Monday, March 23, 2020

The First Chinese Restaurants Outside Boston (Part 1-Cambridge & Fitchburg)

If you have a craving for Chinese cuisine, you likely don't have to drive far to find such a restaurant, or you can get delivery. Chinese restaurants exist in most Massachusetts cities and towns, and it isn't uncommon to find multiple restaurants in your city or town. The town of Stoneham, where I live, has a population just over 20,000, and there are five restaurants offering Chinese cuisine.

However, it wasn't always so easy to find Chinese restaurants in Massachusetts. During the 19th century, it seems there weren't very few Chinese restaurants located outside of Boston. It wouldn't be until the start of the 20th century that a more significant number of Chinese restaurants started to appear in other parts of Massachusetts, all across the state. During the first couple decades of the 20th century, you might find only one or two Chinese restaurants in other towns or cities. By 1931, there were approximately 30 Chinese restaurants located outside of Boston, from Cambridge to North Adams.

Where were these first Chinese restaurants located? When did they first open? Did they have difficulties in the cities and towns where they were situated? What are their stories?

I've previously written a five-part series, The First Restaurants In Boston's Chinatown, and now I'm expanding my coverage to include the rest of Massachusetts. This is a work in progress, and I'll be adding additional cities and towns in the future parts of this new series. This first article, which generally covers a period up to 1950, deals with Cambridge and Fitchburg

The first Chinese restaurant in Cambridge appears to be the Harvard Chinese Restaurant, which opened on June 21, 1902. The Cambridge Tribune, June 14, 1902, noted that this upcoming restaurant had petitioned the licensing board for a common victualler’s license. Nowadays, all restaurants need such a license to operate but it was very different back in 1902. A restaurant didn't need a license to be open from Monday to Saturday, but they needed a common victualler’s license to be open on Sunday. At the time, the licensing board placed the petition on hold as they wanted to wait to inspect the restaurant once it was fully fitted.

Based on additional research, battles over obtaining a common victualler’s license occurred numerous times in other cities and towns. It was noted by some that such a license was very valuable, and it seemed that Sundays generated some of the best business of the week. We know that in Boston, Sundays were the day that most of the local Chinese came to Chinatown, to socialize, dine out, and have fun, after working for the last six days. Obtaining such a license sometimes garnered resistance, which ended up in the courts.

A week after that article, the restaurant opened, without a victuallers license. The Cambridge Chronicle, June 28, 1902, provided more details about this restaurant. It was located at 527 Massachusetts Avenue, on the second floor of the building. The restaurant employed only three people, a Chinese cook and two Chinese waiters. There were two dining rooms and their cuisine included a "variety of Oriental dishes," including “soups, chop sooy, lobster, chicken, candy, nuts and tea.

However, the Harvard Chinese Restaurant then seemed to vanish from the newspapers. Did it quickly close for some reason? Why did it pass into obscurity so fast?

The next Chinese restaurant didn't open until the next decade. The Cambridge Tribune, June 19, 1915, first reported on the plans of James Ort, which in some other sources would refer to as Ott, who wanted to open a Chinese restaurant at 2 Central Square, Cambridge. James wanted to transfer his current common victuallers license to the new Chinese restaurant. There is some contradictory information about Ort's prior business.

Some sources claim he ran a spot called Loud's Lunch at 545 Massachusetts Avenue, and other sources allege he ran a Chinese restaurant at that location. Still another source claims that though he received a victuallers license, he never actually opened the restaurant. The licensing board generally favored allowing the transfer of the victualler's license although Alderman McCarthy was an outlier, believing the location wasn't a proper place for a Chinese restaurant. As such, the decision on the transfer was delayed a week.

The Cambridge Tribune, June 26, 1915, then noted that the decision on the transfer was tabled once again. Three on the board were in favor of the license, noting that it was backed by several prominent businessmen and there was a personal guarantee that the place would be run properly. Two members now opposed it, claiming they had received letters of opposition from ministers and others, and that “such a place is not generally conducive to morality.”

That same day, the Cambridge Sentinel, June 26, 1915, reported that Alderman McCarthy alleged the restaurant, “would be conducive to immorality, as young girls would most likely be enticed up there.” The same racist rhetoric that had previously fueled efforts to ban women from visiting Chinese restaurants unless accompanied by a man. Another interesting detail also emerged from this brief article, that the rental for the restaurant would be six times the current rate!

Despite the opposition to the transfer of the license, Ort went forward with construction work on the restaurant. The Cambridge Chronicle, July 31, 1915, detailed the renovations taking place on the second floor of 2 Central Square, which was thought would be completed around September 1. The restaurant was going to be divided into three main sections. “The corner on Magazine street is to be handsomely fitted for ladies, and ladies with escorts. The portion facing Massachusetts avenue will be for gentlemen, both being elaborately furnished and lined with mirrors.” The third section was for the kitchen, storage, etc. It is fascinating that a section was being set aside primarily for women.

We also learned that Chin Fook & Co., merchants and bankers located in Chinatown, on Harrison Avenue in Boston, held a long lease on the property. Ort, who was part of the firm, was on the license. A later source would also note that the cost for the renovations would be about $10,000.

The Cambridge Tribune, September 11, 1915, mentioned that the licensing board had decided to deny the transfer of the victualler’s license. That meant that Ort could not open on Sundays. This didn't prevent the opening of the restaurant.

The Cambridge Tribune, October 2, 1915, had an advertisement for the Grand Opening of the Imperial Chinese Restaurant, offering Chinese and American foods. There would be “Special Table D’Hote Dinners, 25 cents to $1.50 per plate” and "A La Carte Bill-of-Fare", including "Chinese Chop Suey, Chow Mein, Soups, Candies, Nuts and Preserves--Chicken, Lobster and Oysters Served In All Styles."

The restaurant proved to be quite popular, as noted in the Cambridge Sentinel, November 6, 1915, which also stated, “Perfect cooking is the policy here.” It also was run quite well, and in the Cambridge Sentinel, November 27, 1915, it was noted that one of the aldermen who had previously opposed the transfer of the victualler's license, now was supporting the idea. This led to the victualler's license finally being granted in early December.

A couple months later, it was mentioned in the Cambridge Chronicle, February 12, 1916, that James Ort was now a partner in the restaurant, with Quan Soon You and others, after they had bought our the interest of Chin Fook.

For about the next twenty years, ads for the Imperial Chinese Restaurant would be regularly printed in various newspapers, though the restaurant didn't appear to be mentioned in many articles, except as a spot for a few different functions and events. There didn't appear to be any significant problems with crime, or any issues about morality. In fact, the Cambridge Sentinel, August 11, 1934, reported that the Imperial Chinese Restaurant was still as popular as ever. Chop suey remained very popular, as was take-out. They also played music, both from a piano and the radio. The newspaper also stated, “The same high grade management continues.”

The last article I found referencing the restaurant was in Boston Globe, October 24, 1940, in an article noting the Imperial Chinese Restaurant had been ransacked by burglars. After that, mentions of the restaurant, as well as advertisements, vanished. Thus, we don't know when and why the restaurant may have closed. Another mystery.

There were a couple other brief mentions of Chinese restaurants in Cambridge during this time period. The Cambridge Sentinel, March 15, 1924, reported that The Inspector of Provisions had inspected, a few times, a Chinese restaurant located over Gordon’s theater. He found it unkempt, and after several warnings failed, he closed the place. A similar incident was reported in the Cambridge Sentinel, August 18, 1934. The Board of Health revoked a license for a Chinese restaurant at 86A Windsor Street, owned by Mary China, which was found to be dirty and unsanitary.

The first Chinese restaurant in Fitchburg opened in 1902, just like the first one in Cambridge. The Fitchburg Sentinel, June 26, 1902, first reported that King Far Low, a Chinese man from Providence, would open a Chinese restaurant on June 28 over Quong Wah’s laundry, at the corner of Blossom and Crescent Streets, opposite the Cummings theater. The article noted, “Meals and lunches will be served in Chinese style and Chinese dishes and viands will be the attractions.

After its opening, the Fitchburg Sentinel, June 30, 1902, mentioned that the restaurant was at 20 Blossom Street and its food included, "Chop suey, foo youn dan, yo yo, foo chee, chow min, roast duck, fried one tune, yat ko min, and other dishes."

The Fitchburg Sentinel, July 3, 1902, posted an ad for this new Chinese restaurant. It is interesting that they offered only Chinese cuisine, and not American fare as other restaurants would do.

A raid at the restaurant! The Fitchburg Sentinel, January 7, 1904, reported this Chinese restaurant was raided by police, as they had allegedly received many complaints of violations of the liquor law. It was also alleged that girls and women frequented the restaurant at all hours and the owner sold opium as well. However, no evidence was found in the restaurant which could lead to an arrest. In the newspaper the next day, the restaurant claimed the raid was instigated by spite, caused by two young men who had previously tried to leave the restaurant without paying their 70 cent bill.

By May 1905, apparently King Far Low closed or sold his restaurant as another Chinese Restaurant, Novelty & Tea Store, opened at that location. The new owner was the Wing Chon Low Co. However, this new spot didn't last long either, as the Fitchburg Sentinel, September 8, 1906, reported the Blossom street restaurant had closed and a different, non-Chinese restaurant was going into that location.

The Fitchburg Sentinel, April 1, 1915, posted an advertisement for the Royal Restaurant, a "First Class Chinese Restaurant," located at 22 Day Street, and noting it was under new management. It would serve American and Chinese food. Back in 1912, this location was a grocery store, which had just assumed new ownership. I couldn't locate whether another restaurant had occupied this location prior to Royal Restaurant. The new management may just refer that they took over the business space from the grocery store.

The Fitchburg Sentinel, November 14, 1917, printed an ad for the new Canton Restaurant, a Chinese-American restaurant, which actually didn't provide a street address. The owner was the Canton Restaurant Co. and the manager was John Fong Ying. The ad emphasized "Pure Foods, Carefully Selected and Expertly Prepared, Our Policy." Other sources would indicate the street address of this restaurant was 294 Main Street.

The Fitchburg Sentinel, May 10, 1919, presented an advertisement with some menu items at the Canton Restaurant. That included: Turkey a la Creole Soup for 10 cents, Roast Stuffed Vermont Turkey 75 cents, Sirloin Steak $1.00, Fried Chicken (Nankin Style) 75 cents, Chicken Chop Suey with Pineapple 75 cents, Vegetables such as Mashed Potatoes and Stewed Corn, and Strawberry Shortcake for Dessert.

Check out the special Christmas dinner menu at the Canton Restaurant. The Fitchburgh Sentinel, December 22, 1922, printed the ad, which offers a multi-course dinner for only $1.00, with a choice of two entrees, Turkey or Chop Suey.

New management. The Fitchburgh Sentinel, May 2, 1923, reported that the Canton Restaurant was currently closed, and planned to reopen on May 10, after a number of renovations were completed. The restaurant was also under new management, being taken over by David Block of Colorado, who has wide experience in managing restaurants and clubs. Dancing would now be allowed at the restaurant. The May 6 newspaper noted that the new chef would be Chester Mills, the former chef at Camp Walden and the Peaks Island house.

In December 1934, the Canton Restaurant obtained a liquor licenses to sell beer and wine. And check out the ad in the Fitchburg Sentinel, August 15, 1936, discussing some of the specialties of the restaurant, as well as the ability to Dine and Dance. The last reference I found to this restaurant was in July 1943, so it seems likely the restaurant had to close soon after.

The Fitchburg Sentinel, April 2, 1938, posted an ad for the grand opening of the Peacock Chinese Restaurant, which was located at 9 Prichard Street. The owner was Mary A. (Ying) Wong, the daughter of John Fong Ying, who originally opened the Canton Restaurant. Mary ran the Canton Restaurant from 1927-1937, and then opened the Peacock, which she would operate until her death in 1967.

To Be Continued...

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