Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Fine Chinese Dining and Asian American Celebrities’ Restaurants

Willie Fung opened the New Moon cafe.

Americans fell in love with Chinese food over the decades, drawn to it originally by cheap prices and chop suey, before growing to love more exotic and elegant dishes. At the same time, operating restaurants was one of the first ways for Chinese Americans to gain both respect and high income after coming to this country. Several film stars would open Chinese restaurants to take advantage of their celebrity and gain income for their families at a time when many Chinese Americans felt discrimination in society.

Chinese immigrants came to America and especially California just like everyone else, looking for opportunity and a place to call home. The first mass rush of Chinese came to California as did the mad rush of Americans in 1848 when gold was discovered along the American River on the Sutter Ranch outside Coloma, California. Over time, many worked building the railroad, operating laundries, serving as domestics, and founding restaurants.

screenland41unse_0027Cary Grant, Bobby Mollineaux, Randolph Scott and Natalie Draper get chopsticks lessons from James Wong Howe.

Ching How Matchbook FlipAs immigrants persevered and succeeded, many struggling white Americans suffering through an economic depression in the 1870s and began taking out their frustrations and resentments on Chinese Americans. On May 6,1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, later made permanent under the Geary Act, which prohibited Chinese immigration, prevented US citizenship, required carrying resident papers in order not to be deported, and prevented marriage to people of other races. The Act would exempt restaurant owners, leading to a proliferation of cafes and eating establishments.

Chop suey restaurants began opening in the late 1880s, discussed in newspapers by 1884.The first cafes opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1904, finally making it to Hollywood in 1920. Many chop suey restaurants were featured in silent films during this time, spreading their popularity even further across the country.

At the same time, Asian Americans slowly turned towards the entertainment industry as a career. Many started out as extras or in miniscule parts, mostly as comic relief. Over time, such performers and behind the scenes talent as Sessue Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki, James Leong, Anna May Wong, and James Wong Howe would demonstrate great artistry, bringing respect and dignity to Asian Americans. They would find themselves limited, however, in opportunities to make additional income, thanks to the Exclusion Act and its later application to Japanese Americans as well.

Comic character actor Willie Fung, who often played cooks on screen, would be the first to brave the Act and open his own restaurant. Born in Canton, China, March 3 1896, Fung immigrated to San Francisco as a teenager to help his uncle and to also act on the stage in Chinese productions. Appearing onscreen for the first time in 1922, Fung would appear in more than 125 films, often as comic relief.

Looking for more respect and money, Fung decided to open his own restaurant. Some newspapers reported in 1936 that he prepared a luncheon for the stars of “Small Town Girl” to celebrate Chinese New Year, perhaps giving him the idea of opening the cafe. The actor premiered his New Moon Cafe at 4471 Sunset Blvd. in 1937 before moving to 4500 Sunset Blvd., an address with many entertainment connections. The address for the Crown Carriage Co. in 1908, it hosted Kinemacolor Co. in 1913, Majestic Motion Pictures in 1915, Fine Arts Film Co. in 1916, the D. W. Griffith Studio in 1918, and a bank in 1926 before Fong entered the food business.

Word got out; a gossip column in the Vidette Messenger on March 5, 1938 reported that Fung managed a restaurant where such stars as Gladys George and Paul Muni often visited. He obviously enjoyed operating his establishment, listing himself as cafe owner on the 1940 US Census, perhaps feeling like he had made it in a country that often didn’t welcome him or other Chinese Americans.

James Wong Howe opened Ching How.

The great cinematographer James Wong Howe soon followed suit, opening his Chinese restaurant Ching How at 11386 Ventura Blvd. in Studio City February 3, 1940. Born Wong Tung Jim August 28,1899 in Canton, China, Howe immigrated to the United States with his family in 1904, growing up in Washington and Oregon. Enduring racist taunts and slurs, the diminutive young man trained as a boxer before taking up photography and then moving to Los Angeles in 1916.

Beginning as a lowly film trafficker delivering movies around town, Howe rose through the ranks from third assistant cameraman to Famous Players-Lasky’s chief cinematographer by 1922, thanks to his striking compositions, visual poetry, and innovations. Inventive and smart, he developed new technologies for filming. Employing black velvet around the camera to reflect on star Mary Miles Minter’s light blue eyes, Howe made them appear dark on film, gaining recognition in the industry. He later developed such new technologies as a kite camera, carriage camera, and movable tripod for the film “The Rough Riders” in 1927, leading to diverse angles and moving camera shots. Always advancing the field, Howe would add dynamism, lowkey lighting, and chiarascuro effects to films such as “The Thin Man,” “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “The Sweet Smell of Success,” and “Hud”, winning two Oscars in the process.

Determining to promote true Chinese cuisine and bring it respect, Howe’s restaurant featured a real Chinese cook who prepared authentic dishes for his guests. Howe promoted the opening of his restaurant with an ad in Hollywood Reporter also ballyhooing his camerawork for “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” Managed by his wife, novelist Sanora Babb (who he officially could not marry until the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943), Ching How featured “Chinese food in the Chinese matter” on its menu, and welcomed such celebrities as Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Ronald Colman, Claude Rains, and John Garfield opening night. Major stars like Tyrone Power, Rosalind Russell, Veronica Lake, Dick Powell, and Ann Sheridan often came to the upscale location, supporting their friend Howe and enjoying excellent Chinese food.

Ching How remained popular for more than 12 years. Many celebrities enjoyed its excellent food and atmosphere, be it local San Fernando Valley residents like Bob and Dolores Hope or other renowned performers like Susan Hayward, Joan Blondell, Anatole Litvak, and William Dieterle. When Babb was blacklisted in 1952 for her leftist politics and moved to Mexico for two years and Howe himself was graylisted, the restaurant closed.

Philip Ahn Moongate Dish
Philip Ahn opened the Moongate restaurant.

Born in Highland Park March 29,1905 as perhaps the first Korean American born in the United States, actor Philip Ahn would open his own restaurant as well. Like his activist father An Ch’ang-ho, instrumental in fighting for Korean independence and writing its national anthem, young Ahn would organize the first Korean American youth group in the area. The oldest of eight, he began working at a young age to support his mother and siblings while his father was imprisoned overseas.

School friend Anna May Wong helped him land an audition for Douglas Fairbanks during “The Thief of Bagdad” in 1924, but Ahn returned to school on his mother’s wishes, receiving a scholarship and graduating from USC. Hard working Ahn passed his 1935 screen test and began acting in the movies, often playing Chinese and Japanese characters, good and bad. Because of miscegenation laws, Ahn would normally only star in “B” pictures, relegated to supporting parts in big budget, high end films.

By 1954, the dignified actor lived in far flung Northridge. Convinced of success by a real estate landlord, Ahn opened Moongate Restaurant at 8632 Van Nuys Blvd. in a new Panorama City shopping mall. Run by his family, the Chinese restaurant served Cantonese food, probably because few if any residents at the time had ever tasted Korean food. One of the first to serve mocktails, the eating establishment featured an upscale menu and friendly staff, with Ahn visiting regularly. Popular with local residents as well as food critics, Moongate remained open until the early 1990s.

Each of the three entertainment professionals endured prejudice and racism as successful early Asian Americans in Hollywood. Strong, persistent, and dignified, they focused on bettering the perception of Asians both in Hollywood and onscreen through their restaurants, particularly during the years of the Exclusion Act. Educating guests about actual Chinese food, decoration, and the use of chopsticks, the three helped popularize fine dining while shining a light on harmful American policies that damaged the lives and souls of Chinese and Japanese Americans. Their restaurants were as much agents of change as gathering places for their local communities.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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