or down the street, particularly on Saturday nights. She also complained about soldiers and very young girls going into the restaurant at night. The police officer who had the night beat testified that he generally found drunken soldiers, common street walkers, and other dissolute characters there. That officer said that one evening he went in and found Mr. Sing, who appeared to be dead, lying on his back on the floor with his head cut and bleeding. That officer responded to a question by Mr. Sing's lawyer by agreeing that since the restaurant had been closing early, you would not know it was the same neighborhood.
At the second week's hearing, a police officer testified that he was at the restaurant in plain clothes every other Saturday night to keep order and that he frequently ejected people who were drinking or troublesome. That officer described Mr. Sing's restaurant as the worst place on his beat, but he attributed most of the trouble to the crowd's desire "to have fun with the Chinaman." (15) He expressed his opinion that if there was someone who could stay in the place every night, there would be little trouble. Another officer testified that the beat officers made more complaints about that restaurant than any other. When asked why the police made no arrests at the restaurant, he answered by claiming that the way to correct complaints about people congregating there late at night making excessive noise was to drive the people outside and close the place rather than to arrest them.
The final night's hearing took place on November l, 1903. Mr. Sing's lawyer explained that Mr. Sing did not testify because he could not speak English. His lawyer then pointed to a fight that had taken place at a Free Street billiard hall and argued that it deserved to be closed just as much as Mr. Sing's restaurant. The lawyer argued that the city's license revocation was persecution of Mr. Sing based on his race. One Alderman, Mr. McDonald, agreed, stating his opinion that what the board should do is to fire all the policemen on duty in that area and allow Mr. Sing to keep his license. Mr. McDonald said that the city marshal made the complaint against Mr. Sing but the only thing he proved was the inefficiency of his police force. All the members of the Board of Aldermen except for Mr. McDonald voted to revoke Mr. Sing's victualer's license. (16)
Chin Heung and Lee Wing opened their restaurant, called C. Heung & Co., at 78 Pearl Street in 1904. (17) Mr. Heung would be a fixture of Portland's Chinese community for years to come. He lived nearby at 92 Middle Street. The restaurant's cook, Charlie Lee, lived at the restaurant's 78 Pearl Street address. Mr. Wing, who had lived in Boston, returned there about 1906. After Mr. Wing left, Chin Heung was joined as proprietor by Hing Heung, presumably a kinsman, but that arrangement faltered, and Hing Heung left for Boston in 1907. Chin Ying became the cook in 1907. The restaurant closed that year.
The Canton Low Restaurant opened at 108 Middle Street in 1908. Chin Ying found employment there as the cook. The restaurant, which shared its building with David Schwartz's clothing store and the New England Loan Co., was bracketed by two Chinese laundries, Chin Hung's at 92 Middle Street and Guen Sing's at 118 Middle Street. Many of the other neighbors on that block were Jews who owned small retail and service establishments, including Benjamin Blumenthal's restaurant at number 87. (18)
On June 8, 1908, the Portland police, believing that a young, unescorted white girl had been frequenting the restaurant under suspicious circumstances, entered in search of her. Although they did not find the girl, the police happened upon four Chinese men (laundryman Chin Hee Ark, as well as Chin Heung, Hyn Jen, and Ton Yong) on the third floor and arrested two of them for smoking opium. On May 28, 1911, the Portland police once again raided the place, this time following a tip of illegal gambling. Plainclothes police gained entry to a room on the top floor by posing as sightseers. When they entered the room, they saw a group of Chinese men seated around a table playing dominos for money. The police arrested seven Chinese men there and later arrested the restaurant's proprietor, "fee Lee, when he came to the police station to inquire about bail. (19)
The Canton Low stayed at 108 Middle Street until 1912 when it moved to 14 Free Street, a short distance across the street from Chin Shoon's laundry at number 27. Although many of the tenants on that block had changed in the nine years since Charlie Sing's Oriental Restaurant at 23 Free Street had been ordered closed by Portland's Aldermen, its mixed commercial and residential nature remained largely the same. (20) Once at Free Street, the restaurant's name seems to have mutated, being referred to by the name of its owner, King Y. Low, from 1913 to 1914 and then as the Canton Company from 1915 to 1920.
Shortly before Christmas 1916, the Canton Company was the scene of a midnight fracas involving a couple of soldiers from Fort McKinley. As might be expected, the tales told by the participants differed in important respects. According to the newspaper reports, the soldiers said that they had ordered their food and paid for it, but, before they began eating, they were ordered to leave. The restaurant employees said that the soldiers had entered the restaurant apparently looking for trouble and started an argument with a waiter. Regardless of the cause, the result was a free-for-all in which dishes and flatware were hurled, making a deep gash in the hand of a waiter, Chin Hem. The restaurant employees set upon the soldiers with a baseball bat and hot pokers. In their haste to depart, the soldiers broke two windows and leaped through a glass door, receiving cuts that required medical treatment following their arrest. They were convicted in the Portland Municipal Court of assault on Ling Fun, the restaurant manager. They were sentenced to thirty days in jail, fined $8.00, and assessed one-half the costs, each, for the damage done to the restaurant and its dishes. By 1917 Chin Wah had become the manager, and Mr. Low disappeared from the record. (21)
A competing Chinese restaurant, owned by Chin Heung and located at 65 Oak Street, appeared in 1910. Thereafter, Portland always had more than one Chinese restaurant. Mr. Heung's second foray into the restaurant business was short lived. The restaurant's name changed to the Shanghai Restaurant in 1911 with Henry Nom as the owner. Charlie Hing took over the restaurant in 1914, followed by Lin Soo in 1915. Mr. Soo closed the restaurant and moved to Lewiston, Maine, in 1916.
Chin Heung, who often served as the spokesman for Portland's early Chinese community, immigrated to the United States in 1903. In 1916 he was manager of W. C. Tang & Co., a store selling Chinese goods located at 86 Portland Street. (22) In 1917 he managed the Pekin Company Restaurant at 19 Monument Square. That restaurant closed by 1918, at which time he owned the Canton Company Restaurant at 14 Free Street. His daughter Mary Heung was born there on August 18, 1918. He still owned that restaurant when another daughter, Margaret Heung, was born at 14 Free Street on June 14, 1920.
On July 13, 1922, when the Chee King Tong was organized as a nonprofit corporation in Portland, (23) Chin Heung was elected its vice president and treasurer, as well as a director. In 1923 he lived at 116 Center Street. The 1925 Portland directory listed him as manager of Saung Chung Loong Co., a tea store at 118 Center Street, a position he held until 1929 when the store disappeared. The 1930 Census listed his wife as Wong Heung, age 50. (24) She had been born in China and immigrated to the United States in 1903. She was not employed outside the home. The 1930 Census return shows that, in addition to Mary and Margaret, the Heungs had a son, James, who was born in Maine in 1927. (25) Mary Heung graduated from Portland High School in 1935, probably the first Chinese girl to graduate from a Portland high school. Mr. Heung continued to live at 116 Center Street until 1936 when he disappeared from the record.
America introduced a draft during the period before it entered World War I. Even though the strict enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, these same Chinese laborers were required to register for the draft. At least nineteen Portland Chinese restaurant employees registered although none seem to have been drafted. (26)
PORTLAND'S CHINESE RESTAURANTS GO FIRST CLASS
Thanks in part to the shipbuilding and munitions industries, Portland's economy heated up in the period surrounding World War I, culminating in a building boom. New county and federal courthouses and a new post-office building were erected between 1910 and 1918. The so-called Million Dollar Bridge connecting Portland and South Portland replaced an earlier bridge in 1913.
By the 1920s Congress Street had displaced both the waterfront and Exchange Street as the city's commercial center. The Congress Street side of Monument Square changed drastically with the completion of three high-rise buildings. The twelve-story Chapman Building, completed in 1924, was Maine's tallest building for more than forty years, housing approximately forty shops in its arcade along with 180 offices. The neighboring ten-story Fidelity Building and the nearby seven-story Clapp Memorial Building were completed at about that same time.
A syndicate of Chinese investors that owned a chain of Chinese restaurants located in several New England cities decided to take advantage of Portland's booming economy by opening the decidedly upscale Empire Restaurant, located at 573 Congress Street, at the northeast corner of its intersection with Forest Avenue, on July 6, 1916. (27) Chong L. Wong, a representative of the syndicate, was the first manager.
The Empire was located on the second floor of the building, which had been used as office space. All of the office partitions were torn out, and another story was added to the rear of the building to accommodate the restaurant. The restaurant was originally built with two dining areas. A dining room for men and women was to the left at the head of the stairs; to the right was a dining room, reserved only for men, in which smoking was allowed. The dining room for men and women had a dozen private booths that sat six each. The mahogany booths were trimmed with cream-colored painted wood, and each had an electric fan as well as a wall button to summon the waiters. There were cream-colored draperies at the windows in each booth. The tables were adorned with fresh flowers. In addition to the booths, that section of the restaurant had fifteen to twenty tables with four chairs each. The men's dining room had another fifteen tables each with four chairs. The cigarette and cigar smoke was dissipated by what was described as a "clever system of ventilation." A three-piece orchestra and a female soloist were situated in a niche between the two dining rooms. They played most days and every evening. The restaurant sold Chinese candies and confections in addition to meals. Patrons reached the second-floor restaurant via an elegant marble entrance and stairway. When it opened, the restaurant employed ten Chinese waiters and eight Chinese cooks and kitchen helpers. (28)
In 1917 the Empire and the Oriental restaurants, which were owned by the same syndicate, shared an advertisement stating that they were open to public inspection to convince the public that they were modern deluxe restaurants and that their menus were composed of dishes selected from the country's best American and Chinese restaurants. Both restaurants served lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and a special Sunday table d'hote lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Evening meals were offered a la carte until midnight. (29)
The original manager, Chong L. Wong, returned to China in 1918 and was replaced by two managers, He Wong and Ping Wong. Ping Wong was the manager until 1920 when Eddie W Park .joined He Wong as co-manager. Gee Wong (thirty-eight years old) was a cook there in 1920. He had emigrated from China to the United States in 1910. He had a wife in China. In the 1920 census year, the Empire's staff included Pong Wong (seventeen years old), a waiter and student who had immigrated to the United States in 1917; Quong Wong (thirty-one years old), also a waiter, who had emigrated from China in 1909; Ugia Yen Wong (twenty-one years old), a waiter; Sin Wong (thirty-two years old), a cook with a wife in China; and Wo Sing Wong (forty-two years old), a cook who had been born in California. Chin Lunn, Wong G. Hing, and Wong Y. Hing were chefs at the Empire in 1922. In 1924 the Empire employed two cooks, including Ming Chin, a dishwasher, and three waiters. From 1921 to 1930, Eddie Park was the sole manager. About 1931 he appears to have purchased the Empire from its absentee owners since he was listed in the Portland directory as the proprietor of that restaurant from 1931 to 1953. (30)
The Empire remained open until 1953. For many years it had a two-story-high sign emblazoned with the words "Chop Suey." During World War II, the Empire styled itself a dine-and-dance place and was a favorite honky-tonk hangout for servicemen. There is a story that Charles Tolford, a Portland businessman, complained about the noisy juke box. When he asked how much it would take to shut the thing down for an hour so he could enjoy his chop suey in peace, he was told $5. He paid up and ate in silence. (31)
The opening of the Oriental Restaurant at 26-28 Monument Square on December 9, 1916, signaled the emergence of Portland's premier Chinese restaurant dynasty, the Wong family, various members of which would engage in the restaurant business in Portland for more than eighty years. Charles Tuck Wong, who had immigrated to the United States in 1905, managed the Oriental, the second restaurant owned by the Chinese syndicate of absentee investors that owned the Empire Restaurant, only about a half dozen blocks up Congress Street. The Oriental opened about one hundred feet from the Pekin Company Restaurant, managed by Chin Heung at 19 Monument Square. Most likely the emergence of the upscale Oriental resulted in the more plebeian Pekin's closure.
This new Oriental Restaurant emulated the elegant ambiance of the Empire Restaurant with teakwood chairs and handwoven tapestries. The Oriental's color scheme included dark mahogany trim, white curtains at the windows, and green silk curtains hanging at the entrances of the twenty-one separate, private dining areas, each of which had a table for six covered by snowy linens. Each of these private dining areas had a push buzzer to summon the wait staff and an electric fan similar to those at the Empire. A feature of the new restaurant was a handcarved teak table, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory, accompanied by two massive, handcarved and similarly inlaid teak chairs, which were valued, in 1916, at more than $500 for the pair. The restaurant was also graced by several tapestries in handcarved teak frames also inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory and valued at more than $500 each in 1916. The syndicate engaged an orchestra and soloist for the restaurant's grand opening. (32)
The restaurant's layout had the pantry and coffee urns located at the rear of the street floor. The windows that opened onto Monument Square showcased costly Chinese jars set on magnificent teakwood stands. The kitchen, refrigerator, store room, and a watchman's room were located in the basement. Big crocks in the basement were used to sprout beans. Packages of Chinese teas were available for sale near the cashier.
In 1917 Charles Tuck Wong, his assistant manager, Charlie Wong, and the chef, Hing Wong, all boarded at 67 Free Street. From 1918 on they lived at 27 Monument Square, above the restaurant, in what appears to have been a lodging house that catered to Chinese laundrymen and restaurant workers. Yong Wong was a manager there from 1920 to 1922. He then became treasurer of the restaurant from 1923 to 1930.
On March 9, 1922, Charles Tuck Wong bought a house a little more than a block away from the restaurant at 64 Brown Street from Alfred Lee Colesworthy in what may have been the first real-estate purchase by a Chinese person in Portland. That house was valued at $5,000 in the 1930 Census. Mr. Wong's wife, Mark Shee, often called "Maxey" by Portlanders, had immigrated to the United States in 1921. Mr. Wong and his wife had two children who were born in Maine, a daughter, Virginia, born in 1922, and a son, Henry, born in 1925. Mr. Wong conveyed the Brown Street home to his wife on October 30, 1937, and disappeared from the Portland directory that year. The Oriental Restaurant closed in 1938. Mark Shee Wong last appeared in the Portland directory in 1949. She died from pulmonary thrombosis at the Augusta State Hospital on July 4, 1954, at the age of fifty-three.
Hing Wong worked as a chef at the Oriental from 1917 until 1929. He was born in the Toishan District of Kwangtung Province, China. His wife, Woo Shee, was also born in Kwangtung. He immigrated to the United States in 1897. Soon after arriving, he worked in a hotel kitchen in Seattle, Washington, where he had relatives. Eventually he left Seattle and ended up in Portland. The 1920 Census listed him as a lodger at 673 Congress Street, Portland. At that time he was listed as forty-five years old and married. He was able to speak, read, and write English. He was still an alien. After 1920 he moved to Center Street. He and his wife had seven children all born in Maine: Carolyn, born 1920; William, 1921; Lillian, 1923; Jack, 1925; Richard, 1928; Christine, 1929; and Franklin, 1934. The older children attended Staples School a block south on Center Street. In 1929 he moved the family to Auburn, Maine, where he opened his own restaurant called the Good Earth, which was open only a year or so. He then worked as a chef at the Oriental Restaurant in Lewiston, Maine, until 1940. He then left the restaurant business and opened a laundry in Bath, Maine, which he operated with his wife, children, and son-in-law until 1946 when he moved to Boston where he opened the New China Restaurant.
In 1918 some of the Oriental's other employees included Toy Hing, a chef; Chu Wong, a janitor; and How Wong, a waiter. Wong Yun was a cook in 1918 when his wife, Ong Shee, gave birth to their daughter, Hattie Yun. The family lived at 116 Center Street. In 1920, waiter Wing Lee Wong was forty-two years old. He worked at the Oriental from 1920 to 1922. He was born in China but had been naturalized as an American citizen. He moved to Biddeford, Maine, in 1923 with his wife and four daughters. He eventually moved to Lewiston, Maine, and then to Boston. In 1921 there were at least four Chinese waiters, including Frank Wong and Ten Wong who both stayed until 1923. Len Quen Wong was a cook at the Oriental in the early 1920s.
Among the many employees of the Oriental were Charles Tuck Wong's nephews Daniel Chick Wong and Henry K. Wong. Charles Tuck Wong brought Daniel Wong to the United States in 1922 when he was thirteen years old. Daniel's older brother, Henry, came to Portland much later, in about 1934. Henry K. Wong (formerly known as Kuong Sheu Wong) was born in a village near Canton, China, on December 12, 1907, a son of Soon Yok and Mai Jan Ng Wong. He came to America with his father as a boy. He returned to China and attended the Canton Christian College for three years. He was twenty-seven years old when he came to Portland to work for his uncle at the Oriental Restaurant.
Wah Yu revived the 65 Oak Street location briefly in 1918 but appears to have closed it within a year. The Peacock Restaurant, located at 591 Congress Street, entered the fray in 1921 but also seems to have lasted no longer than a year. The manager was Poy Yee. The restaurant had at least six Chinese employees including Jim Chin who was a waiter in 1921.
The Asia Restaurant opened in 1922 at 567 Congress Street only a few doors away from the Empire. Willie Yee, who was manager in 1922, moved to Boston that year. He was followed as manager by Franklin N. Gee in 1923. The Asia Restaurant advertised a businessperson's luncheon that included both Chinese and American food. It was open from 11:00 a.m. to midnight and featured a jazz orchestra with both private booths and a main dining room. It had three Chinese cooks in 1924, including Check Wong, who had been a cook at the Empire Restaurant, How Wong, who had been a waiter at the Oriental Restaurant in 1918, and Bow Wing. Paul Wong was manager in 1924, the year the restaurant closed.
THE WORLD WAR II ERA
As the war clouds darkened in the late 1930s, Portland was once again poised on the brink of an era of wartime prosperity In December 1940 the South Portland Shipbuilding Corporation won a contract with Great Britain to build thirty ships. Once America entered the war, nearly 30,000 people, including about 3,700 women, found employment as shipbuilders. Whole villages of emergency housing for the flood of war workers sprang up all over Greater Portland. A 236-mile crude-oil pipeline was laid from Portland to Montreal between July and November 1941. Moreover, Portland became a staging area for the formation of convoys bound for Europe and a last liberty port for many sailors from merchant ships and the Navy's Atlantic Fleet. Portland's restaurant trade, including its Chinese restaurants, boomed.
When the Oriental closed in 1938, the Empire Restaurant did not have the Chinese restaurant business to itself. Charles Tuck Wong's nephew, Henry K. Wong, opened the Pagoda Restaurant at 633 Congress Street in 1938. Philip Dong and Benjamin Lee opened the Mandarin Cafe, diagonally across the street at 608 Congress Street, in 1939. (33) Dong and Lee both lived at 27 Monument Square. The Mandarin Cafe closed in 1947. The Pagoda had a much longer life.
Henry K. Wong owned the Pagoda until his death on June 26, 1958. He was actively involved in the non-Chinese community. He was a trustee of the Thornton Heights Methodist Church, a 32nd-degree Mason, and a member of the Hiram Lodge in South Portland. He changed his name to Henry K. Wong on March 20, 1957, because he had used that anglicized version of his name in his business for years. He married a Caucasian woman, Lenore McFarland, and had three children, Donna, Richard, and Daniel.
Henry's brother, Daniel C. Wong, was born April 4, 1909, in Canton, China. Daniel took over the Pagoda when Henry died. He retired from the Pagoda in 1981 and transferred ownership to his son, Lee Kean Wong, who owned the restaurant until 1992. Daniel was a member of the Deering Masonic Lodge. His son, Lee Kean Wong, was thirty-six years old before he came to the United States, via a stay in Honduras, in 1963. Daniel Wong died on June 5, 1992.
Chin Kow, who later became Portland's last Chinese laundryman, worked as a cook at the Pagoda in 1941. For more than twenty years after he became a laundryman, he usually ate his evening meal there.
Danny Y. Wone, who was born in Canton, China, in 1923 was a chef at the Pagoda from about 1938 into the 1970s. He grew the restaurant's bean sprouts in the cellar. He also kept a shrine in a cellar room. (34) Toy Sam was a chef at the Pagoda from 1951 to 1954. Buddy H. Wong (also known as Wing Hon Wong) was born in China. He owned a restaurant in Biddeford, Maine, in 1947 before he worked as a chef at the Pagoda from 1951 to 1965.
Even after Daniel C. Wong passed ownership of the Pagoda to his son, Lee Kean Wong, in 1981, he continued to come to the restaurant and sit in a back booth at about 3:30 p.m. each day to eat.
Another restaurant of the World War II era was the Hong Ho Len Restaurant at 50 South Street, which Holley Wong opened in 1944. Mr. Wong lived at the restaurant address. The Hong Ho Len did not last a year.
The Asia House Restaurant replaced the Empire Restaurant at 573 Congress Street in 1954. The owner, Edward W Park, had owned the Empire Restaurant. The cooks were Check Wong, who had been at the Empire since 1949, and Lound Wong. The Asia House seems to have inherited the Empire's problems and closed within a year.
It was not until 1955, when the Cathay Gardens opened at 608 Congress Street, that Portland had another long-lasting Chinese restaurant. Park Wong was president of that corporation from 1955 to 1965. Sero Yung was the treasurer of the Cathay Gardens Restaurant from 1955 to 1979. Lee Foo worked there from 1963 to 1965. Li Shin worked at the Cathay Gardens from 1969 to 1972.
SUBURBANIZATION, CHINESE FAST FOOD, AND STRIP MALLS
Portland did not share in the country's post--World War II prosperity. Portland's Chinese community hit a low point in 1950 when it lost critical mass with the closure of most of its Chinese laundries and the departure of some long-established Chinese families to Boston. In the mainstream community, the closure of the shipyards saw workers moving away to find jobs as well as returning veterans beginning to move to the suburbs. Between 1950 and 1980 Portland's population declined by approximately 20 percent from 77,634 to 61,572.
The passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 and the unstable conditions in Indochina culminating in the fall of Saigon in 1975 eventually lead to a greatly increased and diversified Southeast Asian and Chinese community in Greater Portland. (35) Portland's Chinese community, like the mainstream community, became increasingly suburban. (36)
By the 1970s downtown Portland had lost many retail establishments to the Maine Mall area of South Portland. It was inevitable that an enterprising Chinese chef would take advantage of the booming Maine Mall traffic and open a restaurant there. Chan Sun Ng (popularly known as "Sonny") opened the Hu Ke Lau at 10 Maine Mall, South Portland, in 1972. It remained at that location from 1972 to 1988 then moved to a new building constructed in the Mall's parking lot (2 Maine Mall) from 1989 through 1994. Sonny was the first local Chinese businessman to engage in extensive advertising using comical television ads to encourage people to eat at the Hu Ke Lau.
The movement of Chinese restaurants into suburban locations continued in 1972 when the Sing family, which had operated Sing's Polynesian Restaurant and Lounge since 1969 in the Penobscot Plaza in Bangor, Maine, decided to expand southward to Greater Portland. They opened Sing's Cantonese Polynesian American Restaurant and Lounge at 152 Main Street, Westbrook. The family lacked the management structure necessary to operate two such widely separated restaurants and closed the Westbrook location by 1976. Although the closure resulted in significant debts, owner Thomas W Sing paid them in full over several years rather than filing a bankruptcy petition.
In 1979 Portland experienced a revolution in Chinese cuisine. Until then, Portland's Chinese restaurants had served Americanized Chinese and American fare. The predominant and perhaps only style was Cantonese. Szechuan cuisine hit Portland with a bang when Ken (Kern) Ng (twenty-nine years old) and his brothers Henry (Hung) and Roscoe (Chuen) opened the Hu Shang Restaurant (loosely translated as "Lake Folks") in the old Cathay Gardens location at 608 Congress Street, offering the first Szechuan- and Hunan-style food in Portland.
Hu Shang's menu proudly introduced Portlanders to "the famous authentic 'new styles' of Chinese cooking that have never been served in Northern New England, Hunan, Shanghai, Szechuan, Mandarin." (37) Because it was the first Chinese restaurant in the area to introduce Chinese food that approached "authentic," the information presented in the menu was unique. It described the Hunan and Szechuan styles as featuring various sauces (hot, spicy, deep brown, and bean) and flavors (fish, orange, hot pepper, ginger, and scallion). The menu explained that after the "hot" comes a characteristic Hunan and Szechuan mellowness and further, that these were "important regional cooking flavors" that indicated "a true appreciation of [gastronomy]." (38) Hu Shang used a four-level hotness scale described as mild (recommended for beginners), hot, very hot, and a level beyond, "for those who love really hot stuff." For those who were not adventurous, the menu assured the diner that the experienced chefs would be happy to eliminate the spicy, hot flavorings from the dishes. The menu described the Shanghai and Mandarin styles as featuring steamed items, deep brown sauce, ginger and scallion flavors, bean sauce, and moo shu styles. Hu Shang had a full liquor service.
As the first Chinese restaurant to serve Szechuan-style food, Hu Shang became tremendously popular with lines of people waiting for the seventy seats most nights. Ken had an incredible memory for people's names and a great personality for welcoming returning customers. The restaurant was so successful that the Ng brothers bought a building at 7 Brown Street, closer to Monument Square, and moved to the larger, multilevel, and more elegant location. The new restaurant became quite successful, and soon the brothers decided to open another restaurant, Hu Shang 3, in June of 1984 at 29 Exchange Street in the newly revitalized and entertainment-oriented Old Port area. That location was designed to have seating for about sixty as well as a basement bar and disco with a 500-square-foot oak dance floor to accommodate about 120 people.
The Hu Shang success story came to an ignominious end in 1986 when Ken and Henry Ng fell out over allegations that Ken had defrauded the corporation of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Later that year Ken Ng pled guilty in what the federal prosecutor described as "the most massive criminal tax evasion case" in Maine history. He was later deported. (39)
There was an incredible proliferation of Chinese restaurants in 1981. The Peking Gardens opened in the Cash Corner area of South Portland and stayed in business until 1992 when the Mandarin House Restaurant took over the spot. The Polynesian Village recycled the old Sing's Restaurant location at 152 Main Street, Westbrook; that restaurant closed in 1997. Also, 1981 saw the first attempt at Chinese fast food with the coming of the Peking Express at 1373 Washington Avenue, Portland. Business was good, and the owner soon opened another location at 186 U.S. Route 1, Falmouth. These restaurants closed after the Portland City Council revoked the Portland Peking Express restaurant license in April 1984 following numerous sanitation violations. In June 1981 the Wok Inn opened at Morrill's Corner in Portland. The owners were Ricky Yue, Edward Whitney, and John Mui. In 1985 the owners invested more than $100,000 in expanding the restaurant, doubling its seating capacity to about 14-0. The expansion also increased the size of the kitchen and refrigerator space. It employed about twenty-five people. The trend toward fast food continued when Hong Kong Chinese Fast Food, located on Maine Mall Road, South Portland, opened in July 1981. It did not last long.
The old Cathay Garden location at 608 Congress Street still proved to be a viable place for a Chinese restaurant. In 1984 Patrick Yan opened the Four Five Six Restaurant there with Quay Chi Song, of Portland, as his cook. The Four Five Six closed in 1988.
The trend of locating Chinese restaurants in strip malls continued in 1984 when Falmouth got its first non-fast-food-oriented Chinese restaurant, the Blue Island, which was located in a 4,000-square-foot space in the shopping center at 251 U.S. Route 1. The Blue Island was a spin-off of Sanford, Maine's Kwong Chow Restaurant, owned by Kin Mo Hum. In 1988 Ken Ng's dream of a building a Chinese restaurant at the former Nicely's Market location across from the Pine Tree Shopping Center in Portland came to fruition when the Panda Garden opened at 1041 Brighton Avenue.
The popularity of the Wok Inn's original location at Morrill's Corner in Portland convinced its owners to open the Wok Inn II in 1989. The new location was 818 Main Street, South Portland. The 1989 opening of the Jan Mee Restaurant in the Union Station Plaza, 280 St. John Street, Portland, continued the practice of locating in strip malls. Chinese cuisine returned to the trendy Old Port area of Portland in 1990 when Richard (Li) Tseng opened the Panda House at 436 Fore Street. The Panda House served its last meal in 1992.
The closure of the Hu Kee Lau had created a vacuum that the Imperial China Restaurant sought to fill from its 220 Maine Mall Road, South Portland, location. Imperial China was incorporated on March 14, 1988, with Cheng Liang, of Taiwan, as the owner. Imperial China employed about twenty people and featured Hunan- and Szechuan-style food. Since its opening, Imperial China has won several awards as the best local Chinese restaurant. Market Surveys of America has selected it as Greater Portland's Best Chinese Restaurant every year from 1995 through 2002.
In 1990 a member of the Wong family tried to recreate the old Pagoda Restaurant on a much more modest scale at 144 Cumberland Avenue. Tim Seavey, the husband of Mon Ping (Wong) Seavey, the granddaughter of Daniel C. Wong, was the owner. The menu featured a photograph of Daniel C. Wong with the slogan, "You can't go wrong with Wong" together with a reminder that the Wong family had been in business over four generations since 1938. (40) By 1991 the name had changed to the Pagoda II. In 1991 the name changed to Little Chinatown. It closed in 1997.
For a hundred years in Portland, "Asian" food meant Chinese food in the Cantonese style heavily adapted for the American palate. The influx of Asian refugees, principally from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and immigrants from other regions of Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, resulted in the opening of restaurants featuring the cuisines of those countries. Beginning in the 1990s, Portland's Chinese restaurants added such non-Chinese dishes as pad thai, crab rangoon, and sushi in an effort to appeal to customers who had developed a taste for other Asian cuisines. This trend toward a pan-Asian menu accelerated with the coming of the twenty-first century.
A new shopping-center Chinese restaurant appeared in 1992 with the opening of the Asia Restaurant at 51 Market Street, South Portland, near the Mill Creek Shopping Center. The restaurant offered Szechuan, Hunan, and Mandarin dishes. In 1993 the New Pagoda Restaurant, the successor to the original Pagoda at 5 Forest Avenue, opened with Kim L. Wong as its proprietor. His wife, Chong Y. Q., Wong, was a cook. This reincarnation was short lived. The 1994 Greater City Directory listed the space as vacant. (41) In 1995 the Oriental Table, located at 106 Exchange Street, Portland, replaced the Bien Hong Restaurant at that address and employed five people. The Panda Express chain began in 1993 with a restaurant in Glendale, California, when Andrew Cherng got the idea that recipes from his father's award-winning Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles could be adapted for quick service. Panda Express spread across the United States and, in three short years, opened at 60 Maine Mall, South Portland, in 1996 with Chuck Kelley as manager. It employed approximately a dozen people. It moved into the Maine Mall's Food Court in 1999 where it continues in business with an extremely limited menu of fewer than twenty items.
THE SUPER-BUFFET TREND
"All you can eat" buffet-style Chinese and American food began to compete with traditional Chinese restaurants in August 1993 when the Great Wall Chinese Restaurant opened in Portland at the Pine Tree Shopping Center across the street from the traditional Panda Garden Restaurant. A review in the Maine Sunday Telegram described it as "exactly the place to go with children" since it was "inexpensive, accessible, friendly, and good enough." (42) In addition to a traditional menu of approximately 200 choices, it offered a lunch buffet from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $4.95 and a dinner buffet from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. for $6.29. The menu offered Szechuan, Hunan, and Cantonese items, as well as a special health and diet selection at prices of up to $10.25 per item.
In 1996 Lang's Express joined the battle for the fast-food dollar. It opened at 325 St. John Street, Portland, across the street from a McDonalds, next door to a Dunkin Donuts, and just a half block away from both a Burger King and the Jan Mee Restaurant. The restaurant building had previously housed Lisa's Pizza. Jamie Liang was the owner, and Sonny Ng, who had owned the Hu Ke Lau, worked there. The kitchen was open to the customers' view. Beginning in 2003 the restaurant offered an "all you can eat" lunch buffet for $6.45 on week days.
Outer Brighton Avenue near Exit 8 of the Maine Turnpike continued to attract buffet-style Chinese restaurants. In 1998 the Best Buffet opened at 152 Main Street, Westbrook, employing about twenty people, including manager Jack L. Wong, who had managed the Polynesian Village at that same location since 1987. The restaurant closed in 1999.
By 2000 buffet-style Chinese food had arrived at the Maine Mall area with the opening of the Super Great Wall Buffet at 171 Maine Mall Road, South Portland. It offered more than 250 buffet items daily, including American, Japanese, and Italian food. The restaurant was so successful that it moved across Maine Mall Road into a much larger space in 2002. The expanded location had a sushi bar and a grill bar where patrons could watch their food being prepared.
The Lotus Restaurant replaced the Blue Island in the Falmouth Shopping Center in 2002. Lotus was devoted to the pan-Asian concept, featuring both Chinese and Japanese entrees and a sushi bar. James Han had previously owned a restaurant in Brunswick but decided to relocate to his new location for better parking and for wider public exposure. His older brother, Tao Han, 48, was the head chef. Jack Zang, 36, who was born in Shanghai, was the manager. Zang also designed the restaurant and hired the staff. He had previously been the manager of the 1,000-seat Weylu's Restaurant in Saugus, Massachusetts, as well as Italian and French restaurants. The Lotus sushi bar was staffed by a Chinese sushi chef. Mr. Han regarded the sushi bar "chiefly as entertainment" since more than 90 percent of the restaurant's business was Chinese food. (43)
China One replaced the Great Wall Buffet in its Pine Tree Shopping Center location in 2002. The restaurant seated about sixty diners at fifteen tables, and the middle of the floor featured a buffet table. There was another buffet table along part of the left wall over which there was a wall of mirrors.
The Exit 8 area of Portland got another buffet-style restaurant in 2003 when the Maine Super Buffet opened that summer in the old Valle's Steak House location at 1140 Brighton Avenue. The lunch buffet cost $5.95 Monday through Saturday and $6.95 on Sunday. The dinner buffet of over 138 items, including desserts and ice cream, cost $9.25. Beer and wine were available at extra cost. The buffets included Szechuan-, Hunan-, and Cantonese-style Chinese food, as well as American and Japanese food, including a sushi bar, a fruit bar, and a salad bar. The banquet facilities could accommodate up to 400 people.
By 2005 Portland had developed a reputation as one of the most vibrant and liveable small cities on the East Coast. One contributor to that reputation was a proliferation of top-quality, chef-owned restaurants catering to sophisticated tastes of tourists and residents. The Greater Portland area now supports twenty-two Chinese restaurants serving a variety of cooking styles beyond Cantonese- and a Taiwanese-style bubble tea cafe. (44) Nearly all of these Chinese restaurants include pan-Asian menu items and compete with six Japanese, eleven Thai, and seven Vietnamese restaurants.
(1.) According to the 2000 Census, Maine's racial composition was 96.9 percent Caucasian. Asians were the next largest racial group at 0.7 percent. Of the persons who identified themselves as Asian, Chinese (at 0.2 percent) were the largest Asian ethnic group.
(2.) Portland had a Chinese population of nine in 1880. It peaked at seventy-one in 1920 before going into a decades-long decline to a low of twenty-five in 1970. After the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 and the end of the Vietnam War, Portland's Chinese population rebounded to 73 in 1980, 177 in 1990, and 200 in 2000.
(3.) The origin of "chop suey" is unknown. See Renqiu Yu, "Chop Suey: From Chinese Food to Chinese American Food," Chinese America: History and Perspectives, vol. 1, 1987, for a detailed examination of the possible origins of this dish.
(4.) Portland Transcript, October 8, 1884.
(5.) Portland, Cumberland County, Maine, census returns, National Archives Film T9-0479, 146C.
(6.) City of Portland, Maine, voter registration roll, Maine Historical Society Collection 4, vol. 5, L1.
(7.) The Portland Directory and Reference Book with a Business Directory Attached for 1873, vol. XI, (Portland, Maine: S. B. Beckett, B. Thurston and Company, Printers, 1873), 156. The author has relied on directories of the City of Portland of various years for information related to the addresses of Chinese restaurants and owners and employees of those restaurants, as well as the names, addresses, and vocations of the neighbors of Chinese restaurants. These directories appeared under several names and publishers until 1891 when the name became standardized as the Directory of Portland (Portland, ME: Fred L. Tower).
(8.) The Portland Directory and Reference Book with a Business Directory Attached for 1881, vol. XV (Portland, Maine: S. B. Beckett, B. Thurston and Company, Printers, 1881), 398, 415.
(9.) While Portland never had enough of a Chinese population to develop a "Chinatown," from the 1880s to the 1950s most of Portland's Chinese lived and operated their businesses within approximately a dozen blocks of Monument Square, Portland's business and transportation hub. Many Chinese people lived and worked in the triangular block bounded by Monument Square, Center Street, and Free Street.
(10.) Portland Directory Company, Directory of Portland (Portland, ME: Fred L. Tower, 1903), 176.
(11.) "In Chop Suey Joint," Portland Daily Eastern Argus, September 1, 1903.
(12.) "Chop Suey, Free Street Establishment Closed Yesterday by the Police," Portland Daily Eastern Argus, September 12, 1903.
(13.) "Charlie Sing's Troubles," Portland Daily Eastern Argus, October 15, 1903.
(14.) Maine had passed its first-in-the-nation state prohibition law in 1851 and did not repeal prohibition until after the repeal of the Federal Prohibition Amendment on December 5, 1933.
(15.) "The Chop Suey Joint," Portland Daily Eastern Argus, November 2, 1903.
(16.) Portland Daily Eastern Argus, November 2, 1903.
(17.) Among his neighbors were two blacksmiths, a horseshoer, an edge tool maker, a brass foundry, a saw filer, a carpenter, a non-Chinese laundry, a wholesale druggist, and several residences. Portland Directory Company, Directory of Portland (Portland, ME: Fred L. Tower, 1904), 243.
(18.) Portland Directory Company, Directory of Portland (Portland, ME: Fred L. Tower, 1908), 176.
(19.) Portland Daily Eastern Argus, November 29, 1911.
(20.) Portland Directory Company, Directory of Portland (Portland, ME: Fred L. Tower, 1912), 154.
(21.) "Portland's New Chinese Restaurant Opens Tomorrow," Portland Daily Eastern Argus, December 12, 1916, and Portland Evening Express, December 13, 1916.
(22.) In January 1916 Mr. Heung sent a $25.00 personal check directly to the widow of a Portland police officer who had been killed in the line of duty Portland Evening Express, January 5, 1916. This act of charity may reveal Mr. Heung's sense of outsider's status since in so doing, he declined to subscribe to one of several funds raised on behalf of the officer's family
(23.) The Chee King Tong had a meeting room at 25A Free Street just across the street from the Canton Low Restaurant's location at 14 Free Street. Certificate of Incorporation of the Chee King Tong, Maine Historical Society Collection 2080.
(24.) Chinese women were rarities throughout the United States, including Maine. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States. Thereafter, the only Chinese allowed to enter and remain in the United States were diplomats, scholars, and merchants. Those Chinese who had entered the United States before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act but who did not qualify for entering under the Act, were allowed to remain. If they left the United States, however, for any reason, they were prohibited from reentering. In 1884 Congress passed another law prohibiting the wives of Chinese laborers already in the United States from entering the country The Chinese Exclusion Act was made permanent in 1902. The 1900 census enumerated 119 Chinese in Maine (115 men and 4 women). They were the first recorded Chinese women in Maine. The 1910 Census recorded 108 Chinese men but no Chinese women in Maine. The 1920 Census enumerated 161 Chinese (153 men and 8 women). By the 1930 Census, Maine was the home of 115 Chinese (93 men and 22 women). Chin Heung, who had been employed as a store manager, must have convinced the authorities that he was a merchant and thus entitled to bring his wife into the country.
(25.) Portland, Cumberland County, Maine, Census returns, National Archives Film T626-830, 279A.
(26.) Those known to have registered were as follows: Empire Restaurant--Wong Get Shing, a part owner, and Lee G. Chung, waiter; Oriental Restaurant--Chin Hing and Wong Fong, chefs, and Lee Fong, Fong Fook, and Wong "Lung Lun, waiters; place of employment unspecified--Chiu Woon Chin, Ning Chin, Jang Sing, waiters, and Soo Hoo Chinhong, Chin Poo, Chin Pook, N. G. Hong, Wong E Lam, Chin Ling Wong Ngin Yen, and Wong Yuen, cooks, and Charlie S. Wong, clerk.
(27.) "To Have Chinese Restaurant Here," Portland Evening Express, April 29, 1916.
(28.) "New Restaurant Opens Tomorrow," Portland Evening Express, July 31, 1916.
(29.) Deering High School Breccia, November 1917. The Breccia was the school's literary- magazine. A "table d'hote" is a meal usually of several preselected and fixed courses at a fixed price.
(30.) See, generally, issues of the Directory of Portland (Portland, ME: Fred L. Tower) for the years 1931 through 1953.
(31.) Portland Evening Express, May 24, 1980.
(32.) "Portland's New Chinese Restaurant Opens Tomorrow," Portland Evening Express, December 8, 1916.
(33.) This 608 Congress Street address would be the home of four Chinese restaurants, a Vietnamese restaurant, and a combination Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant between 1939 and 2005.
(34.) See May 18, 2002, oral history interview of Danny Y. Wone's daughter, Nancy Roderick, Maine Historical Society; Collection 2080.
(35.) In 1980 for the first time the Census reported that Portland had sizeable Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian populations together with smaller Korean, Thai, and Japanese communities.
(36.) In 1970 Portland's Chinese population was twenty-five out of Cumberland County's total Chinese population of forty-eight. In 1980 Portland's Chinese population grew to 73 out of Cumberland County's total Chinese population of 132. In 1990 Portland's Chinese population grew to 177 out of Cumberland County's total Chinese population of 345. In 2000 Portland's Chinese population was 200, less than one-third of Cumberland County's total Chinese population of 640.
(37.) Hu Shang menu, Maine Historical Society, Collection 2080.
(39.) Portland Press Herald, August 2, 1988.
(40.) Menu, Little China Town, Maine Historical Society Collection 2080.
(41.) Greater City Directory (Richmond, VA: R. L. Polk & Co., 1994).
(42.) Maine Sunday Telegram, August 20, 1995.
(43.) Portland Magazine, September 2002.
(44.) "Bubble Maineia" serves "bubble tea," a tea-based drink that originated in Taiwan in the early 1990s. It combines flavored tea with suspended tapioca balls. Although it can be served hot, most customers prefer it served cold. It is usually consumed by sucking it through a wide straw.
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|Author:||Libby, Gary W.|
|Publication:||Chinese America: History and Perspectives|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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