Cantonese restaurant

This man kept $ 25,000 of the decor of Cecilia Chiang’s restaurant for 14 years. But was it his?


After Cecilia Chiang’s pioneer Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, The Mandarin, closed in 2006, a longtime fan went to an auction and bought items for $ 25,000: paintings, seats of brown bar and piles of old menus that were believed to be remnants of the famous restaurant.

For 14 years, Nee Lau carefully kept items in stock. You could say that Lau is a super fan of Cecilia Chiang. When he opened his own Chinese restaurant in Menlo Park this year, he named it the Mandarin, although there is no official affiliation. Many dishes take inspiration from or directly recreate Chiang’s cuisine, an ode to the woman who died last fall.

“Why would I have it for 14 years?” Lau said articles. “It’s because it’s part of our culture. She introduced Chinese cuisine to people.

But it is now unclear whether his treasures actually came from Chiang’s original restaurant.

A large decorative vase, furniture, and artwork from what Nee Lau believed to be Cecilia Chiang’s Mandarin Restaurant.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

When The Chronicle showed photographs from Lau’s collection to Chiang’s son, granddaughter, and two longtime former Mandarin employees, they did not recognize the objects. They wonder if the decorations are more from the second iteration of Mandarin. Chiang sold his restaurant in 1991 to Julian Mao, a former employee, who ran the Mandarin until it closed.

The Chronicle could not reach Mao. Charyn Auctions in Berkeley, where Lau purchased the items, only keeps sales records for 10 years. The owner said he could not remember any details about the mandarin auction or the seller.

As for Lau, he didn’t know the Mandarin had changed hands until The Chronicle informed him. Now, he said, he’s not sure he would have made the purchase had there been any doubt that the items were from Chiang’s restaurant.

But, he said, the discovery did not diminish his appreciation for his legacy and, in some ways, deepened his sense of connection with the late restaurateur.

“I’ve always admired her,” Lau said. “Everyone in the business does certain things to make money or to promote (their restaurants) but I think she was on top of that.”

Inside Cecilia Chiang's famous Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco.

Inside Cecilia Chiang’s famous Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco.

Provided by the Cecilia Chiang family

Chiang opened Mandarin on Polk Street in 1959. She has put more than 300 dishes on the menu, honoring regional Sichuan and Hunan cuisine while popularizing now common Chinese dishes like pot stickers and kung pao chicken. Lau said her reputation as a mentor to Bay Area chefs had marked him, even from afar, as had her ability to successfully open a Chinese restaurant in the 1960s in San Francisco as a woman from Shanghai. who did not speak Cantonese and was not a chef herself. .

The Mandarin then moved to a luxurious 300-seat space in Ghirardelli Square, where it also served as a showcase for art. Siena Chiang said her grandmother was an “amateur historian” with a reverence for Chinese art, especially because she was forced to abruptly leave her homeland.

“It was really important to her. She was still talking about it. She loved educating people about the art she owned, what artefacts were, ”said Siena Chiang.

Lau is a food addict from Guangdong Province who arrived in the United States 30 years ago. He first heard of the original Mandarin when it opened and dined there over the years; he even spoke to Cecilia Chiang once, at a private banquet she hosted in San Francisco with a chef from Chengdu. At his Mandarin restaurant, he aims to pursue Chiang’s mission of “bringing traditional Chinese cuisine to the American public.”

Patrons, however, won’t find Lau’s treasures on display at the restaurant; they would clash with its more modern decor, he said. Instead, they remain in storage at her mother’s house in Sacramento, where they have been sitting for over a decade.

Nee Lau, a restaurateur, kept for more than a decade a decor he believed came from Cecilia Chiang's famous restaurant, the Mandarin.

Nee Lau, a restaurateur, kept for more than a decade a decor he believed came from Cecilia Chiang’s famous restaurant, the Mandarin.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

One piece from Lau’s collection seemed familiar to a former Mandarin employee: a wooden chest of drawers topped with a glass display case. The former worker recalled a similar display case Chiang used to display her cookbooks. The chest is Lau’s favorite room, and he remembers seeing it sitting at the Mandarin’s entrance.

Inside the display case is a large circular piece of wood carved with four Chinese characters that together signify longevity, Lau said, as well as a jade green bracelet and tile whose origins are unknown.

Inside the drawers are copies of old, undated menus, Mandarin brand soy sauce labels, and flyers from a Lunar New Year banquet in 2006. Someone even kept the 1979 edition of Holiday magazine’s pick of the best restaurants in North America. In it, the famous food and wine writer Robert Lawrence Balzer wrote that Mandarin “exists almost completely apart from other Chinese establishments as a temple of gastronomy”, highlighting dishes such as smoked duck and the beggar’s chicken.

Lau, a realist, resigns himself to the possibly mistaken origins of his collection. “For me, it doesn’t matter. I already have it, “he said.” It’s like that. “

But the saga ultimately led to a poignant experience for the restaurateur. After learning from The Chronicle about Lau’s collection, several of Chiang’s family members went to his restaurant to eat. They ordered a feast, he says, and together they talked about the woman they have in common. The cooking experience for Chiang’s descendants, he said, was far more meaningful than the items stored in Sacramento.

Siena Chiang said her grandmother had a strange ability to connect with people, from bus boys at the restaurants she frequented to the chefs she took under her wing.

“What was amazing about my grandmother was her ability to make an impact on the lives of people, that she had never met them,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that this person who chose to buy all his things at the restaurant chose to keep them and (it) had such an impact.

“It’s a testament to who she strived to be.”

Elena Kadvany is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ekadvany



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