Friday, April 10, 2020

The First Restaurants In Boston's Chinatown: The Tale of Anita Chue (Part 6)

On January 6, 1945, as World War II continued to rage on, Gordon and Anita Chue opened the Cathay House in Boston's Chinatown. The restaurant became immensely successful, being considered not only one of the best Chinese restaurants in Boston, but one of the best in the country. Like their contemporary, Ruby Foo's Den, they were popular with celebrities and much of their success was due to Anita. And as I told the tale of Ruby Foo, now I'll tell the tale of Anita Chue, another fascinating woman who made a significant impact in Chinatown, Boston, Brookline, and elsewhere.

Let me begin with some caveats. The sources I used concerning the life of Anita Chue lacked a number of personal details, especially concerning Anita's early business life prior to opening the Cathay House. In addition, there are other aspects of her life where the sources lacked more specific information. However, what I have compiled here makes for an intriguing tale, and Anita's life was nearly free of scandal. She was beloved by many and I'm surprised no one previously has written an extended story of her life.

Anita Chue was born as Anita Chin on July 23, 1918, apparently in Boston's Chinatown, though there was little information about her parents except that her father was allegedly a noted chef, so she probably grew up with familiarity with the restaurant industry. From an early age, Anita was also involved in causes to help her community, which would continue into her adulthood as she would eventually be well-known for supporting various charitable causes.

In June 1928, Anita was mentioned in a local newspaper, along with a photo, as being part of the Junior Red Cross, which had celebrated its 10th anniversary. Four years later, in April 1932, there was an article and photograph of Anita as she and ten other Chinese girls from Chinatown had formed the first Chinese council of the Girl Scouts in Boston. Later that year, in December, another article mentioned how these Chinese Girl Scouts were now meeting once a week at 35 Tyler Street, the workshop of the Boston Tuberculosis Association, for a home nursing course. “These Chinese girls are very much interested in the improvement in their home conditions and strive to learn all they can of the new education in modern hygiene.”

In April 1933, the fourteen Chinese Girl Scouts, aged 13-19 years old, graduated from the home hygiene nursing course, which had been the first ever held in New England, and maybe even the country. At the graduation ceremony, Anita Chin gave a short address on the life of Florence Nightingale. Later that year, in August, the Boston Tuberculosis Association held a block party. For the last four years, they would choose "an unsanitary or dreary back alley in the South End" and help  clean and renovate it. Afterwards, they would hold a party there in the refurnished street. An article provided a photo of Anita Chin and Majorie Wong serving tea at the block party.

When Anita was 15 years old, in March 1934, the Chinese Merchants Association of Boston's Chinatown sponsored a Chinese festival, in efforts to raise money for the Emergency Relief Campaign of 1934. During the festival, a number of young girls, including Anita, dressed in Chinese costumes and went among the merchants and private homes to collect money for the Campaign, giving red poppies to all of the donors.

During the next ten years, there was little information available about Anita. At some point, she got married to Gordon Chue, who was born around 1902, and they lived at 60 Harvard Street. Gordon, a native of British Columbia and the son of a former chef on the Canadian Pacific Railways, lived in Chicago for several years until coming to Boston around 1937. Prior to 1945, they both worked at an unidentified Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Anita was a cashier while Gordon was a "boss-man," which probably meant a manager. They eventually decided to go out on their own, and start a Chinese restaurant.

We do know that Anita and Gordon had a daughter, Winifred, born around 1938. It was noted that, in June 1955, Winifred would soon graduate from Girls Latin School, and had been accepted by Jackson College. In May 1956, Winifred then married Kenneth Chin, and it was mentioned that they were going to live in Boston. And in September 1956, Winifred had a child, making Anita a grandmother. At some point later, Winfired had a second child as well.

Gordon and Anita opened the Cathay House on January 6, 1945, and there's evidence that it might have first opened on Kneeland Street. However, at least by September 1945, it was relocated to 70 Beach Street, where it was opened from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., though other advertisements soon after indicated that it was only open until 3 a.m. By December 1951, a Boston newspaper stated, “Anita Chue, Cathay House, and Doris Food, Ruby Foo’s Den, two of the youngest in the restaurant business, head the largest Chinese spots in New England.

During these years, in the newspapers, Gordon often seemed to take a back seat to his wife concerning the restaurant. For example, the Boston American, June 9, 1952, noted, “Anita Chue is one of the big reasons for the popularity of the Cathay House.” Anita was a prominent face at the restaurant, greeting the guests, helping provide recommendations of dishes, and being a gracious and charming hostess. And as the years went on, her popularity only grew and grew.

In a newspaper advertisement in November 1952, Cathay House noted that they offered a special container for take-out food. This very likely referred to the familiar white cartons with wire handles that are ubiquitous now in Chinese restaurants. A couple other Chinatown restaurants at this time used similar containers. The Boston American, March 22, 1954, noted, "Boston's Chinatown, a distinctive area, where the finest Oriental food is the rule rather than the exception. You can't go wrong visiting any of the following places; The Cathay House, Anita and Gordon Chue, managers; Ruby Foo's Den, Doris and Earl Foo, managers; The House of Wong with George Wong; The China House, Jimmy Chin, manager; and Bob Lee's Lantern House."

The Boston Daily Record, January 6, 1955, published an article, titled When Is A Good Time To Start a Business?, though it seemed more a promotion for advertising in the newspaper. Gordon and Anita Chue, and their Cathay House, were the focus of the article, noting how they start advertising in the Record-American from the start, which helped their business take off. Today, it's alleged they now do more business, have more customers, and earn more money than all their competitors. Though it's obvious their restaurant was successful, we can't rely on this "article" alone to support they were the most successful restaurant in Chinatown.

In 1956, there were approximately 20 Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, and the famed Ruby Foo's Den, a favorite of many celebrities, would close in 1957. The Cathay House was also a famed stop for many celebrities, such as Ethel Merman, Fernando Lamas, Jerry Vale, Nat King Cole, Buddy Rich, Steve Brody, Sylvia Simms, and many more. Local sports figures also frequented the restaurant. The Cathay House was becoming known all across the country, garnering much media attention.

Esquire Magazine, December 1958, stated that Cathay House was one of the best Cantonese restaurant in the entire country. It also noted, “But what makes the establishment even more beguiling is Mrs. Chue herself. A dutiful attendant at all theatre openings, a regular patron of such places as the Ritz, Joseph’s, and Storyville, and, with her husband, one of the city’s most charitable residents, she is possibly the best-liked in Boston. Her personality, fully as much as the remarkable cuisine, has made the Cathay House the only interesting late-hour spot in town.” We can see how Anita and her husband patronized many charitable causes, and were huge theater fans, which led to Anita's friendships with many celebrities. And it was her powerful magnetism which was a potent force in the success of Cathay House.

In a short interview in the Boston Globe, February 19, 1959, Anita Chue commented on the popularity of Chinese cuisine. “Before World War II many people had never tasted it, but now everyone has become Chinese food conscious—it’s gone suburban, just like department stores.” She then commented on the menu at Cathay House, stating, “We have about 200 dishes on the menu but three times that many can be prepared. In fact, about half of our customers ask for dishes that aren’t even on the menu. The most popular dishes, are lobster Cantonese style and the appetizers such as barbecued spare ribs and pork strips.” How many Chinese restaurants do you know now that serve lots of dishes that aren't on the menu?

One of the charitable causes that Anita Chue supported was the Heart Fund, which provided financial support to life-saving research programs in heart and circulation. Anita served as a district chairman, raising funds in Chinatown. This hearkens back to the early work she did as a teenager, supporting health causes in Chinatown.

A bit of bad news for Anita and her family. In April 13, burglars broken into their home on Harvard Street and removed their safe from a closet on the second floor. The burglars stole two pieces of imperial jade, an imperial jade brooch with 20 diamonds, a ladies diamond watch, a ladies diamond ring, a silver blue mink stole, and several hundred dollars. The total value of everything was about $50,000. It doesn't seem that the burglars were ever apprehended.

What might surprise people nowadays is that the Cathay House achieved its great success at this time without a liquor license. It would be extremely difficult for any large restaurant today to survive and thrive without a liquor license. However, the Cathay House, Inc. eventually acquired a liquor license in 1961, purchasing the license from another entity. This would make the restaurant even more popular.

Curious mysterious rumors arose. Around the summer, and maybe spring, of 1962, a local newspaper reported, with vague details, that a number of false and malicious rumors had been spread about the Cathay House, and that the restaurant had also received a number of malicious telephone calls. It seemed this was an effort to destroy the restaurant, but fortunately failed. I couldn't found out the nature of the false rumors, or who was responsible. And the fact that only a single newspaper reported on these matters may lead to the conclusion that the rumors weren't taken seriously by the vast majority of the public. And the reporting newspaper was quite clear that there was no valid basis to any of the negative rumors.

A fascinating article appeared in the Boston Globe, September 3, 1962, titled, “Here’s How To Cook in Chinese.” Anita Chue provided advice on Chinese cuisine, as well as giving information about the dishes prepared at her restaurant. She mentioned that “In Chinese cooking eye appeal is important.” She provided some specific examples of dishes made at the Cathay House, noting that “Pure food coloring gives barbecued spareribs their rich red color. My husband, Gordon, did it first, Now everybody adds red coloring to pork marinade.” As for cooking rice, she also stated, “”We use long grain rice, first washing the rice in a strainer, with cold running water.” Then, she mentioned, “We cook fresh beans (green) quickly---with a speck of water and salad oil. The color stays green and Chinese vegetables say ‘crunch’ to the ear.”

Anita also spoke about her wishes for the Boston restaurant community. “My fondest hope is to introduce Chinese Tea Time to Boston. We have platters of fragrant meat-filled pastry, egg rolls, salty buns containing hot spiced meat, butterfly shrimp. Delicacies served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.n. with cups and cups of delicious hot tea.” This sounds like Dim Sum! She added, “Chinese Tea Time is my favorite relaxation in New York. I should like to add this joy to Boston.” The article also printed several recipes from Anita, including Chinese Boiled rice, Chinese-Style Green Beans, Fried Rice with Ham, and Winter Melon Soup.

Anita decided to open a second restaurant, one in Brookline, as it was thought to be more accessible to suburban fans of the Cathay House. Around September 1962, she formed Anita Chue, Inc. with two partners, including Celtics coach Arnold (Red) Auerbach and Attorney Maxwell Rabb. Red was likely a regular at the Cathay House and formed a friendship with Anita. In the corporation, Anita, the President and Treasurer, owned 78 voting shares, while Red and Maxwell earn owned 36. It was also noted, that at some point, Red brought in Lynn Patrick, the Bruins general manager, as a shareholder so he probably gave him some of his 36 shares.

The new restaurant, which would be named Anita's Chue's Restaurant, was located at 1366 Beacon Street in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. They obtained a liquor license, though the Brookline Board of Selectmen rejected their petition for a "food bar," noting that their liquor license was for table service only. The restaurant, with a capacity of about 200 guests, would serve the same menu as at the Cathay House. It would also have a private banquet room and would offer take-out and even delivery.

However, as this new endeavor was getting established, tragedy struck, and Gorden Chue died at his home in November 1962. No cause of death was provided.

Obviously this was a difficult time for Anita, but likely with the support of her family and friends, she went forward with her plans and Anita Shue's Restaurant opened in December, with hours of 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. You can also check out their menu online here. Like the Cathay House, they likely created plenty of dishes that weren't on the menu too.

The Boston Globe, September 29, 1963, provided a review of Anita Chue’s Restaurant, mentioning the menu was imposing, with its pages of selection, and that it was “noted for all food being made fresh to order.” It was also stated that, “Food here is cooked Cantonese style from age-old recipes, many stemming from the Ming Dynasty. Tasty, spicy, glamorous in name and content, these dishes capture the authentic atmosphere of ancient China.” The article also noted that about 75% of her customers were regulars. They catered private functions, where the most popular dishes were roast suckling pig and roast capon with all the Chinese fixings. Their “take-home orders” were very popular too, and they had even sent food to the West Coast.

In addition, it was mentioned that the restaurant had 6 chefs, though only their first names were provided, including Raymond, Wallace, John, Ping, Arthur and Lee. Some of the dishes on their menu included chop suey, chow mein, lung fon gee (chef’s special of chicken and lobster meat), and hoe seen platter (chunks of lobster meat, scallops, jumbo shrimp, crab meat, oysters with Chinese veggies and oyster sauce).

The Boston Herald, October 6, 1963, also wrote about this new restaurant, quoting Anita, "Dining is always a varied adventure that provides fun, excitement and pleasure. Each of our famous traditional specialties is prepared from cherished recipes by master chefs.” She continued, “Many of these recipes stem from the Ming Dynasty, and truly capture the authentic atmosphere of ancient China.” The article stated Anita was known as “The Queen of Chinese Cuisine” and that Cathay House had won acclaim in national magazines, television and radio. Their gourmet menu selections included steamfish (seasonal), stuffed lobster Cantonese style, ho you gai poo with fried wonton, ho you gai poo with noodles, Anita Chue’s Shrimp special, hoi seen platter, Anita Chue’s chicken roll, steak kew, and lobster in wine sauce.

Despite these raves, the next few years would see some turmoil for Anita Chue and her restaurants. First, in May 1964, Nan Wah, Inc., the owners of the Cathayan restaurant on Harvard Street in Coolidge Corner, purchased the liquor license for Anita Chue's. The new manager would be Mrs. Lillian Lee. Anita was still associated with the restaurant, though the exact connection was vague.

And in July 1966, Anita left the restaurant, claiming she had a difference of opinion with the new owners over the operation of the restaurant. It was then noted that Anita was newly affiliated with the Back Bay Health Club in the Sheraton Boston. However, Mary Yick, the owner of the Tiki Hut in Chinatown, alleged that Anita had been pushed out by the new male owners, a case of discrimination because she was a woman.

Prior to leaving her restaurant, Anita ended up in the news tangentially. Anita Chue Inc. owed some back taxes and the matter was being handled by her attorney, Bernard Dwork of Newton. Two local IRS agents told Attorney Dwork that they could resolve the tax issues for a bribe of $3,000. Dwork contacted the Treasury Department, who have him marked money to give to the two IRS agents, Lawrence Chandler and John Harris. Once he did so, the IRS agents were arrested for solicitation and accepting a bribe.

At some point, possibly in 1966 or early 1967, Anita apparently sold the Cathay House to Jim Wong. And it then was noted that in March 1967, Anita Shue’s Restaurant was now being operated by Henry Oi, who also operated the South Seas and the Hawaiian restaurants. During these years, Anita, herself, was also working at different Chinese restaurants, with a note, that as of September 1966, she might soon be working at the Polynesian Village in the Hotel Somerset. And she would continue to move from restaurant to restaurant over the next almost fifteen years.

For example, February 1974, she was working at The Mai Tai in Randolph while in August 1977, she was at the Golden Temple in Brookline, and in October 1978, she could be found at The China Pavilion in Weymouth. She worked at several others places, though not the names of all of them weren't mentioned in the newspapers.

Anita Chue died on June 15, 2004, in Norwood, at age 85. A legend had passed on, leaving a powerful legacy in Chinatown. Like Ruby Foo, Anita was an intelligent, charming and savvy business woman who became a success in the restaurant industry, and introduced many people to the wonders of Chinese cuisine, especially Cantonese.


My Research Resources for this article included:
Boston American: June 9, 1952; March 22, 1954; July 26, 1954; October 27, 1958; February 14, 1961; July 14, 1962; August 6, 1962; September 14, 1962; December 8, 1962; January 8, 1965
Boston Daily Record: December 7, 1951; November 10, 1952; January 6, 1955; June 8, 1955; May 11, 1956; September 11, 1956; September 17, 1956; November 19, 1956; February 25, 1960; April 14, 1960;  September 23, 1961
Boston Globe: April 19, 1932; December 13, 1932; April 21, 1933; August 31, 1933; March 19, 1934; February 5, 1945; September 17, 1945; February 19, 1959; June 20, 1961; September 6, 1961;  September 3, 1962; September 11, 1962; October 30, 1962; September 29, 1963; March 8, 1964; May 14, 1964
Boston Herald: June 17, 1928; October 30, 1945; November 21, 1962; November 22, 1962; October 6, 1963; September 12, 1966; March 12, 1967; March 24, 1967; February 10, 1974; August 14, 1977;  October 19, 1978; January 14, 1980
Boston Traveler: April 13, 1960; July 28, 1966
Esquire Magazine: December 1958

You might also be interested in my other related historical articles about Chinatown, its restaurants, and related Chinese cuisine matters:

The First Restaurants In Boston's Chinatown: 
Check out Part 1covering the 19th century
Check out Part 2, covering the years 1901-1920
Check out Part 3, covering the 1920s.
Check out Part 4, the tale of Ruby Foo.
Check out Part 5, covering 1930-1959
Check out Part 6, the tale of Anita Chue
Check out Part 7, the tale of Mary Yick
Check out Part 8, a Deeper Look into Two Restaurants
Check out Part 9, covering the 1960s

And also see my Compilation Post, with links to my additional articles about Chinese restaurants, outside Boston and in Connecticut, as well as a number of related matters.

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