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Cecilia Chiang

Cecilia Chiang

Chinese-American restaurateur
Cecilia Chiang
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Chinese-American restaurateur
Was Restaurateur Chef
From United States of America China
Type Business Food and Drinks
Gender female
Birth 1920, Wuxi, Jiangsu, People's Republic of China
Death 28 October 2020, San Francisco, San Francisco County, California, USA
The details

Biography

Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang (September 18, 1920 – October 28, 2020) was a Chinese-American restaurateur and chef, best known for founding and managing the Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco, California.

Early life

Chiang was born near Shanghai in an aristocratic family and raised in a 52-room mansion in Beijing. Her Chinese name, Sun Yun, means "flower of the rue". As a child she enjoyed elaborate formal meals prepared by the family's two chefs, although the children were not allowed to cook or go into the kitchen. Her mother had bound feet, but her parents refused to follow the tradition with their children. She escaped with a sister from the Japanese occupation of China in 1942 by walking for nearly six months to Chongqing, where they settled with a relative. She soon met Chiang Liang (江梁), a successful local businessman whom she married, establishing a comfortable life in Shanghai. There they had two children, May and Philip (江一帆). During the war she operated as a spy for America's Office of Strategic Services. She and her husband escaped from China on the last flight from Shanghai during the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949. With only three tickets for a family of four they had to leave Philip behind with her sister (the family was reunited more than a year later). Her parents and siblings who remained were treated poorly by the communists. Her parents died poor. A brother died in a labor camp and one sister committed suicide. Others were killed by communist soldiers.

Chiang settled in Tokyo, Japan with her husband and children, May Ongbhaibulya and Philip Chiang. In 1960 she came to San Francisco to visit a sister, whose husband had died. Walking through the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown she met two friends from Tokyo who were planning to open a restaurant in a small space at 2209 Polk Street, and agreed to help negotiate their lease. She impulsively wrote a deposit check for $10,000 to secure their rent, which the landlord refused to return after her friends backed out of the venture. Unable to terminate the lease she decided to run the restaurant on her own, although she had never before run a business.

At the time, non-chinese Americans in the city had very limited exposure to authentic Northern Chinese cuisine, being familiar with only the Americanized version of Cantonese cuisine. Convinced that residents would enjoy Northern Chinese dishes, but unsure what would appeal to them, she initially listed more than 200 dishes on the menu. Avoiding the common elements of American Chinese restaurant decor, she designed the restaurant to evoke the opulence of the palace where she had grown up. The restaurant was at first unsuccessful and had few patrons. A Mandarin speaker, she had trouble communicating with suppliers from Chinatown, and also faced discrimination as a woman business owner. However, over time the restaurant began to attract loyal customers. Journalist C. Y. Lee, who had just written Flower Drum Song, about San Francisco's Forbidden City Nightclub, became a regular and brought many friends. One day, Vic Bergeron (founder of Trader Vic's) came to the restaurant with Herb Caen, who immediately began to popularize the restaurant in his newspaper column. The restaurant was called the Mandarin.

With the restaurant's new success, Chiang decided to remain in San Francisco. She separated from her husband (they never divorced) and brought her two children May and Philip, to live with her in Saint Francis Wood. She was the first non-white resident of the neighborhood, and was admitted by the homeowner association only after they learned that she was from an upper-class background in China. In 1968 she relocated the restaurant to a 300-seat location in Ghirardelli Square, which required a multimillion-dollar investment. Chiang was known for entertaining VIP guests in the dining room, wearing fancy gowns and expensive jewelry.

Chiang sold the Mandarin in 1991, and it closed in 2006. After living for many years in San Francisco, she moved to Belvedere in Marin County, then back to San Francisco in 2011 where her daughter May and grandchild Alisa Ongbhaibulya live. Retired since 1991, Chiang remains active in promoting charitable causes, in particular the Chinese American International School. Her son Philip continued to run a sister restaurant, also called the Mandarin, in Beverly Hills, sold to The Mandarin on Candem Inc in 2001, later the Mandarin on Camden Inc was sold sometime after 2007 to the owners of Camden House, which serves French Cuisine.

In 2013, Chiang won a James Beard Foundation Award for lifetime achievement.

Career

Chiang settled in Tokyo, Japan with her husband and children in 1949. She opened a Chinese restaurant, Forbidden City, which was successful with the expatriates and local diners.

In 1960 she came to San Francisco to visit a sister, whose husband had died. Walking through the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown she met two friends from Tokyo who were planning to open a restaurant in a small space at 2209 Polk Street, and agreed to help negotiate their lease. She impulsively wrote a deposit check for $10,000 to secure their rent, which the landlord refused to return after her friends backed out of the venture. Unable to terminate the lease she decided to run the restaurant on her own, although she had never before run a business.

At the time, non-Chinese Americans in the city had very limited exposure to authentic Northern Chinese cuisine, being familiar with only the Americanized version of Cantonese cuisine. Convinced that residents would enjoy Northern Chinese dishes, but unsure what would appeal to them, she initially listed more than 200 dishes on the menu. Avoiding the common elements of American Chinese restaurant decor, she designed the restaurant to evoke the opulence of the palace where she had grown up. The restaurant was at first unsuccessful and had few patrons. A Mandarin speaker, she had trouble communicating with suppliers from Chinatown, and also faced discrimination as a woman business owner. However, over time the restaurant began to attract loyal customers. Journalist C. Y. Lee, who had just written The Flower Drum Song, about San Francisco's Forbidden City Nightclub, became a regular and brought many friends. One day, Vic Bergeron (founder of Trader Vic's) came to the restaurant with Herb Caen, who immediately began to popularize the restaurant in his newspaper column. The restaurant was called the Mandarin.

With the restaurant's new success, Chiang decided to remain in San Francisco. She separated from her husband (they never divorced) and brought her two children May and Philip, to live with her in Saint Francis Wood. She was the first non-white resident of the neighborhood, and was admitted by the homeowner association only after they learned that she was from an upper-class background in China. In 1968 she relocated the restaurant to a 300-seat location in Ghirardelli Square, which required a multimillion-dollar investment. Chiang was known for entertaining VIP guests in the dining room, wearing fancy gowns and expensive jewelry.

Chiang sold the Mandarin in 1991, and it closed in 2006. Her son Philip continued to run a sister restaurant also named the Mandarin, a high-end Beverly Hills institution established in 1974 and located on Camden Dr.

Influences

Chiang is often credited with introducing San Francisco, and the United States, to a more authentic version of Mandarin cuisine.

Chuck Williams of Williams Sonoma, who enjoyed the Mandarin's "beggar's chicken" dish (a whole stuffed chicken), introduced James Beard, who became a friend and learned about northern Chinese cuisine from Chiang. Alice Waters, who had just opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, learned Chinese cooking from Chiang, and the two became lifelong friends. Waters said that what Chiang did to popularize Chinese cuisine in America is what Julia Child (who Chiang also taught) did for French Cuisine. Waters, Chiang, and Marion Cunningham took a several-month tour of Europe in 1978 to sample as many of the best restaurants as they could. George Chen, a founder of the city's Betelenut and Shanghai 1930 (now closed, as are his other ventures, Long Life Noodle Co. and Xanadu), waited tables for Chiang at the Mandarin in the 1970s. Others who were influenced by Chiang include Jeremiah Tower, and the food editor of Sunset Magazine.

In a panel hosted by Anthony Bourdain, in response to a question from an audience member, Alice Waters said that she wanted her last meal on earth to be shark fin soup cooked by Chiang. The comment became a viral sensation, eventually leading the Humane Society International to obtain a pledge from Waters that she would never again eat the dish.

Honors and recognition

In 2013, Chiang won a James Beard Foundation Award for lifetime achievement.

In 2014, filmmaker Wayne Wang's Soul of a Banquet documentary about Chiang's life was released. Her restaurant, Mandarin, was included in the food scholar Paul Freedman's historical survey, "Ten Restaurants that Changed America" (2016). In July 2016, a six part cooking series, The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang was released on PBS.

Personal life

Chiang was married to Chiang Liang (江梁), a former professor of economics and later a successful local businessman whom she married in Shanghai. They had two children, May and Philip (江一帆).Chiang's son, Philip, is a co-founder of the restaurant chain P.F. Chang's.

Having lived for many years in San Francisco, she moved to Belvedere in Marin County, after selling her restaurant in 1991. She moved back to San Francisco in 2011 where her daughter May and grandchild Alisa Ongbhaibulya live. Retired since 1991, Chiang remained active in promoting charitable causes, in particular the Chinese American International School.

She died on October 28, 2020 in San Francisco at the age of 100.

Bibliography

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 29 Oct 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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References
https://archive.today/20140307064451/http://www.worldjournal.com/view/full_news_14/22487046/article-%E8%8F%AF%E8%A3%94%E5%BB%9A%E7%A5%9E-%E4%B8%AD%E9%A4%90%E9%9D%A9%E5%91%BD-%E6%AF%8D%E5%AD%90%E5%82%B3%E6%89%BF?instance=topics
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http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/10/24/FD9GSOJA9.DTL
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