Thursday, January 28, 2010

Far East Café Reunion by Raymond Chong

Far East Café Reunion – Memories and Nostalgia - Part 1 of 2

By Raymond Chong

17 Oct 2008

Michael, my brother, and I hosted the “Far East Café Reunion – Memories and Nostalgia.” Our purpose was to celebrate the life of Gim Suey Chong and the legacy of famous Far East Café with relatives and new friends. On Saturday, June 7, 2008, we gathered at the mezzanine of the Chop Suey Café in the landmark Far East Café Building for the program and lunch, the room of countless parties, in two rows of tables.

During the program, we shared memorable and nostalgic stories. We feasted on the delicious China meshi (Cantonese) dishes. We first met as mysterious strangers but left the “Far East Café Reunion” as close friends. I was simply elated by this extraordinary party in Little Tokyo.

Gim Suey Chong, my father, was a proud weekend waiter at the storied Far East Café on 347 East First Street in the Heart of Little Tokyo. Gim worked for the Jung cousins of Hoyping County from the Pearl River Delta of Kwangtung Province in China. He served the popular China meshi dishes to customers with a smile on his face from 1950 to 1974. He talked, joked, and played with his fellow waiters, busboys, and cooks. He was among his brothers in this close-knit fraternity. Gim won many arm wrestling matches during their breaks. The Far East Café and its people were a vital part of his short but vibrant life (years 1922 to 1979).

It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning in the Southland when I arrived in Little Tokyo. I was excited as well as anxious about the Far East Café reunion. I retraced the footsteps of Gim Suey Chong along East First Street in the historic Little Tokyo district. The iconic “Far East Chop Suey” neon sign on the façade proudly proclaimed this Chop Suey eatery to the world. In front, two stone Chinese lions stood protecting the Far East Café from evil spirits. “En To Low” (Far East Building in Chinese) was etched on the front glass door since 1935. I looked at the adjacent landmark Antonin Sperl Building. Then at the old Yet Quong Low (Sun Light Building in Chinese) Chop Suey Café (aka Nikko Low), Gim Suey Chong and Moi Chung, our grandfather, lived there and worked for Quock Den Jung and Hoie Wing Jung.

Omoide No Shotokyo (Remembering Old Little Tokyo) is sidewalk public art that honors Japanese Americans, their history and neighborhood. Etched into the sidewalk concrete in front of the building was "Far East Café (1935)." A reminder of how Little Tokyo used to be. Another memory in the sidewalk were the words of Little Tokyo resident, Penny Akemi Sakoda that reads: "My memory of hotel living are vividly etched in my mind. I hear the familiar sounds of the shamisen koto, and shigin being sung, and the constant clanking of the street car." Toyo Miyatake’s camera sculpture is nearby.

My imagination wandered to the days of Gim Suey Chong at the Far East Café. It is lunchtime on Saturday. Patrons were sharing quiet conversations in the booths. Upstairs in the mezzanine, a family was joyfully celebrating a birthday of a loved one with drinks and food. The cooks were in their usual frenetic pace in the kitchen as they created their succulent dishes in the fiery woks. A strong aroma of the tasty foods waffled in the air. Gim Suey Chong and fellow waiters were smoothly serving the China meshi dishes. From the front counter, Look Mar admired the scene of the good times among his guests at the venerable Far East Café.

At 11 a.m., I walked into the old Far East Café, now known as Chop Suey Café. Dark red booths on the red concrete floor, stood ready for the patrons. Fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling to cast an ambient dark red hue over the dining room. Black formica tables with soy sauce jars and round wood chairs. The lacquer wood panels were lined with advertising posters of Chinese girls of the 1930’s hawking cigarettes and other goods. Near the entrance, you can see the glass front counter where Look Mar greeted patrons, handled transactions at the cash register, and dispensed sweets to the kids. On the wall, two photos showed Look Mar, Do Mar, Mayor Thomas Bradley, and various workers.

Michael put together a beautiful program for the party. It included: the creative “China Meshi Dreams” by Tony Osumi, the legacy of Far East Café, and the life story of Gim Suey Chong, our father. Near the reception table, Michael put up a poster of the Far East Café. It included “Valley Girl's Memories of the Far East Café” by Jennie Kuida, “A Dark Show Fell on My Chop Suey” by Naomi Hirahara, “Far East Café Groundbreaking Ceremony" by Wataru Ebihara, "The China Meshi Manifesto" by Tony Osumi, and “Far East Building – A Salute to Preservation” by Restore America.

At noon, I happily began our program. I warmly welcome our guests for this unique occasion of memories and nostalgia for the Far East Café. I gave them a brief description for today’s China meshi menu for lunch. I talked about the importance of chop suey in American cuisine. The Issei and Nissei community enjoyed the delicious China meshi dishes of that era in America.

Tony Osumi, an aficionado of the Far East Café, had written a nice poem entitled “China Meshi Dreams,” an ode to the classic China meshi dishes.

China Meshi Dreams

relaxing in a hot tub of seaweed soup
nori and egg whites swirl
pork shoulder bobbing
translucent broth
cover my shoulders
lowering my chin to take a sip

chashu
roasted brick red
chunks hang plump
like apples on a chashu tree
seedless
warm and ripe
there for the picking
licking fingers
shamelessly
not even my own

homyu
pungent and fresh
melting in my mouth
with hot mustard and shoyu
whipped into circles
golden as Van Gogh’s Starry Night
new research finds:
homyu
fat free
sodium free
and lowers your
cholesterol

shrimp and lobster sauce
ladled thick on steaming rice
a priceless
chawan treasure
overflowing with
orange rubies
black bean pearls
and egg white satin
magically
the last shrimp
reappearing after every bite

chicken chowmein
pan fried timelines
thread through
shiitake and china pea
weave and tie us
to our pioneer past
every glazed noodle
guaranteed to have
an issei on the other end

pakai
bell pepper and onion
witness the marriage
of pineapple and pork
with vinegar presiding
honeymooning
for seven days
and six nights
on a romantic
lazy susan

almond duck
cradled by lettuce
spruced up with nuts
born from hard times
scraps of duck meat
pressed between
heaven and earth
working peoples’
salvation--with gravy
my father says,
Almond Duck?
as hard to describe
as the grand canyon’s
beauty

I eagerly told the story of the old Far East Café in Little Tokyo. In 1935, five Jung cousins, from Le Chung Laundry in Mason City, Iowa, opened this establishment during the heyday of Little Tokyo. Anna May Wong, the famous actress, attended their grand opening. Far East Café was a popular gathering place for good Chinese food. Countless parties were held in the mezzanine. Issei and Nisei enjoyed the China meshi dishes among families and friends. They have strong sentiments for the Far East Café.

George Wakiji vividly described the fine dining of the old Far East Café:

In my younger days (pre-World War II) when I lived in Pasadena, California, it was always a treat to go to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles to eat China meshi, the popular Cantonese cuisine, at the Far East Café. I can still vividly recall the dark cherry wood panels, which covered the walls and booths. Sometimes when we had a family gathering on Sunday, I recall eating in a secluded mezzanine section in the back of the restaurant. Hanhichi Wakiji, my father, held court there. We never failed to order the same dishes each time. There was always pak kai (sweet and sour pork), pea chow yuk (Chinese pea and pork), chow mein (with chicken and pan-fried noodles), and wor shu op (almond duck). My favorite was cha shu (roast pork). In the ensuing years, I have eaten in many Chinese restaurants around the world, but have never found cha shu that matched the Far East Café version.

James Hajime Wakiji, my older brother, always had to have an order of hom yuk (pork hash with salted fish). After our return from incarceration from the Gila River Relocation Camp in the Arizona desert during World War II, I with my good friends played in the post-World War II Nisei Athletic Union (NAU) softball and basketball leagues in the greater Los Angeles area. After the games on Friday evenings, we invariably stopped in Little Tokyo and headed for the Far East Café. We gorged ourselves on the best Cantonese cuisine. In those days, they served the steamed rice in large rice bowls, which were mounded high. I remember that in addition to all the Chinese dishes I would down at least four of those bowls. Nowadays I would eat an eighth of that amount of rice. The Far East Café experience during my youth and adulthood are memories. Nevertheless, I will always remember and cherish it.

Part 2 >>

* If you want to share your stories and photos about the Far East Café, please contact Raymond Chong at 510.915.9810 (mobile) or raychong(at)prodigy.net (e-mail).

© 2008 Raymond Chong

Far East Café Reunion – Memories and Nostalgia - Part 2 of 2

  • en

By Raymond Chong

24 Oct 2008

>> Part 1

As part of the Far East Café Reunion, I gladly shared with the guests the story of the colorful life of Gim Suey Chong (1922-1979), my father. He had a humble beginning in Yung Lew Gong Village in Hoyping County of China. At nine years old, he took an epic sojourn from the Port of Hong Kong to the Port of Vancouver, across continental Canada aboard the Canadian Pacific Railway, to arrive at the Port of Boston in 26 days. He lived at his father’s Imperial Restaurant in Central Square in Cambridge.

Gim Suey Chong lived with his father, Moi Chung, at Yet Quong Low Chop Suey Café (aka Nikko Low) from 1936 to 1941. He graduated from Belmont High School as a member of the Winter 1941 class. Gim learned aviation mechanic trade from Curtiss Wright Technical Institute of Glendale.

During World War II he maintained the world famous “China Clipper” and other seaplanes for Pan American Airways on Treasure Island in San Francisco. During the post World War II years, he was partner, as well as waiter, at the renown Kubla Khan Theater Restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown with the colorful Eddie Pond.

In 1950, he returned to Los Angeles to stay at an apartment above popular Little Joe's Italian American Restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown. He worked for Lockheed California Company in Burbank as inspector from 1950 to 1979. During weekends, he worked as a waiter at Far East Café for his Hoyping cousins. He married Seen Hoy Tong of Santa Barbara. They raised two sons, Raymond and Michael. He died early in 1979.

At the reunion, Henry Fong, son of Lung Fong, talked about the Nikko Low Chinese Restaurant. Dr. Roger Pating briefly spoke about the Kubla Khan. William Tom proudly described his young days as a waiter at the Far East Café. He also related about his experience as an Olympic gymnast during 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Andrew Chong remarked that Far East Café was a fun workplace for everyone. He proudly worked as a busboy for $5.00 plus $0.50. He remembered Jimmy as a fun guy to be around with in the dining room.

But we couldn't talk about the Far East Café without tasting the food. Ming Chong, the headwaiter, from Vietnam and his assistant served the China meshi efficiently. In quick order, we feasted on tofu seaweed soup, cha shu, bok choy, sweet and sour pork, chop suey, hom you, and pressed almond duck. Soy sauce and hot yellow mustard were passed around and everything was washed down with cups of hot tea. The atmosphere was filed with gaiety and camaraderie. We closed the lunch with delicious gelato from Piccomolo.

Our honored guests included:
Tony Osumi and Jenni Kuida and Maiya, their daughter.
George and Betty Wakiji
Henry Fong, son of Lung Fong, principal owner of Nikko Low Chop Suey Cafe, and Jane, his wife.
Dr. Roger Pating, son of Eddie Pond, principal owner of Kubla Khan Theater Restaurant, and Isabelle, wife.
Dr. Andrew Chong
Archie Miyatake, son of Toyo Miyatake, the famous Mazanar incarceration camp photographer, with Taketo, his wife
Bill Watanabe, Executive Director of Little Tokyo Service Center,
From Little Tokyo Historical Society, Kiku Harada, Bill Shishima, Carole Fujita, Nancy Uyemura, Joseph Janenti, Sumi Tsuno, Hector Watanabe, Yuko Aoyama Gabe, Megumi Sumita, Frances Nakamura
Bobby Okinaka and Yoko Nishimura of Discover Nikkei
Gwen Muranaka, English Editor for Rafu Shimpo, later wrote “Far East Memories” article.
Susie Ling from Chinese Historical Society of Southern California made a brief visit.

Bill Watanabe, Executive Director of Little Tokyo Service Center, strongly felt that the Far East Café had a major impact on the Issei and Nisei community. After the end of World War II, they returned from the internment camps in despair. He wrote:

Return of Japanese Americans after World War II to Little Tokyo

When World War II broke out, all of the Japanese along the west coast of the United States were forcibly removed and incarcerated in camps in the interior portions of the country. Thus, from 1942 - 1945, Little Tokyo was devoid of any Japanese or Japanese American presence, and the area was occupied by others who came to Los Angeles from the south and midwest and were in need of housing.

After World War II ended in 1945, many Japanese Americans sought to return to southern California but they found there were few places for them to live. A number of families were housed temporarily at the Koyasan Temple on First Street in Little Tokyo - including members of my own family (Bill Watanabe's family). According to some folks who recall those days, after spending years in the camps and losing most if not all of their possessions, they had little spending money. They would go to the Far East Café across the street from the Koyasan Temple and the Chinese owners of the restaurant, who were familiar with many of these returnees, allowed them to eat "on credit," asking to be paid when they were able to do so. It could truthfully be said that this kind of goodwill helped to make the Far East Café, along with its famous cheap and tasty menu, the most popular and well-known restaurant in the entire Japanese American community.

Gary Miyatake, son of Archie Miytakte, reflected on the importance of Far East Café in Little Tokyo. His poignant remarks were:

Being that my family had a business in Little Tokyo, my views are a little different. My best friend was a member of the owners. They were the Mars (Jungs). Do Mar was my best friend. With that, I met Andrew Chong who remains a very good friend.

Far East Café was a favorite among the many people who visited Little Tokyo. Many people felt comfortable in places like the Far East Café. It is very important to have places like that. There is a lack of that now days.

After lunch, we interviewed folks near the Far Bar. Bill Watanabe, Bill Shishima, Carole Fujita, George Wakiji, William Tom, Lena Ho and Ming Chong sat down with our video crew. Later in the evening at the Monterey Palace Restaurant, we interviewed five people including: Steve Situ, Pauline Chin, Gary Miyatake, Dr. Andrew Chong, and Raymond Chong. They repeated a common theme about the hard times in Little Tokyo and happy times at the Far East Café. It was a bright spot in their harsh and bleak lives during the Great Depression and after World War II.

Before the program, I gave the records of War Relocation Authority of Hanhichi and Taneo Wakiji, parents of George Wakiji. Henry Fong kindly loaned me photos of the Lung Fong, father, in front of Yet Quong Low Chop Suey Café. I gave Chinese immigration photos of Lung Fong, Hanako Nishi Fong, and Von Chung Fong (aka Henry Chong) to Henry Fong. I was able to distribute some more historical photos to other guests as well.

I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response to our “Far East Café Reunion – Memories and Nostalgia.” I was ecstatic for this special occasion. This party was a surrealistic experience for me to be among patrons and workers of the Far East Café. People were happy to relive the good old days at Far East Café, either as patron or worker. Our program enlivened their precious memories. Their level for nostalgia runs deep in their hearts.

My mind is warmed by thoughts of this chop suey eatery for Gim Suey Chong, my father. Today, after my return to Texas, I cherish and value my new memories and nostalgia of the Far East Café and its people. The Far East Café was a unique place in the heart of Little Tokyo.

Many thanks for their help to:
Clinton Crosby of Lazy Mule Productions for videotaping our program and interviews.
Kevin Chin for conducting the interviews.
Lloyd Ho for shooting photos at our program.

* If you want to share your stories and photos about the Far East Café, please contact Raymond Chong at 510.915.9810 (mobile) or raychong@prodigy.net (e-mail).

© 2008 Raymond Chong

2 comments:

  1. I remember your Uncle. My Uncle and Dad always asked for him on the weekends. He went by an English name,I can't remember it. My Uncle, Eddie Tanabe graduated from Belmont in 1940. Maybe they knew each other from high school.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Jimmy" was nickname for my father, Gim Suey Chong. Most likely, he knew your uncle, Eddie Tanabe. Do you have any memories?

    ReplyDelete