Exit the Dragon by Ben Fong-Torres

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Wednesday, 03 October 2012.

AC - BENS COLUMN 2012-10-04-Silver Dragon 1955Events are conspiring to hurtle me into my distant past, to my childhood years in Oakland’s Chinatown, where my sisters, brothers and I served time at our restaurant, the New Eastern Café.

First, there was the closing of the Silver Dragon, an institution among restaurants in Chinatown; one of the first ones built for banquets and special events. Since 1974, when it settled in at Ninth and Webster Streets, it was a gathering place for the community, whether it was a young couple on a date or a family hosting a red egg and ginger party or a wedding banquet.

It’s being replaced by Asian Health Services, and that organization had a fundraising dinner gala the other night at the nearby Marriott, with 600 people in attendance. The featured entertainment was a tribute to the Chee family, the clan behind the Dragon.

Sherry Hu, the MC for the event, asked me to speak as part of the tribute, and, although I didn’t have the time, I made time.

You see, my family’s restaurant was sold, in 1954, to the Chees, who turned it into the first Silver Dragon. I was nine years old then, but my time at 710 Webster Street helped shape my life.

As I told the audience at the Marriott, the title of my memoirs, The Rice Room, is about a space in the back of that restaurant. “We were all in the rice room,” I said, “where rice, soy sauce and children were stored.

ben fong-torres by pat johnson studios thumbnail-175px-1I continued, “This is where, while my parents were cooking and running a restaurant, I grew up.  This is where I listened to the radio and fell in love with the medium, and began to dream that one day I’d be on the radio. It’s where I began to read, and thought that, one day, I might write, and that my efforts might be printed, the way I saw them published in the Oakland Tribune.” (I got into the paper’s kids’ section with drawings and stories a few times.)

This was our home away from home, until our parents sold it to Wah Quon Chee and his wife, Yuk Chun Chee. My parents had found declining fortunes, and decided to try their luck elsewhere. The Chee family found … well, they found silver, and gold. At least enough that they were able to build a brand-new Silver Dragon that opened in 1974.  By then, the Chee kids were pitching in, doing chores and, ultimately, taking over in more important roles, just the way us Fong-Torreses did at our various places. Lester, Tina and Wesley, meet Sarah, Barry, Shirley and Burton.

There were a lot of parallels, and I was happy to be part of a salute to our ties over the years.

“And now,” I noted, “the Silver Dragon transitions into the headquarters of Asian Health Services.  This will be the first community health organization offices with a cocktail lounge.”

As part of the tribute, the AHS presented a video-and-photo montage of the Chees and the Silver Dragon, and it was a fine tribute, produced by Tony Nguyen, with help from Lilly Mar-Chee and the rest of the family. I was personally knocked out by photographs of the original Silver Dragon. I’d seen only a few tiny snapshots of the front of the New Eastern. Now, out of nowhere, I was seeing vivid photos of OUR restaurant—only with new signage. It was close enough – even the boy standing in front could have been Barry or me – and so were the shots of the dining room and the kitchen.

If only someone had taken a photo of the rice room.

A few days after the event, I got an e-mail from Sarah, my sister and Rice Roommate, sending along a couple of pages from a book she’d run into: Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Restaurants, by Joe Jung. It includes a nostalgic look back at Oakland Chinatown, and Sarah was drawn to a couple of pages about Webster Street – our street – as recalled by Flo Wong, a member of the family that owned and operated the Great China restaurant. That was just across the street from us, and Flo offers vivid descriptions of the place. At one point, she runs down the various shops across the street, including a pool hall and several other restaurants, including “the Far East Café run by the Fong Torres family.”

Uh…No. It was the New Eastern. And Fong-Torres is, and always has been, hyphenated (at least ever since the kids learned punctuation). And to think that Flo is the sister of William Wong, the esteemed journalist. You’d think there’d be an editor in the family.

No big deal. Next time I see Flo—or Bill, I’ll buy them a drink at Asian Health Services.