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

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