Tuesday, July 30, 2019

GreCo: Gyros & Loukoumades at the Seaport

I've long been a fan of Gre.Co (meaning Greece & Company) on Newbury Street, loving their fresh Gyros and Loukoumades. The Newbury Street location is small and intimate and now there is a new location of GreCo, in the Seaport region, and it is much larger and more spacious. You'll find the same delicious food there, but a few new items and even some wine and beer.


I recently attended a media preview of this new location, which is now open to the public. The restaurant is lengthy and spacious, with plenty of small tables, counter seating, and a few larger tables as well. It has a modern look and will soon have patio seating as well, so you can dine outside with a cooling breeze from the sea.

At one end of the restaurant is a large table, that is almost in its own room, giving some privacy to diners.

Around the corner from that large table, you'll find a quote on the wall from The Odyssey by Homer, "A guest never forgets the host who has treated him kindly."

Like an assembly line, you order at the counter and the various employees will out together your meal. Much of the menu is similar to what you'll find at Newbury Street, except there are a few new dishes. The Seaport locations still prepares its foods, marinating their meats for about 24 hours, using their own house-made marinades. The Pitas are cooked on the grill, ensuring they are fresh and hot.

The food menu is dominated by seven different types of Gyros, all which are served in a warm pita with tomatoes, onions and hand-cut potatoes. The seven Gyros (priced $8.50-$10.50) include the Pork (with tzatziki), Chicken (with honey mustard), Lamb (with tomato jam), Bifteki (ground beef with spicy whipped feta), Loukaniko (pork and leek sausage with mustard sauce), Veggie (squash fritter with lemon yogurt sauce), and Mushroom (braised mushrooms with Greek fava). As everything is made to order, you can also customize your own Gyro, choosing your own protein and sauce combination.

I'm partial to the tasty Lamb Gyro, which is was packed with plenty of tender and flavorful meat. The tomato jam adds nice acidity and a little sweetness to the gyro. The addition of the salty fries also enhanced the gyro. This is quality fast casual food.

As a slight variation, you can also have a Salad ($10.50) or Plate ($11.50), selecting your own protein and sauce combination, and each also comes with pita bread. The Plate also comes with a side. You can order a salad on its own, including the Horiatiki ($8.50), Cretan ($8.00), Mykonos ($8.00), and Kos ($9.00). There are also a small number of Soup & Sides, such as Avgolemono (egg lemon soup, $3.50) and Greek Slaw ($2.50).

One new item on their menu was the Greek Summer Gazpacho ($6), made with chilled tomato, onion, cucumber, red pepper, roasted pine nut and feta mousse. Refreshing and flavorful, with bright cucumber accents, I especially loved the hunk of feta in the soup, adding a briny edge to the soup. Highly recommended.

As for Sides, you can order the Homemade Dips, served with with Pita ($4), selecting Tzatziki, Spicy Whipped Feta, Charred Eggplant of Greek Fava. The Gre.co Fries ($4.5), hand-cut potatoes with feta, are addictive. The crisp fries, with a fluffy interior, are enhanced by the salty, creaminess of the feta.


Who wouldn't love Loukoumas, Greek donuts? You can even watch them making your Loukoumas for you! They come in five different flavors, $5-$6.50, including Classic (Greek honey, walnuts and cinnamon), Yaya’s (hazelnut praline, oreo cookies, powdered sugar), Bougatsa (custard creme, phyllo, cinnamon, powdered sugar), Lady Marmalade (fig marmalade, yogurt mousse, toasted almonds), and Choco Loco (white chocolate ganache, wafer crumble, cocoa powder).

The Bougatsa was a decadent treat, with the sweet and creamy custard, lightly crisp phyllo and hot donuts. This is the type of treat to make you forget about your diet.

The Classic remains a delicious option, the walnuts adding a nice crunchy texture to enhance the light and fluffy loukoumas.

GreCo has upped their beverage program, adding both alcoholic and non-alcoholic choices. For Coffee, you'll find Freddo Expresso, Freddo Cappucino and Frappe (Greek iced coffee). You'll also find non-alcoholic options like Greco-Jito (basil, cucumber & honey), Tsai (Greek mountain tea, honey, ginger & lemon), and Homer's Punch (watermelon, star anise, mint & lemon). The Greco-Jito was refreshing and tasty, an excellent summer drink.

For alcoholic options, they have a Greco “Opa Opa” Light Lager ($6), which is made exclusively for them, as well as a Seasonal Beer ($5.50). For wine, there are two options, a White and a Red, both from the Karavitakis Winery of Crete. The Karavitakis Little Prince White ($6.50) is a blend of about 65% Vilana and 35% Vidiano. This wine is bright and crisp, with notes of lemon, citrus and pear. A pleasant summery wine, perfect for sipping on the patio. The Karavitakis Little Prince Red ($8) is a blend of 65% Kotsifali and 35% Mandilari. Smooth and easy drinking, there is still depth to this wine, with pleasant black fruit flavors, including plum and black cherry. There is a freshness to this wine as well, and it paired very well with a lamb gyro. I'm especially pleased that both wines use indigenous Greek grapes, helping people to expand their palates and experience these delicious wines.

I suspect GreCo in the Seaport will do very well. It offers reasonably priced, delicious and quality fast casual food. The restaurant is aesthetically pleasing and is one of the better new options in the Seaport region. I know that when I'm in the Seaport, it will always be one of my top choices. And you can look forward to more locations of GreCo opening in other parts of Boston in the future.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The First Restaurants In Boston's Chinatown: 1930s-1952 (Part 5)

The 1930s and 1940s were turbulent times, stretching from the Great Depression and World War II. How did Chinatown fare during these two decades? In the end, it appears the restaurants in Chinatown mostly weathered the storms, gaining greater acceptance and acclaim. As I mentioned before, most of the restaurants had started to offer American and Chinese cuisine, but with acceptance and acclaim, some started moving towards offering, or at least highlighting, only Chinese cuisine, returning to their roots.

And onto the history...

The Boston Globe, March 24, 1930, briefly mentioned a fire at a Chinese restaurant, inside a one-story brick building, at 34 Oxford Street, near Beach Street. Heated by a flame from a gas jet, w wooden wall burst into flames. About $2000 in property damage was done. The restaurant owner, Yee Hang Foo, lived next door and came out when he heard an alarm. He severely cut his hand and forearm when he smashed the large front window of restaurant.

There was a brief mention of a stabbing at a Chinese restaurant, located at 864 Washington Street, in the Boston Globe, April 14, 1930. A man was cut on his lower body in a fight with three men at that restaurant.

Now, onto some positivity. The Boston Globe, September 15, 1930, presented the anecdote of a man who recently dined at a Chinese restaurant in Boston. The man saw a table of four to five men who had brought their own alcohol, possibly wine, to the restaurant. They offered some to their Chinese waiter who declined, stating he was a Christian. This was said as further proof of “the general belief that the Chinese are temperate and aside from a little private gambling now and then are law abiding and give little trouble to the authorities.” It's good to see such sentiments rather than the racist fears which sometimes arose.

There was a near riot at a Chinese restaurant. The Boston Globe, January 17, 1931, reported that the police responded to a call, at about 1am, at the Palais D’Or, a Chinese-American restaurant at 281 Huntington Avenue. When the officers arrived, they found about 20 people, guests and employees, battling. The fight might have originated over a coat check dispute, which escalated to a large free-for-all.

In early 1931, a large-scale vice ring investigation was conducted, reaching across New England, aimed at stopping organized prostitution, which might have also involved underaged girls. A few Chinese restaurants were targeted in this investigation, including Palais D’Or, Pekin, and Symphony. In March 1931, a bill was filed to prevent them from continuing the “alleged common nuisance’ and Pekin would close its doors less than two weeks later.

Plenty of fascinating information was provided in the Boston Globe, May 5, 1931 in their article about the recent release of the New England Chinese Business Directory. The information in the directory was compiled by Wong C. Poy, a leading Chinatown merchant, and it listed about 8,000 Chinese people in New England, indicating a rough doubling of the population within the last twenty years.

Of that population, about 4,500 lived in Greater Boston, comprised of 3,000 men, 1,000 children, and only 150 women. What a huge disparity between men and women, which was a legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act and similar such laws. The article also noted, “There are about 200 Chinese families in Boston’s Chinatown, Harrison av, Beach, Tyler, Oxford and Hudson sts, in what used to be Irish residential territory, called the Old South Cove.”

There was pride in the fact that a number of Chinese children were attending prestigious universities, including 80 students at Harvard University and 35 at MIT. Other Chinese students attended Boston College, Tufts, Radcliffe, Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Yale College, and some art and music schools. The article also mentioned that there were about 1500 hand laundries and 4 wet wash laundries in Greater Boston. Finally, it was noted that there were about 70 Chinese restaurants in Massachusetts, with 40 of them located in Boston.

Stupidity reigns! The Boston Globe, August 20, 1931, detailed an incident at the Red Rooster Chinese restaurant where one of their diners, Martin Carmello, who was leaving the place at about 12:15am, decided to try out his new fountain pen-style tear gas gun. As the tear gas spread through the restaurant, about 60 other diners, waiters, and employees had to flee. Martin was arrested, along with his brother and a friend, and Martin was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon. He was later found guilty of plain assault and received a one month suspended sentence.

In September 1931, Japan invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria and Boston's Chinatown instituted a boycott to protest the actions of the Japanese. The Chinese Merchants’ Association, headquartered at 14 Oxford Street, declared a boycott of all Japanese products, and this boycott was instituted in a number of other cities across the country. In Boston's Chinatown, any Chinese restaurant found serving “Japanese eatables” would be fined $50 for its first offense, and $200 for a second offense. Upon a third  offense, the offender was to be ostracized by the association and its merchant members.

Tong war fears once again! On July 21, 1933, Dong Hong Foo, aka Freddie Dong, age 34, was murdered, shot twice, in the chest and face, while in a stairway at 79 Harrison Avenue. That location was the headquarters of the Independent Laundrymen’s tong, as well as an opium den. Foo's brother, Henry Dong, operated laundries in Cambridge, Winchester and Grove Hall (Roxbury), and his tong was involved in some battling with the two major tongs of Chinatown, the On Leong and Hip Sing. The Laundrymen were undercutting prices, as well as violating a rule that you can't open a laundry within 40 numbers of another one.

Henry had recently broken that rule by opening a new laundry on Blue Hill avenue in Roxbury. Henry knew of the dangers, and had acquired a gun permit as there was allegedly a price on his head, and that of his wife. However, it doesn't appear that there was a price on Foo's head. Did the killers shoot the wrong brother? Three men were eventually arrested for the murder, with probably cause found against two of them. However, the final disposition of the matter is absent from the newspapers. This matter put the local police on edge, worried that the violence would escalate from a tong war, but fortunately that didn't occur.

More gambling issues. The Boston Globe, August 22, 1933, reported on a number of slot machines that were seized at a Chinese restaurant located at 57 Beach Street. They were cleverly concealed in steel filing cases, hidden behind locked sliding doors. Only one man was arrested at the scene.

The Boston Globe, December 29, 1933, published an ad for The Lido, formerly Mah Jong Management, located at 78 Warrenton Street, off Tremont. This Chinese-American restaurant was going to hold triple celebration, for their Anniversary, New Year’s Eve, and Repeal of Prohibition.

The Boston Globe, April 17, 1934, announced the Grand Opening of The Pagoda, at 243 Tremont Street, at the corner of Stuart Street. They served American and Chinese food and offered "Dine, Dance, Cabaret." Their floor show and music received top billing, far above any mention of their food.

There were a few quick mentions of Chinese restaurants on Tyler Street. The Boston Globe, June 10, 1935, mentioned Hon Loy Doo at 10A Tyler Steet. The Boston Globe, June 14, 1937, stated there was a Chinese restaurant at 20 1//2 Tyler Street and the Boston Globe, October 19, 1937, briefly mentioned King Wah Low, a Chinese restaurant at 16 Tyler Street.

Another new restaurant! The Boston Globe, February 21, 1940, published an ad for the grand opening of the Mandarin Village, at 11 Hudson Street. It claimed to be "one of Boston’s largest Chinese restaurants." Lunch was only 35 cents, and dinner only 50 cents. And they gave souvenirs to all their patrons. The next day, the Globe ran a short article about the restaurant, mentioning that it is “a modernistic restaurant” that seats 250 people. It has two dining rooms, one with tables and the other with upholstered booths. They also had brought in two chefs from the China Clipper restaurant in New York City.

Do you remember Li’l Abner? That satirical comic strip was created by Al Capp, and he also wrote an article for the Boston Globe, August 12, 1942, which reviewed some local nightclubs and restaurants. Al stated, “There are lots of good Chinese Restaurants in Boston.” and then continued, “The best I’ve ever et, I et at the China Inn, in Brookline, on Harvard st., near Beacon. The Chinese steak there is wonderful, the sweet and pungent spare ribs are wonderful, the Chow Mein Canton Style there is wonderful. If you care as passionately about Chinese Food as I do, I suggest the China Inn. It’s a delightfully appointed place, too, not gaudy as these places are apt to be.”

The Boston Globe, June 10, 1935, published an advertisement for the Hon Loy Doo Chinese, at 10A Tyler Street, promoting their New Year's Eve party, with a Gala Broadway Revue and dancing until 4am. A full course dinner was only $4.50

The Boston Globe, July 3, 1944, printed an ad for Gamsun, located at 21 Hudson Street, which claimed to be "New England's Famous Chinese Restaurant." It is interesting that they only mention Chinese food and not American cuisine too.

A war-time curfew! In February 26, 1945, there was an order from the War Mobilization Director that there would be a nationwide curfew at midnight for all clubs and restaurants selling liquor. The Boston Licensing Board also made it official though there was little opposition in the city, as "Boston has always been a 1 o'clock town." Restaurants could stop selling liquor and midnight and stay open, providing food. Other places that didn't sell liquor could also stay open. For example, Ruby Foo's Den, which never sold liquor, can still remain open till 4am.

And a violator of the curfew. The Fitchburg Sentinel, April 11, 1945, mentioned that Oi Gi Lee, a Chinese restaurant on Tyler Street, had its license suspended for 3 days for violating the curfew. Customers were found to still be drinking alcohol at 12:30am.

The Boston Globe, September 17, 1945, indicated that the Cathay House, Famed for its Chinese Food,” had opened a new Annex Room at 70 Beach Street, which would be open until 4am.

A quiet robbery. The Boston Globe, October 26, 1946, reported that two men held up the manager of the Green Pagoda, a Chinese restaurant at 1270 Boylston Street. One of the robbers alleged to have a gun in his coat, and they got away with $200. Most of the diners were unaware that a robbery had occurred.

Another new restaurant opened on December 26, 1946, started by a group of Chinese veterans. The Boston Globe, December 27, 1946, discussed the origin of China House, located on 146 Boylston Street, noting, "It is the enterprise of Boston’s Chinatown Post of the American Legion. The 49 war veterans who own it are members of that post—all veterans of the U.S. Army, Navy or Marine Corps—and all of Chinese descent.” What a great venture for all these veterans who recently returned from fighting in World War II. “The principal figure behind the venture is Billy Wong…who founded a distinctive eating place in Hollywood known as Wong’s Coolie Hut in the San Fernando Valley.” Billy even brought about 100 Chinese workers from California to build and decorate the China House.

The top floor of the restaurant was set up for banquets while the second floor was arranged for private dining rooms. The first floor dining area was notable for a cedar carved piece, a branch of a 900 year-old Magnolia tree 900 years old. “Waiters for China House are all well educated Chinese Americans who are brief every morning so that they can introduce a new Chinese dish to customers each day.”  Although their advertisements claimed to feature "unusual Chinese food," the ads never provided any specifics. The China House would serve a variety of Cantonese and Mandarin delicacies, as well as American cuisine. This restaurant would last for about 25 years.

We'll end with more positivity. The Boston Globe, March 13, 1951, ran an editorial that stated,  “You can get better Chinese food in Boston than you can in China. And it is cheaper. Also cleaner. Reason: Chinese Communists are bringing about a decline in the art of cooking in that country. They are not supporting the type of restaurant where the best can be obtained. The restaurants are closing.” It continued that, “No city has more good Chinese restaurants than Boston.”

According to China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West, by J.A.G. Roberts, "By 1952 in Chinatown itself, there were 26 restaurants and in Greater Boston alongside the 48 Chinese laundries there were 34 Chinese restaurants.” This is about 10 restaurants fewer than there were in 1931, which isn't surprising after the major events of the past couple decades.

The End, for now.

Check out Part 1, covering the 19th century.
Check out Part 2, covering 1901-1920.
Check out Part 3, covering the 1920s.
Check out Part 4, the tale of Ruby Foo.

AFTERWORD: For now, that wraps up my historical series on Boston's Chinatown and its restaurants. It began with a question, what was the oldest restaurant in Chinatown. I wasn't satisfied with the answer I found from a quick inquiry, especially considering various sources contradicted each other. I decided to take a deep dive into various newspaper archives to see if I could find any answers. It was a fascinating descent into a rabbit hole, entailing many, many hours of research, where I learned so much. It also persuaded me that the other sources were incorrect, that Hong Far Low, commonly accepted as the oldest Chinatown restaurant, wasn't actually the oldest.

What started as a single article eventually became a five-part series now consisting of over 22,000 words. And I'm not finished. I still possess some research which never made in into the series. In addition, there is additional research that I want to conduct, more leads to follow up. Sometime in the future, I'll expand the articles in this series, providing even more information for your edification and enjoyment.

I'd also love to hear your comments about this series.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The First Restaurants In Boston's Chinatown: The Tale of Ruby Foo (Part 4)

Around 1929, an enterprising Chinese woman, Ruby Foo, seized opportunity, opened a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, and eventually created a small empire of Chinese restaurants that even extended outside the U.S. Her fascinating story is worthy of its own article, though unfortunately her life was far too short. Despite dying too early, Ruby made a significant impact, and her legacy is still cherished.

Let me begin with some caveats. The sources concerning the life of Ruby Foo sometimes contain contradictory information, especially concerning a number of event dates. Thus, some of the following information is speculation at best. It is possible that Ruby, or others, embellished some of the facts of her life to present a certain image. In addition, some information seem to be lacking from the newspaper archives. Maybe in the future I'll be able to add more information to this article. It would also be beneficial to search through birth/death records, court records, and more to try to get more of the facts of Ruby's life.

Many sources indicate that Ruby Foo was born in San Francisco in 1904, but upon her death in 1950, it was also claimed by multiple sources that she was 43 years old, or even 42. With a birth year of 1904, she should have been 46 years old at her death. That means either her date of birth is incorrect, and more properly 1907 or 1908, or people lied about her age when she died, making her seem younger. In a newspaper interview in 1938, Ruby wasn't helpful as she simply stated she was born “many, many years ago.” We can try to narrow down the actual date using additional information garnered from her life.

Her birth name appears to have been Dea Yoke, and at some unknown point in time she decided she wanted to be known as Ruby. Little seems to be known about her parents. Her father was allegedly a chef at an American hospital and once owned a restaurant in Washington, D.C. Her Chinese mother allegedly didn't speak English.

When did Ruby come to Boston? Most sources seem to indicate that she arrived in 1923, which would mean that with a birth year of 1904 she would have been 19 years old. However, some sources state that when she was 15 years old, Ruby was married to Joey Guoy Shong, aka J.G. Shong, who was 45 years old at the time. That was likely an arranged marriage and we don't know how Ruby's parents knew Shong. With a birth year of 1904, she would have been married in 1919 but J.G. Shong was already living in Boston in that year. He certainly wouldn't have waited four years for Ruby to join him in Boston.

It makes more sense that Ruby's alleged year of birth wasn't 1904 but was actually closer to 1908. That would mean that if she came to Boston in 1923, she would have been 15 years old and arrived in Boston specifically to marry Shong. However, maybe she actually wasn't married at 15.

A review of the various Boston Ward List of Residents 20 Years of Age and Over, and specifically the April 1, 1924 edition indicates Ruby Shong was a resident of 87 Dartmouth Street, at least as early as April 1, 1923 with her husband Joey Guoy Shong. Her age is listed as 20, which would make sense if her date of birth was 1904. Joey's age is listed as 50, and his occupation is salesman. Thus, maybe Ruby wasn't 15 years old when she married Joey, but there still was a 30 year difference in ages. It's a convoluted matter.

Let's take a little look at Shong. In 1918, we know he was living at 83 Dartmouth Street, the former home of the famed Pang Suey, a Chinese herbal doctor. Shong was either a relative or close friend of Suey and worked with him in his herbalism business. When Suey died in 1917, Shong took over the herbal medicine business. Shong was also the administrator of Suey's estate, which was worth about $200,000, and probate dragged out for years.

In December 1918, Shong was charged with practicing medicine without being registered, a charge which had haunted Suey as well when he was alive. Shong was found guilty and fined $100 but he filed an appeal.

In May 1920, Shong bought a “three-story and basement swell-front brick house” at 87 Dartmouth Street, a property that was taxed for $10,000. Curiously, in March 1921, Shong sold the property to Soo H. Shing but then bought it back in January 1922. Not quite sure the reason for these real estate maneuvers.

In September 1923, Shong was once again charged with practicing medicine without being registered. The government claimed that he had prescribed medicinal herbs to a man with cancer but Shong countered that he wasn't a herb doctor, claiming only to be an herb merchant. He was found guilty by a jury.

Seven years after Suey's death, in June 1924, probate was still ongoing. Mrs. Chew Shee, the widow of Suey, was suing the estate, seeking a part of Shong's income from his herbalist business, alleging that he had taken all of Suey's prior customers. The estate had already shown a cash inventory of about $200,000, and much of the money had been paid to the window. Shong claimed that he was an "herbal doctor" and he only dealt with a few of Suey's prior customers.

Back to Ruby! Once in Boston, Ruby attended and graduated from Wellesley College. It was also claimed that Shong had "taught her the voice control, charm and poise that made her famous.” Around 1926, Ruby gave birth to a son, Earl (or Earle) Shong, and the next year to a daughter, Doris Shong. Earle's date of birth would come into question later.

Soon after the birth of their children, it appears the Shongs were having financial difficulties. In February 1928, Ruby ended up as a defendant in "the poor debtor session of the Municpal Court.” The plaintiff, Harry Yee Tang, had a judgment against her of $203.70. It is unsure how that debt was incurred. Ruby claimed that she couldn't pay the debt, as she only possessed about $2 or $3, didn't own any jewelry and didn't have a bank account. The car she drove belonged to someone else, as did the piano in her house. The judge ruled in her favor and dismissed the case by the creditor.

This is the first newspaper reference I found mentioning Ruby. It would also seem to indicate that she hasn't started a restaurant yet as that would have clearly been considered an asset by the court. And if Ruby was this destitute, how could she afford start her own restaurant any time soon?

Obviously, she found a way to enter the restaurant business, and we are unsure about the exact date when she started this endeavor. Although 1929 is often cited as the start of her restaurant, it isn't clear whether that refers to her initial foray or the establishment of her first "Den."  Initially, “Her first restaurant was a small one-room affair in Boston’s Chinatown.” Was this called "The Den" or would that name come later? This restaurant wasn't an immediate success. “It was bad-going at first for the ambitious young woman, but gradually her carefully prepared food began to attract a growing clientele.”

With her eventual success, she was able to expand. “Soon the one-room gave way to two, and in later years, the ‘Den’ had become many times larger than the first small room.” There are some sources that seem to indicate Ruby might have started her namesake restaurant after 1929, possibly as later as 1932. In a 1938 newspaper interview, when asked why she started a restaurant, Ruby said, “One gets rather bored at home so I thought I’d show that a woman can do well in business. I also wanted a little pin money.” The financial aspect might have been more important than just "pin money," concerning her recent issue at the poor debtor court. That also raises again the issue of how did Ruby raise the money to start the restaurant in the first place?

In early 1930, the Hep Sing Tong Association, filed an attachment against the property of J.G. Shong and Ruby Shong. The newspaper article filed to mention the amount of the debt or for what it entailed. The Shong's attorney tried to negotiate a settlement of the matter, though for some reason only for J.G. and not Ruby. However, though a deal was apparently made, for $230, the Shong's attorney never made the payment and he became subject to malpractice suit and a motion to disbar him as an attorney. It is possible Ruby obtained a loan from this Association to start her restaurant and the Association simply wanted to protect their investment.

Ruby was very likely the first woman in Chinatown to start a restaurant. We have to remember that at this point of time, there were very few Chinese women in Chinatown. In the Greater Boston area, there were approximately 3,000 Chinese men but only about 150 Chinese women. What a huge disparity! It was a bold decision for her to start her new endeavor, and she probably faced a number of obstacles, yet she succeeded to a great degree. Her intelligence, business acumen, passion, and drive, all contributed to her success.

Unfortunately, darkening her initial success, Ruby's husband, J.G. Shong, likely died in 1930. Ruby is last mentioned at being at 87 Dartmouth Street in the Boston Ward List of Residents 20 Years of Age and Over, April 1, 1929 edition. In an April 1, 1932 edition of the Ward Lists, we learn that Ruby was now married to Thomas J. Foo, an importer, who was 37 years old. Ruby was listed as a housewife, 26 years old, and they both lived at 112 Jersey Street. However, there is also a notation that as of April 1, 1931, they were both living at 133 Peterborough Street, so they probably got married either in later 1930 or early 1931. It is also interesting that Ruby hasn't listed herself as a restaurant owner at this time.

Ruby and Thomas were listed in the April 1, 1933 edition of the Ward Lists at 112 Jersey Street, but they were no longer there in 1934, and I'm unsure to where they moved. I found very little information about Tam in the newspaper archives.

The first advertisement I found for Ruby Foo was in the Boston Globe, July 2, 1935. The restaurant, known as Ruby Foo at The Den, was located on Hudson Street (6 Hudson) and offered "delicious Chinese Foods." And it was open till 4am! Note that the ad doesn't mention they serve American cuisine, just Chinese, which is different from many other Chinatown restaurants at this time.

At some point, the menu at Ruby Foo’s contained a quote from Yuan Mei, a famous Chinese poet and gastronome. “There is a difference between dining and eating. Dining is an art. When you eat to get most out of your meal, to please the palate, just as well as to satiate the appetite, that, my friend, is dining.

Ruby's restaurant was so successful, that she was approached to open a second location in New York City. She became a partner in this endeavor, sharing her recipes, and it opened at 240 West 52nd Street, just off Broadway, in October 1936. This is probably the first Chinatown restaurant to open a second location outside of Massachusetts, and this occurred within only about seven years of the start of Ruby's business. What an achievement for Ruby!

The iconic photo above, known as "Bloody Saturday," depicted a lone baby in a bombed Shanghai railroad station. It was published in September and October 1937 and had quite an impact, representative of Japanese atrocities against China. It touched Ruby Foo and she allegedly "sent $5000 to China for relief of war-stricken refugees." In return, she was able to adopt this baby, who arrived in Boston in October 1938.

The child, Chin Yook Ho, was born in Canton on March 5, 1937, and his parents were Chin Gawk Yun, of Boston, and his wife, Yee Shee, also known as May Yee. The child was born in China when his parents were in China last year. When filing for adoption, Tam and Ruby claimed that Yee was too sickly to properly care for the child. The adoption went through and the child was renamed Ronald Foo.

In July 1939, it was noted that Ruby now offered a Chinese food delivery service, within a reasonable radius, though the brief article didn't specify whether that applied to both the Boston and New York locations. This also seems like one of the first mentions of a Chinese restaurant in the Boston area offering delivery service. This might have been an innovation she brought to Boston's Chinatown.

Ruby's fame was mentioned in a brief article in August 1940, noting, “The only international chain of American-Chinese restaurants in the world is operated by Mrs. Ruby Foo, a diminutive Chinese from San Francisco. She has restaurants in New York, Boston, London, and, of course, at the New York World’s Fair." The article also mentioned one of Ruby's hobbies, "During her off hours Mrs, Foo goes in for solo flying.”  So, not only did she run a restaurant empire, and raise three children, but she had learned how to fly a plane. She would also allow her name to be used for other Ruby Foo restaurants in places including Miami, Washington, Providence, and even Montreal.

Armed robbery at The Den! In September 1940, three masked gunman tried to rob The Den, and they shot Henderson Chin, a bookkeeper at the restaurant. He was shot in the right leg and sustained a compound fracture. At the time of the robbery, Henderson was counting the day's recipes, about $1000. Later, four men were arrested for the attempted robbery, charged with assault & battery with intent to rob, assault & battery with intent to murder, and conspiracy to rob. Malcolm Davis, the shooter, eventually received a sentence of 9-11 years in state prison. Jere Woo, a former night watchman at the restaurant, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. The disposition of the other two men is unknown.

Good news! In December 1940, Ruby Foo became a grandmother as her son, Earl, who was allegedly 18 years old, became the father of a boy, Richard. The article stated that Ruby was 35 years old, meaning she would have been born in 1905 and that Earl would have been born in 1922, before Ruby  came to Boston. Other information seems to indicate Earl was born more around 1926, so he would have only been maybe 14 or 15 years old when his son was born. Because of his youth, maybe his family embellished his age to make him seem older to the newspaper reporters.

Unfortunately, not all the news in December month was good, as a couple weeks later, Ruby's husband, Tam, died. Tam was the President of the Chinese Merchants Association. Not long after Tam's passing, Ruby Foo married once again, to Willian Wong.

In April 1944, there was a fire at 10 Hudson Street, the building which was owned by the Wam Sun Association and occupied by Ruby Foo's Den. The fire was to the rear of the building and caused about $5,000 in damage.

In January 1945, Ruby Foo's Den started advertising regularly in the Boston Globe, under a column titled "Boston's Delightful Dining And Dancing Spots." Only about a dozen spots were under this column, and there was only one other Chinese restaurant listed there. The ad is rather minimal, but notes the restaurant was open till 3am.

A war-time curfew! In February 26, 1945, there was an order from the War Mobilization Director that there would be a nationwide curfew at midnight for all clubs and restaurants selling liquor. The Boston Licensing Board also made it official though there was little opposition in the city, as "Boston has always been a 1 o'clock town." Restaurants could stop selling liquor and midnight and stay open, providing food. Other places that didn't sell liquor could also stay open. For example, Ruby Foo's Den, which never sold liquor, can still remain open till 4am. It's fascinating to learn that Ruby Foo's  never had a liquor licenses, yet still achieved great success.

However, an article in September 1945, titled "Queen of the Dawn," mentioned that Ruby Foo's Den was only open until 3am. The article also stated that after the nightclubs closed at 1am, theatrical workers and entertainers would go to Ruby Foo's. She was well beloved in the entertainment industry, all across the country. They were the ones who helped to spread the popularity of her restaurant. Ruby was described as "jolly, good-natured, with laughing almond eyes and lips that smile easily." It was also noted that the manager at her Boston restaurant was Jack Chan.

Tragedy struck in 1947, a drama splattered all over the newspapers. In July, Earle M. Shong, her 24-year old son was arrested and charged with assault to murder his stepfather, Willian Wong. Earle didn't have a criminal record and fortunately, William wasn't seriously injured. Wong was shot in the neck at his home at 242 Jamaicaway, while he was allegedly having an argument with Ruby in their bedroom. Earle, who lives at the same address, shot twice, only hitting William once, and he admitted to the police his role.

His defense was that he thought William was going to strike his mother with a hammer. Earle had been downstairs, playing cards with two other men when he heard William and Ruby arguing. At the trial, William claimed that an argument whether men should open car doors for women led to his loud dispute with his wife. Ruby had allegedly been drinking and when they argued, she hit him in the head with a planer. She then grabbed a tack hammer, which he was able to wrestle away from her. Ruby then called for her son, who came up stairs, and she told him, "Get him and get the hammer." He then shot William.

There was a notation in one newspaper that Ruby developed heart disease after this incident, and the trial was even delayed a week because of her condition. When Ruby eventually testified, she stated her son was trying to defend her from William, who had attacked her with a board and hammer. Her son told William to drop the hammer, which he didn't, so Earle shot him. She also testified that William had struck and threatened her previous times, and they often argued over money. William wasn't a partner in her restaurant business, though he had worked briefly there as a manager, and made no financial contributions to the household. She stated that his occupation was "husband," and that she gave him money to support his hobbies.

In September 1947, the jury acquitted Earle of all charges. And later, in April 1948, William and Ruby divorced. William's legal name was Wong Ying Wai and Ruby's legal name was Wong Dea Yoke. Strangely enough, William filed for divorce on the grounds of "cruel and abusive treatment," alleging he was the victim of at least three prior assaults by his wife, some which required medical attention. Most of these incidents seem to have occurred when Ruby was intoxicated. Ruby didn't contest the divorce and it was granted. It could have been a very messy divorce.

The Boston Globe, August 17, 1948, made a strange claim, “Knishes are a distinctive and delicious Jewish delicacy, but I’m told that about the only places where you can buy them in Boston are at the Chinese restaurants of Ruby Food and China House…” It was difficult to determine whether this was a joke or not.

Earle Shong's legal problems weren't over. In late September 1948, Earle was at a nightclub on Bolyston Street, allegedly brandishing a gun. On a crowded dance floor, with their guns drawn, the police arrested him for violation of the firearms law. Foo tried to hide the gun, by dropping it and kicking it under a table, but it was recovered, an unloaded .38 revolver. Later, the judge gave him a two month suspended sentence and placed him on probation.

Very sadly, Ruby Foo passed away suddenly, at her Jamaicaway home, on March 16, 1950 from a heart attack. A life cut far too short, as she was only about 43 years old. Ruby had been having heart troubles for at least six months, though she previously mentioned heart issues as far back as 1947. She had recently spent five months in a hospital for treatment of her heart condition. Her alleged last words to her nurse were, “Call me a 1:30 (am). I want to call the restaurant.” That is certainly dedication to her passion.

Despite Ruby's passing, her restaurant continued to operate. The Boston Globe, December 28, 1956, had an ad for Ruby Foo's, located at 8 Hudson Street, and noted it had a facelift recently and that its favorite chef, Jerry Woo, had returned from China. There was a pre-dawn fire, caused by a short circuit in a ventilator fan, in July 1957, which cause about $4,000 in damage. The lights then went out in Ruby Foo's later in July 1957 when the IRS seized the property for “non-payment of delinquent internal revenue taxes.

As a bit of a coda, in October 1958, Earle, Ruby's son, had one more run-in with the law. Earl owned a building on Jersey Street in the Back Bay and it was raided by the police. Two women were arrested and they pled guilty to “an idle and disorderly charge.” One received probation for a year and the other's case was continued. Earl Shong pled not guilty to a charge of deriving support from a female and allowing his premises to be used for purposes of prostitution. His case was continued and the newspaper didn't provide a follow-up as to what happened later.

Earle would later die suddenly on October 12, 1967, leaving behind a wife, Helen, and his son, Richard. His sister, Doris Waters of Brookline, and brother, Ronald Foo of New York, were still alive at this time. Doris though would pass away on May 18, 2003, leaving behind three sons, Samuel, Matthew and Kurt. Her brother, Ronald, was noted as still being alive and it appears he is still living as of today.

Ruby Foo is commemorated in Boston as part of The Boston Women's Heritage Trail. As part of their Chinatown/South Cove Walk, they stop at the former location of Ruby Foo's Den and provide some history of this fascinating and successful business woman.

In addition, the Chinese Historical Society of New England is currently working with the Boston City Archaeology Program on the first archaeological dig in Chinatown. They are digging in a vacant lot which once had been the home to Ruby Foo's Den. The Hudson Street building was torn down in 1989. We await to see what curiosities might be uncovered through their work.

What a powerful tale of an intelligent and savvy business woman who became a success in the restaurant industry, and introduced many people to the wonders of Chinese cuisine. Plus, she succeeded during difficult times, from the Great Depression to World War II. Who knows what she might have accomplished if she had only lived longer. Many kudos to the memory of Ruby Foo!

Check out Part 1, covering the 19th century.
Check out Part 2, covering 1901-1920.
Check out Part 3, covering the 1920s.
Check out Part 5, covering 1930-1952


**********
My research resources for this article included:
Berkshire Eagle, March 17, 1950
The Boston Globe: April 22, 1917; December 10, 1918; May 19, 1920; March 17, 1921; January 23, 1922; September 21, 1923; June 7, 1924; February 25, 1928; June 18, 1930; July 2, 1935; October 24, 1938; November 4, 1938; September 16, 1940; October 15, 1940; December 16, 1940; February 5, 1941; April 5, 1944; January 18, 1945; February 26, 1945; September 10, 1945; July 5, 1947; September 15, 1947; September 16, 1947; September 18, 1947; September 19, 1947; September 20, 1947; April 16, 1948; August 17, 1948; September 24, 1948; October 14, 1948; October 15, 1948; March 16, 1950; March 17, 1950; March 20, 1950; December 28, 1956; July 8, 1957; July 26, 1957; October 2, 1958; October 16, 1967; May 18, 2003
Fitchburg Sentinel: July 21, 1939
Lowell Sun: August 24, 1940; July 5, 1947; September 15, 1947; March 16, 1950;
The North Adams Transcript: December 3, 1940
Record Journal of Douglas (CO): May 4, 1945
San Bernardino Sun: March 8, 1938

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The First Restaurants In Boston's Chinatown (Part 3)

How did Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II affect Chinatown and its restaurants?

The three decades, from 1921 to 1950, were turbulent years in Chinatown, for a number of reasons, including the above significant events. The growth of Chinese restaurants that occurred during the prior two decades greatly slowed, and there actually may have been more closings than openings. There were far less advertisements for new Chinese restaurants during this period, as well as some noticeable closures.

For this part of my historical review of Chinatown and its restaurants, I'm concentrating on the 1920s.  There seemed to be much more acceptance of the Chinese during these years, though there were multiple times when people worried about potential violence from Tong Wars. Fortunately, that violence never arose. It's also fascinating that despite Prohibition, and the strict regulation of alcohol, there weren't newspapers articles mentioning liquor violations by Chinese restaurants. If violations did occur, they were probably very minor. Part of the reason may be there were multiple mentions of the Chinese generally being temperate, with opium being more their drug of choice.

Onto some history....

We began 1921 with a wild tale of blood and chop suey. The Boston Post, January 9, 1921, reported, “A wild battle in which a kitchen cleaver, chop suey and chicken chow mein were the chief weapons, and which nearly developed into a lynching bee with a Chinese waiter as the subject for execution took place shortly before midnight in the Chinese restaurant at 209 Shawmut avenue. George Toy, the waiter in question and alleged cleaver slinger, was arrested charged with assault with intent to kill.” No one knew why a fight originally began, but Toy initially tried to intercede and mediate the issue, receiving a slap for his peaceful intervention. Toy then elevated the violence, running into the kitchen and grabbing a deadly cleaver.

When he returned to the dining room with this blade, it caused a great panic, as well as a food fight. About fifty people tried to disarm and fight Toy, who swung out with the cleaver, and caught an innocent bystander, Michael Cullen, who was just there to eat some chop suey. Michael sustained a severed tendon on his left hand, and this caused the crowd to call for the killing of Toy. Several hundred people had even assembled outside the restaurant, but fortunately the police arrived before Toy was killed. Toy was charged with assault and battery with intent to kill, but the newspapers failed to indicate his disposition.

The Boston Post, January 15, 1921 printed an ad for the new Nankin Garden, the “Latest American Chinese Restaurant,” located on Brighton Avenue, at the corner of Harvard Avenue and next door to Allston Theater. This restaurant was outside of Chinatown, and offered dancing and a jazz orchestra, obviously intended to attract non-Chinese. Plus, their food specials included a Noon Luncheon for 50 cents, a Special Supper for 75 cents, and a Full Course Sunday Diner for $1.50.

There were closings as well. The Boston Globe, March 27, 1921, reported that the Hankow Chinese Restaurant, which had opened in 1907 at 19-21 Essex Street, went bankrupt, and was to be sold at public auction.

Fire and smoke! The Boston Post, April 20, 1921, wrote about an incident at a Chinese restaurant, at 34 Oxford street, where fat boiling caused flames and smoke to pour into their dining room during lunch. Though the property damage was minimal, the restaurant lost money when their diners fled out of the restaurant without paying for their meals.

This article also is indicative of a greater issue with the local newspapers which often referred to a Chinese restaurant with their address, and not their name. Why was this the case? Did some restaurants make it difficult to know their name? Or was it a bit of racism? A curious omission.

Beware the Milk Inspector! The Boston Globe, May 12, 1921, reported that C.G. Sung, the owner of a Chinese restaurant at 32 Harrison Avenue (again, the name of the restaurant wasn't mentioned), was fined $10 after being convicted of a sale of milk below standard. The Milk Inspector, Dr. James O. Jordan, had recently cited six other violators for milk infractions. None of those six violators were also Chinese restaurants.

A great feel-good story came out in the Boston Globe, September 29, 1921. William Moy Ding, a leader in a chain of Chinese restaurants, was the Scoutmaster for a troop of Chinese Boy Scouts. The troop had previously existed but died out from a lack of members, but it had been resurrected and was then the only such troop east of the Pacific. Ding, a graduate of MIT, was a member of the prior troop, had three assistant scout masters, and their troop was excelling! The story stated, "In one way the Chinese scouts show a difference from scouts of native parentage; they are far more eager for the outdoor woodcraft, and take more pleasure in it." And they had much support from all of Chinatown, "Chinatown is back of the scout movement to its last inhabitant, .."

 
Another Chinese-American restaurant located outside Chinatown was mentioned in the Boston Globe, October 1, 1921. There was an ad for the Shanghai Restaurant, located at 89 Court Street in Scollay Square. It too offered an orchestra, as well as lunch specials for 40 to 45 cents. At this point, a number of Chinese restaurants were offering music, trying to entice more customers.

Beware the Chicken Inspector! Although the Milk Inspector was legitimate, the Chicken Inspector who was traveling through Chinatown was a fraud. The Boston Globe, December 21, 1921, reported that a fraudulent “chicken inspector” was currently wanted by the police. This man, who has operated in Providence, RI and Nashau, NH, descended upon Boston's Chinatown. He went to restaurants, claiming to be connected to the Board of Health, and providing a badge that stated, ‘Inspector of Chickens, State of Massachusetts.” He would alleged various violations and then shake down the owner for money, commonly $5-$10, so he wouldn't report the violations to the Board of Health. He even sometimes took chickens, which were allegedly violations, with him when he left the restaurant.

He was accompanied by a blond woman, with a card that stated "Wardeness," and she spoke some Chinese. They seemed to know a fair bit of information about Chinatown, including those who currently were away, maybe on a trip to China. They would ask about these people, claiming to know them, and no was one there to dispute their claims. Although they obtained money from at least several restaurants, their story began to unravel and they fled from Chinatown. The police were actively searching for them. I didn't find any article that the police ever apprehended this pair of con artists.

A terrible tragedy. The Boston Globe, December 23, 1921, related a murder that occurred at a Chinese restaurant at 22 Harrison Avenue (again, no name for the restaurant was provided). Pearl Belle Payne and Nicholas Saunders (real name Nicholas Savitz) were sitting inside a booth at around 9:30pm. Nick then shot Pearl twice, in the head and chest, before shooting himself. Pearl died relatively quickly, though Nick lingered for a couple more hours before dying. They had both lived in Roxbury, very close to each other, and Pearl was married, though separated. Nick had a few notes on himself, seemingly indicating that he loved Pearl, but had spent all his money on her and was now broke. He was also worried she might marry someone else so he decided they both needed to die. Tragic.

Another significant restaurant closing. The Boston Globe, April 7, 1923, reported that the one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in the city, operated by the Mee Wah Ying Company at 209 Shawmut Avenue, had to close as their license was revoked by the city. The Health board had recently closed them, temporarily, due to unsanitary conditions but they had recently reopened. However, the police had visited the restaurant on multiple occasions, and witnessed several women, “known to them to be of dissolute character” on each of their visits. In addition, most of the restaurant's sales appeared to  be only coffee and tea, and very little food was ever served. The restaurant appeared to be a front where “panhandlers” could go to meet the women, who were essentially prostitutes. An ignominious ending to a such an old restaurant.

And the police were active once again. The Boston Globe, May 27, 1924, published a short article about, Chin Ping, a U.S. citizen and the owner of a wet wash laundry on Dartmouth Street. He was also considered one of the richest men in Chinatown. He was arrested though on the charge of the illegal sale of opium, selling a box of opium for $25 to an agent of the police.

Fears of a Tong War in Chinatown. The Boston Globe, June 5, 1924 reported on worries that a Tong War in Cleveland might spill over into Boston. A brief historical note about the Tongs in Chinatown was provided, “Since 1907 Boston’s Chinatown has been a peaceful village. Business houses have been making inroads on the district and where in the olden days Chinese restaurants flourished, now business has the call. It was in 1907 that Chinatown saw its last thrill. At that time a disagreement between two rival Tongs was settled by some ‘hatchet men,’ who used large pistols. With one swoop four lives were blotted out and 12 were wounded. Several were capture at the time and some paid the death penalty.”

In addition, the article noted the integrity of the Chinese, "…the Chinese are distinguished by their honesty and that the only Chinaman who made himself an exception to the rule and cost his associates considerable money promptly committed suicide after pledging all his personal belongings as restitution. This occurred several years ago.”

Large number of policemen were now being seen in Chinatown and no one was speaking about the reasons for the increased presence, though rumors of a new Tong War were rampant. Nothing came of these worries though these worries would return again this decade. New York City experienced a significant amount of Tong violence, and there were always concerns that the violence would spread to Boston. Fortunately, the Boston Tongs generally avoided such significant violence.

The Boston Globe, April 14, 1925, was the first time there was an advertisement in a local newspapers for LaChoy Chinese Food Products, which produced items from Sprouts to Chow Mein Noodles, Soy Sauce to Water Chestnuts. Established in 1922, the company capitalized on the American love for chop suey and other Chinese dishes, enticing women to try to prepare these dishes at home. This helped the reputation of Chinese restaurants, making the cuisine more familiar to people, and hopefully enticing them to check out the restaurants too.

There was a brief mention in the Boston Globe, May 27, 1925, of Yoeng’s Chinese restaurant, located at 200 Huntington Avenue.

The Boston Globe, April 1, 1926, posted an ad for Young China Restaurant, located at 761 Dudley Street, which was now under new management and apparently with a new name too.

There was a brief article in the Boston Globe, October 9, 1926, that Chinatown would celebrate  the15th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese republic, and there would be banquets at all of the main Chinese restaurants. Y.N. Haywah, the owner of the Joy King Restaurant, was also the national secretary of the Kua Min Tang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, as well as the chairman of the celebration.

More police action. The Boston Globe, November 5, 1926, reported that seven members of the vice squad raided the backs of two grocery stores in Chinatown, at 54 and 58 Beach Street. The police had been watching the area for a time, and knew gambling was occurring there. When they raided the two stores, they found 78 Chinese waiters playing dominoes for money with about $60 in the "bank" for payment. They were all charged with "being present where gaming implements were found." Fortunately, they all got bailed out in the early evening, time enough for them to work that night at their restaurants.

A foiled robbery. The Boston Globe, December 20, 1926, detailed a robbery attempt at a Chinese restaurant located at 14 Hanover Street, which was in the North End. Three men, one armed with a pistol, tried to force the manager, Coon Sing, to give them money but he refused and simply shrieked. Even after they hit him in the head with the butt of the pistol, he kept shrieking, and the three men finally decided to flee.

More Tong War fears. The Boston Globe, March 26, 1927, noted that Chinatown was very quiet at the moment, with fears that the Tong Wars in several other cities might come to Boston. Even the Chinese theater, which had run steadily since a Tong truce was signed two years ago, was dark. The Chinese restaurants did very light business. However, no Tong War or violence developed. A year later, there was another Tong War fear, as mentioned in Boston Globe, May 25, 1928. However, once again nothing happened.

The Boston Globe, November 23, 1927, reported that Wallace Y. Hong was convicted of employing minors, in violation of the law, at his American-Chinese restaurant in Boston. The restaurant was the Symphony Restaurant at 251 Huntington Avenue. Hong hired girls, who were under 21 years old, to sing at his restaurant and some of them worked past 10pm, which is illegal. No penalty was noted in this article.

A policeman was assaulted at a Chinese restaurant. The Boston Globe, November 15, 1928, detailed that an officer was eating in a side room at a Chinese restaurant at 245 Tremont Street. Three boisterous men, possibly intoxicated, entered the restaurant and a waiter refused to serve them, asking them to leave. They refused to do so and the officer then intervened, except instead of leaving, the three men assaulted the officer. The trio had a history of causing trouble at Chinatown restaurants, and all three were arrested. One received a six months sentence, and the other two received suspended sentences.

There was an editorial in the Boston Globe, September 11, 1929, which stated, "To one who has been even a casual visitor to Boston's Chinatown section during the passing years it is obvious that our Chinese residents have improved very much in their 'English." This is especially noticeable in the Chinese restaurants, where one nowadays seldom encounters a waiter who is not fairly proficient in speaking the tongue of his adopted land."

In 1929, an enterprising Chinese woman, Ruby Foo, seized opportunity, opened a Chinese restaurant, and eventually created a small empire of Chinese restaurants that even extended outside the U.S. However, her fascinating story is worthy of its own article and that will be the next part in this series.

Check out Part 1, covering the 19th century.
Check out Part 2, covering 1901-1920.
Check out Part 4, the tale of Ruby Foo.
Check out Part 5, covering 1930-1952

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Koshari Mama: Egyptian Street Food

"The Hindi word khicri or khicra is assumed to descend from the Sanskrit krsara...which meant a mixture of rice and peas. This idea of mixing lentils (or peas) has spread during this century to the Near East as well, where rice and lentil koshari is now a popular cheap meal in Egypt."
--Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1995

Last Thursday, I planned to visit the Stoneham Farmers Market so I checked their website to see if anything special was scheduled that day. I saw a new vendor, Koshari Mama, and once I checked out their website, I was intrigued, hoping to taste some of their food.  

Koshari Mama was founded by a mother/daughter team, Sahar Ahmed and Dina Fahim. Dina graduated from Boston University’s Culinary Program, and worked at a number of local restaurants, before deciding to go out on her own. She wanted to embrace her Egyptian heritage, and her mother was a natural partner for her new endeavor. Based in Lowell, they currently sell their products at a number of farmers markets, including Stoneham, Melrose, North Andover, Davis Square, and you can see their schedule on their website.

One of the main foods they produce is Koshari, an Egyptian street food. It is a hearty vegetarian/vegan dish composed of rice, lentils, pasta, and chickpeas, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and fried onions. Koshari is available as a Mini (8 oz) $3.00, Small (12 oz) $5.00, Large (16 oz) $8.00, and Egyptian Size (24 oz) $12.00. The dish is prepared in front of you and you can choose how hot of a sauce you want.

Though many sources state Koshari was created in the 19th century, its roots extend back at least several hundred, if not more, years before that time. It has become an inexpensive and very popular street food in Egypt. After tasting this Koshari, I can understand the appeal. It presents a delicious blend of flavors and textures, from the softer macaroni to the crunchy fried onions pieces. It had a certain nuttiness to it, as well as a nice spicy flavor from the sauce. I tried the Mini, just to get a taste of it first, and my only issue is that the cup was so full, it was tough to mix up all the ingredients without spilling them over the side.

I want more, and will be sure to get some the next time they come to the Stoneham Farmers Market, unless I see them at a different Farmers Market. I highly recommend you check out Koshari Mama! I'll also note that they sell a few other items too, such as their homemade Hummus, which was also quite tasty, with a strong garlic aspect and a hint of lemon.

"Kosheri (also spelled kosheree, kochary, kushari, and kochari) is the only menu item sold in some specialty restaurants in Egypt. There is a saying about this nourishing rice, wheat and bean dish: You can have anything you want to eat, as long as it's kosheri."
--The Record (NJ), November 24, 2004

Monday, July 22, 2019

The First Restaurants In Boston's Chinatown (Part 2)

Let’s continue our exploration of the history of Boston’s Chinatown restaurants and survey the first couple decades of the 20th century. At the start of the 20th century, Chinatown would continue to grow and expand, with a number of new Chinese restaurants opening. They would face a number of challenges and obstacles during this time period, from racism to legal issues, though they had a number of supporters as well. The restaurants would also attempt to widen their customer base by appealing more to non-Chinese Americans.

It's pleasant to see that one of the first newspaper articles in the 20th century about Chinatown restaurants was especially positive. The Boston Globe, February 10, 1901, published an article with some general information about Chinese businesses from barbers to restaurants. It noted the utter cleanliness of the restaurants, “…the rear of one of the many Chinese restaurants. Everything about the place is neat and clean, as is also the personal attire of the chef. The Chinese are fastidious about the quality of their food, as well as the manner of its preparation.”

There was also reference to some Chinese dishes. “These Chinese chefs are especially clever in compounding that curious dish known as “chop sooy,’ a conglomeration of stewed meats and vegetables.” In addition, the article stated, “’Chow mem’ is another choice dish, and an expensive one, too.” It seems likely that “mem” was a typo or misspelling and that the dish was actually “chow mein.” This was the type of article that would entice people to check out Chinese restaurants.

A number of newspapers during this period would make brief mentions of various Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. For example, there was mention, in March 1901, of a Chinese restaurant, owned by Lock Sen Chin, which was located at the corner of Beach Street and Harrison Avenue.

Fears and concerns about the Chinese continued to manifest themselves. The Boston Post, August 30, 1901, described how hundreds of Chinese were illegally crossing the Canadian border, eventually settling in the Boston area. They were assisted by rich and influential Chinese smugglers, some who lived in Chinatown. The article was concerned that local immigration commissioners were doing little about this matter. Due to the racist Exclusion Act, it was difficult for Chinese to immigrate to the U.S. so some did try to illegally enter the country. However, this influx helped Chinatown grow and the Chinese certainly were hard workers, contributing to the community.

There were some problems with the Chinese restaurants, but they often were caused by white people starting fights. A Chinese restaurant at 31 Howard Street, owned by King Hong Low, was the scene of multiple problems over the course of a couple years. For example, the Boston Globe, September 7, 1901, reported on a fight that almost became a riot. Some white men started a fight and the other guests “stampeded” out. Unfortunately, two women fainted on the stairs out and were trampled, though there wasn’t any notation that their injuries were serious. One white man and two Chinese men were arrested for assault.

The next month, the Boston Daily Globe, October 31, 1901, reported on another almost riot at this same Chinese restaurant, with the article noting all of the trouble at this place in the recent past. This time, some Italians, who ate at the restaurant, tried to bring their dishes outside and the Chinese insisted they pay for the dishes. The Italians refused and a fight began, with almost fifty people involved in the fracas, wrecking the restaurant and there was plenty of blood spilled. Twenty women hid in a rear room during the battle. In the end, only one Italian and one Chinese man were arrested. An additional person, a bartender at a local saloon, was later arrested for stealing $30 from the restaurant during the riot.

The police explained a main reason for the trouble at this specific location. When the saloons closed at 11pm, people would then gravitate to the Chinese restaurant which was still open. The police also noted the area is frequented by “women of the street” and that the Howard Street gangs were also known to dine there.

The Boston Post, January 24, 1902, related the story of how an assistant constable from Chelsea, entered the Howard Street restaurant, claiming to actually be the Chief of the Chelsea police. He nearly caused another riot, as he complained about the food, the actions of the employees, and even insulted the appearance of the Chinese. He angered the Chinese who demanded to see his authority, and it was at that point that he finally backed down. He fled from the restaurant, and eluded capture by the police.

As there still were so few Chinese women in Chinatown, a number of Chinese men married American woman. Domestic life wasn’t always blissful. The Boston Post, August 27, 1902, interviewed Mrs. Loo Sun, the American wife of a Chinese tailor at 27 Harrison Avenue about her recent domestic abuse. Her husband had choked her, and was later arrested, convicted for assault and fined $10. Mrs. Loo Sun planned on leaving her husband and had some derogatory comments about Chinatown, stating, “A girl had better be shot before she ever comes to live down here...There are about 30 white girls in this vicinity living with Chinese husbands and we are all sick and tired of the life.

In December 1902, there was a new Chinese restaurant, Hawm Fah Low & Co., located at 777 Washington St.

There was trouble at the famed Hong Far Low in August 1903. The Boston Globe, August 10, 1903, reported that two boys met up with two girls at the restaurant, and it appeared that they hadn’t known each other for long. The boys were upset they couldn’t get hard liquor so they began to break furniture. They had to be physically thrown out by the Chinese and the fight continued on outside. A crowd formed and when the police arrived, they couldn’t easily get through, so one officer fired his weapon twice into the air. The two boys successfully fled the scene but the girls didn’t, though it appears they weren’t arrested.

In December 1903, there was a brief mention of an unnamed Chinese restaurant at 46 ½ Harrison Avenue. And in April 1904, there was also a brief mention of an unnamed Chinese restaurant at 46 Beach Street.

More trouble at another Chinese restaurant, fulfilling some of the worst fears of the opponents of the Chinese. The Boston Globe, January 23, 1904, printed a horrifying article about the alleged abduction, imprisonment and abuse suffered by two young women. Two 22 year old girls, from Nova Scotia, had been in Boston for only about seven months and decided to dine in Chinatown one evening. They met Chin Tye, a Chinese man who lived at 20 Oxford Street with his American wife, Emma. Tye invited them back to his house to meet his wife and the girls decided to go.

However, once at the house, they claimed that they were stripped, given wrappers and Chinese slippers to wear, and locked into a room. They weren’t permitted to leave the house. They remained there for several months, where they “entertained” a number of Chinese men. Eventually, they somehow got word to a police officer who rescued them, and Tye and his wife were arrested. On January 28, the charges of abduction and imprisonment were dismissed against the couple, and they were instead tried on the charge of "keeping a house of ill-fame." They were convicted and sentenced to six months.

The Boston Globe, May 22, 1904, wrote about the passing of Old John Sing, also known as “The Sage” and “Old John,” who worked, for the last ten years, as the “custodian of the temple of curious in the establishment of Hong Far Low & Co.” Sing, who was 65 years old when he died, came to the U.S. when he was a young boy, and settled in Chelsea where he eventually opened a fruit store. When he was 23 years old, he married an African American woman and moved to Charlestown. The article stated he “was the first Chinese to embark in general business.” Sing was survived by his wife and their three children, Oscar age 19, Rose age 21, and Maude age 23.

The above advertisement is from the Boston Globe, September 24, 1905, noting the Shanghai Low, a “first-class Chinese restaurant” located at 42 ½ Harrison Avenue.

The above advertisement is from the Boston Post, September 11, 1907, noting a new Chinese restaurant, the Hankow, located at 19-21 Essex Street. It is an “up-to-date” Chinese restaurant and will have a “Ladies’ Private Dining Room.” The Boston Sunday Post, September 15, 1907, had a brief article about Hankow, stating it was “one of the most completely furnished and up-to-date Chinese restaurants in the city of Boston” and that “service and food are of such excellence as to satisfy the most fastidious.”

It appears that Hong Far Low, at 36 ½ Harrison, lacked a liquor license as the Boston Globe, July 20, 1908, reported a raid by the police at the restaurant. The police seized 53 bottles of beer, 2 gallons of gin, a pint of whiskey, and 3/8th of a gallon of mixed liquor.

Fears were stoked that white women were being morally corrupted at Chinese restaurants. In January 1910, Representative Donovan of Boston filed a bill to prohibit women from entering Chinese restaurants unless they were over 21 years old, and accompanied by a man. That man, who couldn’t be Chinese, also had to be at least than 21 years old.

In the Boston Sunday Post, February 20, 1910, Representative Donovan explained some of the rationale behind his bill. “This proposed statue, says Mr. Donovan, is to keep girls out of Chinatown, and away from that centre of degradation.” He continued, “It is really a study to watch how the Chinamen trap these girls.” He then went into detail how women who went to Chinese restaurants were groomed and spoiled by the restaurant owners, slowly enticing them until they eventually led them into an opium den, convincing them to partake of that drug.

As written, this bill would even have prevented a Chinese woman from entering a Chinese restaurant with her Chinese husband, father or other male relative. Fortunately, Attorney General Malone, in April 1910, gave his opinion that the bill was unconstitutional. Thus, on April 22, the Houses rejected the bill but the matter wasn’t finished.

After the rejection, a persistent Representative Donovan asked for the bill to be reconsidered. He claimed that the Attorney General opinion wasn’t absolute and that the bill would be constitutional if Chinese restaurants were found to be more “injurious to the public morals” than any other class of restaurants. Donovan claimed to have evidence to show this was the case. Fortunately, his motion to reconsider was also defeated.

Massachusetts wasn’t the only state to attempt to restrict women from entering Chinese restaurants. The Pittsburgh Press, September 12, 1910, reported on a proposed ordinance which would close Chinese restaurants as midnight, but also would prohibit all women from going to Chinese restaurants, whether accompanied by a man or not. Mrs. Stella C. Masters, a leader in Pennsylvania’s temperance movement, claimed to have amassed plenty of evidence of the moral dangers from Chinse restaurants. “I have had even young men and women describe to me sights and sounds and incidents in these places, which, if published, would chill the blood of the right-minded citizen.”

There was plenty of people opposed to the ordinance, including Captain of Detectives William Elmore who stated, “We never have any trouble with these restaurants. The Chinese give us less trouble than any other class.” Surprisingly, the Pittsburgh City Council passed the ordinance but the Mayor quickly vetoed the bill, claiming it was unreasonable and discriminatory.

Though you would have thought the matter was settled in Boston, it was resurrected in January 1911 when Representative William L.V. Newton of South Boston tried to bring the bill forward once again. In February, Newton claimed that a lawyer had tried to bribe him with $150 last year to oppose this bill. There was some House discussion of the bill, and Henry Cunningham, who wrote the bill, said the idea behind the bill was to suppress crime. In March, the House decided to ask the Massachusetts Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of the proposed bill.

Some evidence which would lend support for the bill came from a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital. In the Boston Globe, March 6, 1911, there was an article about a speech given by Dr. William F. Boos to the annual public meeting of the Watch and Ward Society. He stated that, “More than 10 percent of the doctors of the United States, as well as many of their wives and many trained nurses, are addicted to the use of morphine, and numbers of Boston young women who patronize Chinese restaurants because of a taste for chop suey and other characteristic Chinese dishes end by becoming confirmed opium smokers in Chinese dives in the rear of Harrison av.

In the end, the Massachusetts Supreme Court was unanimous in their decision that this bill was unconstitutional, and this finally ended the pursuit of this bill. Well, almost.

The Boston Globe, June 17, 1911, reported on how three men tried to steal cups from the Red Dragon restaurant at 9 ½ Harrison Avenue. The Chinese tried to get the cups back, but the thieves brandished a gun so they backed off. The police were able to arrest two of the three thieves.

Numerous newspapers during September and October 1911, presented some intriguing new information related to the alleged first restaurant in Chinatown. Was this finally the answer that I've been seeking? Or would it only provide additional questions?

Jang Po, a leading businessman in Chinatown, was returning to China, with about $500,000 he had earned during his career. It was alleged that he opened the first Chinese restaurant in Boston in 1879, and served chop suey. He allegedly began with a modest restaurant and a few years later, moved to “more pretentious quarters.” In the fall of 1911, his restaurant occupied nearly a block. He also owned a grocery store and curio shop. It was also stated that his wife and children lived in Canton, China, and that he had only seen them once in the last 38 years.

Curiously, in all of the articles at this time, not a single one of them ever mentioned the name or address of Jang Po’s restaurant. Why was that the case? Did Jang Po own Hong Far Low, or a different restaurant? Such a strange omission and there weren’t any clues as to why they omitted that information. In fact, the articles were very vague about Jang Po's history, which tends to raise a red flag in my mind. What was the source for these newspapers articles? Did they only speak to Jang Po, or did someone else provide them the basic information?

In addition, which made me even more skeptical, I couldn’t find any prior mention of Jang Po in any of the newspaper archives or websites I searched. He just seemed to suddenly appear in a number of newspapers in September and October 1911, despite allegedly being in Boston for thirty-eight years. Why didn't anyone write about him prior to 1911? This information certainly didn't provide me any answers, only additional questions.

In February 1912, there is a brief mention of the Empire Restaurant Company of 34 Beach Street.

Leprosy fears! The Boston Globe, March 8, 1913, and Fitchburg Sentinel, March 8, 1913, reported that Wong Quang, a waiter at a Chinese restaurant on Oxford Street, was recently diagnosed with leprosy. Wong had been in the U.S. for eight years, and one of those years in Boston. It was unknown how he acquired the disease and health officials were examining the other restaurant workers, as well as those close to Wong, to ensure no one else had leprosy. Wong was to be sent to the leper colony on Penikese Island, off the southern coast of Massachusetts. In the end, no one else was found to have leprosy.

Representative Donovan returned, and he was still angry about the Chinese! The Boston Globe, April 6, 1913, wrote about a town meeting held for a number of Boston wards. Representative John Donovan, of Ward 7, complained about the growth of the Chinatown neighborhood, alleging that landlords were pushing out poor people so they could rent to the Chinese, who were willing to pay twice what the prior residents had been paying. Donovan also wanted to know why there were so many Chinese in Boston despite the Exclusion Act. In addition, he tried to push his restaurant bill again, to prohibit unaccompanied women from entering Chinese restaurants, and wanted another law to prevent the Chinese from carrying firearms. Fortunately, Donovan was largely ignored and his bill remained dead.

Though Donovan was largely ignored, a new report, House 2281, Report of the Commission for the Investigation of the White Slave Traffic, So Called (February 1914) raised concerns about the dangers of some Chinese restaurants. The report stated, “Some of the restaurants conducted by Chinamen in various cities in Massachusetts are favorite resorts of professional prostitutes and their pimps and customers. Certain white prostitutes solicit exclusively in Chinese restaurants, and cater only to Chinese patrons. Many of these are quite young women.” It also noted that, “These restaurants are also the meeting places of young white men and immoral young girls who have not yet become commercial prostitutes.” In addition, the report states, “Private booths in these restaurants are curtained, and couples may enter and draw the curtains together, with the understanding that the waiter is not to open the curtains until he is told to do so by the occupants. Young girls often become intoxicated in these places. Some Chinese restaurants have rooms upstairs which they rent to couples for immoral purposes.”

However, these warnings about Chinese restaurants were only a small part of the larger report, which also indicated numerous other places, from dance halls to lodging houses, where prostitution occurred. Thus, Chinese restaurants weren’t much different from many other establishments at this time. It wasn’t even a harm that primarily occurred at Chinese restaurants. It was more just a small element in the larger scheme of rampant prostitution in Boston during this period. However, that wouldn't stop some opponents from trying to use the information against Chinese restaurants.

The Boston Daily Globe, March 26, 1915, noted that The Bun Fong Low Co. Chinese restaurant, located at 32 Harrison Ave, was under new management by The Sun Far Low Co.

A couple Chinese restaurants were the subject of litigation in 1916. First, the Boston Post, January 25, 1916, had an advertisement for The Mandarin, “Boston’s Finest Chinese Restaurant,” which was located at 255 Tremont Street. It opened, after being remodeled and improved, but in May 1916, the restaurant was found guilty of operating without a common victuallers' license, and was fined $100.

The restaurant appealed the issue and later that month tried to compel the licensing board to issue them a license. They stated they had just taken on a ten-year lease and had spent $35,000 in alterations. It is unclear what happened to their prior license, and why a new license wasn’t granted, though the restaurant alleged racial discrimination.

Second, another Chinese restaurants was sued for engaging in racial discrimination. The Boston Post, October 24, 1916, published an article about what might be the first damage suit against a Chinese restaurant for racial discrimination ever tried in Municipal Civil Court. The four plaintiffs were Norman Raynor, his wife Susan Raynor, Bernard Thomas, and Evelyn Gray. On Labor Day, they had attended the theater and afterwards went to Chinatown for dinner. At the Eagle Restaurant Company, 32 Harrison Avenue, they were told that “colored persons” weren’t allowed in their establishment. The plaintiffs sued the defendants for $110 each and the Court ruled in their favor, though the award was only $25 each.

A brief article in the Boston Post, December 14, 1916, noted that the Pekin, a new Chinese restaurant just opened, and it was located at the corner of Washington Street and Beach Street.

The Boston Globe, February 17, 1917, presented the advertisement above for The Royal Chinese American Restaurant, which is located at 16 Harrison Avenue. The restaurant apparently felt the need to indicate its independence from any other restaurant. This is also one of the first ads to reference “Chinese American” as nearly all of the previous restaurant ads referred only to “Chinese” restaurants. Many of the advertisements that now start being published combine the two cuisines, Chinese and American, likely trying to draw in more non-Chinese customers.

Another new Chinese restaurant opened. The Boston Post, June 7, 1917, published an ad for the New Park Restaurant at 3 Harrison Avenue. It is noted to be the "Handsomest and Most Up-To-Date Chinese Restaurant in New England." It serves "American and Chinese Food Specialties," continuing the trend to add American dishes to their menu.

And the trend continued, being even more specific. The Boston Post, March 12, 1918, had an ad for the First Anniversary of the Joy Yong restaurant, located at 21-23 Harrison Avenue. They had a Turkey Dinner special for $1.00, and also mentioned two of their lunch choices, Roast Chicken Dinner for 40 cents and Fried Scallops for 35 cents. It's interesting that chose to highlight these American dishes rather than any Chinese dishes.

The Boston Post, October 8, 1918, printed an ad for Me King, another new "American and Chinese" restaurant. It was located 111 Court Street, on the 2nd floor of the Hamilton Hotel, and next door to the Palace Theatre. They offered a Regular Dinner for 40 cents, though the ad didn't specify what that included, and whether it is American or Chinese.

The Boston Post, November 27, 1918, posted 4 advertisements on the same page for different Chinese restaurants. First, there was the Pekin, which offered a special Thanksgiving special dinner consisting of mainly American dishes with a couple of Chinese thrown in, including Birds Nest Soup and Lobster Chop Suey. Second, there was the Joy Yong and Royal Restaurant, which both offered the same Thanksgiving menu, basically all American dishes. Third, there was The King Fong, a new Chinese & American restaurant at 428 Tremont Street. The ad recommended people try their new dish, Chu Chin Chow. Lastly, there the Mee King, an American & Chinese restaurant located at 115 Court Street. They also offered a special Thanksgiving menu.

Another new spot! The Boston Globe, January 13, 1919, had an for the King, located at 630 Washington Street. It claimed to be the “World’s Best Chinese-American Restaurant.” They also offered a special, a Roast of Beef, 5 course dinner, for 40 cents. Again, we see a restaurant highlighting their American options rather than their Chinese ones.

And another new one! The Boston Globe, April 3, 1919, mention that The Siwoo, a new Chinese restaurant would open that day. Located at 22 & 24 Harrison Avenue, the restaurant, under the management of Paul G. Mahr, occupied an entire four-story building and was “elaborately furnished in luxurious Oriental style.”

And new restaurants kept popping up! The Boston Post, October 24, 1919, had an ad for the Grand Garden, located at 660 Washington Street. It was said to be “Boston’s Grandest and Largest American-Chinese Restaurant” and their motto was "Popularity." There also seemed to be a type of competition with some of these restaurants to be larger and grander than all the others, each ad using more superlatives to attract customers.

The Boston Post, November 29, 1919, had an ad for an American and Chinese Restaurant located outside of Chinatown. The Canton Restaurant, which was under new management, was located at 26 Warren Street in Roxbury, and might have been the first Chinese restaurant in Roxbury.

The return of Hong Far Low! The Boston Globe, April 29, 1920, had a brief ad that Hong Far Low Co., the "Famous Chinese Restaurant," was reopening. It was located at 34 1/2, 36 1/2, and 38 1/2 Harrison Avenue. I didn't find any references as to when and why it might have temporarily closed.

The Boston Globe, December 2, 1920, presented an ad for The Court, located at 88 Court Street, at Scollay Square. The ad asked people to “Visit America’s Most Hygenic and Sanitary Chinese Restaurant Today.” Unlike many of the other ads around this time period, they didn't state they were an "American-Chinese" restaurant. They also recently reduced their prices, like a Full Course Chicken Dinner for 50 cents.

Check out the ad for "The New Shanghai" in the Boston Globe, December 19, 1920. Located at 89 Court Street, in Scollay Square, it was open from noon to midnight, and claimed to be the "World's Greatest and Best Chinese-American Restaurant." They offered a Special Turkey Dinner for $1.25. Seems like all these new ads didn't feel a need to promote their chop suey.

The years from 1901-1920 saw expansion for Chinatown and its restaurants, though there were obstacles. With perseverance, they did their best to overcome these challenges and attempted to attract more non-Chinese to their restaurants, especially by offering more American cuisine, from turkey dinners to roast beef. Some of the restaurants were also trying to out do each other in their size and grandeur.

What would Chinatown become in the years from 1921 to 1950s? There will be future articles exploring this period.

Check out Part 1, covering the 19th century.
Check out Part 3, covering the 1920s.
Check out Part 4, the tale of Ruby Foo.
Check out Part 5, covering 1930-1952