The Untold Story of San Francisco’s Greatest Chinatown Restaurateur
As long as there has been a San Francisco, there has been good eating in its Chinatown. — Herb Caen, 1953
Investigations into the culinary history of San Francisco’s Chinatown have always generated lively discussions and explorations of hidden alleyways. Unfortunately, Chinatown’s reputation as one of San Francisco’s top gastronomic destinations has somewhat faded in recent years. The newly opened Mister Jiu’s, which offers a modern take on traditional Cantonese flavors, is a laudable attempt to revive Chinatown’s culinary glory. Adding to the singularity of Mister Jiu’s is the fact that it is only the third food establishment to occupy the 100-year-old building that once housed the Hang Far Low, an exotic destination for fin de siècle San Franciscans.
But long before Chinatown fell into gastronomic dilapidation, before the Chinese New Year’s parade left Grant Avenue and well before Cecilia Chiang’s The Mandarin became an institution, Chinatown restaurateurs jostled to emulate and dethrone one undisputed kingpin — Johnny Kan.
Kan was part of a new crop of highly acculturated, well-spoken, and entrepreneurially minded American-Born Chinese in 1930s San Francisco. Their motivation to capitalize on rather than downplaying their ethnic heritage, set them apart from their immigrant, working class forbears. According to historian Madeline Hsu, Kan should unequivocally be considered the first pioneer to feature authentic, Cantonese haute cuisine in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Kan’s lifelong campaign to extricate chop suey from Chinese cuisine and dishabituate foreign palates with aesthetically refined, high-end Cantonese gastronomy is well-documented in the annals of the San Francisco Chronicle, thanks to Herb Caen, the City’s beloved raconteur and Kan fanboy. That Kan exalted true Cantonese gastronomy with flair, set the restaurant standard to beat, and worked with artists and civic influencers to shape his district’s appeal, cemented his status as Chinatown’s foremost culinary keystone.
Kan’s story does not follow the usual arc of an immigrant narrative. Born on June 11, 1906 to Chinese Christian missionaries, Kan spent the first nine years of his life in Portland, Oregon. While his parents were on missionary treks in the Grass Valley area, Kan would stay with an uncle living in Portland’s Chinatown. These visits afforded Kan the kismet to run in the same circles as a young James Beard, who also hailed from Portland. Portland’s Chinatown in the early 1900s was a bustling immigrant enclave that was well-stocked with Chinese provisions. This milieu heavily influenced the Beard family’s aesthetic tastes and social circles. The Beard home at 2322 Salmon Street “had a Chinese air about its interior.” Beard’s mother, Elizabeth, and a friend collected porcelain from Canton. The young Beard, or “Jim,” even had a Chinese godfather.
According to Beard, “no matter where the Kan family lived, even in such a remote village as Grass Valley, Oregon,” Kan’s mother — Bean Owyang — could turn out delectable Chinese dishes made with ingredients scavenged from “those lonesome places.” Beard recalled one such dinner at Mrs. Kan’s restaurant during which she improvised on an Oregon specialty — “razor clams in their shells, cooked by tossing in sizzling oil seasoned with a couple of teaspoons of minced garlic and an equal amount of dried onion.” During the men’s life-long friendship, Beard would affectionately refer to Kan as his “Portland cousin.”
On Being Poor and Pleasant
Kan endured great poverty during his formative years in Oregon. By the time his parents had settled in Grass Valley, the Chinese population in the once active gold mining town had dwindled from over two thousand to the mere hundreds. Those that did remain resorted to hawking vegetables, including Kan: “I remember when we were very young, after school my sister and I would go from house to house peddling strawberries for something like a nickel a basket. I guess people bought them from us whether they wanted them or not because they were sympathetic with the way we looked, and we probably looked pretty hungry.” An accomplished baker, Kan’s mother would send her children off to Chinatown on Sundays with baskets of pork buns or cha shew bau to sell to the remaining miners. Kan received his first lessons on racism at the hands of onlookers who threw stones at him and his fellow vegetable peddlers: “Oh, they would wrap rocks in snowballs and throw them at us. Of course, children we must forgive, because they were innocent, but at the time it was a very confusing thing for me.”
The hard-working Owyang heavily influenced Kan’s eventual choice of career. When Kan was a child, she opened a small restaurant in the rear of an art store operated by Kan’s father, Charles. There, little Johnny would help by washing dishes. It wasn’t long before Kan’s mother began teaching him how to cook. This imbued a sense of industriousness and humility in Kan. In a 1962 interview with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Monique Benoit, Kan openly credited his mother for his self-made success:
“I come from a modest family, and I had no time or money for education because I had to help support the family at an early age. My mother, who had no education, had great wisdom, and I learned a lot from her. She taught me two important things: When poor be pleasant, when rich don’t be pompous.”
By the time the Kans left central Oregon for San Francisco in the 1920s, Kan had just completed grammar school. With no means to send their son to junior high school, the family decided that Kan should apprentice at Sam Hing and Company, a grocery store at 1040 Grant Avenue. The partners at Sam Hing immediately took to lambasting the nineteen-year-old Kan for what they deemed to be the usual attributes associated with American-born Chinese youth: laziness, a weak grasp of the Chinese language, and incompetence. None of these insults rang true. Even at nineteen, Kan was exceedingly enterprising and remained undeterred by Sam Hing’s priggish and staid partners. Kan forged ahead sans partner approval with an idea to spruce up the look-and-feel of the storefront, as well as Sam Hing’s stationary and business cards. His rationale? The current signage — “SAM HING & CO., Groceries and Peanuts” — did little to indicate that the store’s peanut operations were in the wholesale class. A change to “SAM HING & CO., Grocers, Wholesalers in Peanuts,” Kan felt, more clearly emphasized that the store sold goods other than peanuts. To quell the partners’ rebukes, Kan agreed to dock the cost of the signage ($40) from his salary.
Months later, Kan’s foresight not only recouped the cost of the signage, it landed the store a marquee customer. At the urging of his elder brother — Gon Sam Mue — who thought it crucial to target the circus industry, Kan placed a small ad in Variety Magazine. As luck would have it, a buyer from Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey saw the ad and and stopped by Sam Hing for peanut samples. That visit would net Kan an immediate order for two tons of peanuts and repeat business to follow.
Ice Cream Dreams
After eight years at Sam Hing, Kan had had enough. The partners continued to balk at Kan’s ideas to modernize, including his latest idea of converting the grocery department into a self-service operation. Restless, Kan spent a few years shuttling back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When he finally returned to San Francisco for good in the mid-1930s, Kan faced diminished prospects. He performed all kinds of menial jobs to get by, including janitorial work, dishwashing and cooking.
Opportunity came by way of a baker employed at Foster’s Cafeteria downtown. A recent immigrant from China, the man and his partner had been working nights at Fosters. The idea of simultaneously operating a bakery in Chinatown intrigued the duo. To them, Kan seemed the perfect candidate to man their shop during the day while the partners continued their night shifts at Foster’s. Business was brisk and within three years, the two bakers quit Foster’s to work their Chinatown shop full time. At Kan’s urging, the men expanded the shop into Fong-Fong Bakery Fountain by 1935.
“We had a beautiful, long counter, the latest equipment, stainless steel, nice-looking bakery cases full of fancy, decorated cakes and flaky French pastries, and it was the first place, you know, that had uniforms in Chinatown, regular soda fountain uniforms, all white. I told my partners my policy. ‘Now we’re going to cater to the younger generation and turn this into a gathering place for all of the young American-born Chinese in San Francisco.”
Fong-Fong quickly became a magnet for students from nearby University of California Berkeley and Stanford University. Sunday mornings greeted the owners with crowds patiently waiting in line. By Kan’s estimation, Chinatown had never had a business that featured the variety of baked goods and sweets sold at Fong-Fong’s, such as Napoleon pastries, wedding cakes, bon voyage baskets, banana splits and parfaits. Kan, by then 29, simultaneously enrolled in the Farm Dairy School at University of California Davis. There, Kan mastered the craft of ice cream making and promptly added to the existing twenty-four ice cream flavors already available at Fong-Fong. In response to tourist demand for Chinese flavors, Kan invented exotic flavors such as lichee, ginger and Chinese fruit. A concoction previously unheard of called “Chinese Sundae” was added to the menu. For a spell, it seemed as if Kan finally found a place to stretch his entrepreneurial drive. However, when he broached the idea of expanding the business to accommodate nationwide distribution, Kan once again ran afoul of conservative business partners who did not share his vision.
The Bard of the Bay and The Grant Confucius
In an illuminating January 30, 1942 column devoted entirely to Chinatown, Caen sketched his observations on the current pulse of the district from a culinary and social lens:
“Pork is such a staple that, just for instance, Kwon Wo barbecues two big pigs daily in a subterranean pit behind his little shop — and never has any left over, either …. A particular favorite is Chinese gruel (known as “jook”) as whipped up by Sam Wo in his spot on a Chinatown side street; Sam’s is the only jook joint in town, and he sells almost a thousand bowls of the stuff nightly in his tall, narrow three-story layout … At 12 Beckett place (home of the infamous cribs during the Barbarous Coast days) you’ll find an ingenious American-made machine which makes Chinese fortune cookies. That is, it turns out the cookies, and a patient Chinese inserts the slip of paper containing the fortune before the dough hardens. …The American-born Chinese are still bewildered by the traditions of their elders, the Chinese from the old country are shocked by the antics of the young generation…”
This was a Chinatown being refashioned by the tension between the elder, risk-averse immigrants and the assured, venturesome American-born. Caen wrote of how Kan had to deal with “Chinatown elders [who] muttered about [him] catering to the white man, forgetting the traditions.” Contrasting sharply with the previous generation of wary, hardscrabble Chinese laborers, Kan was a multi-faceted cultural carom — articulate, polished, tall, charismatic, fluent in both English and Chinese, and community-oriented. He could deftly charm the American celebrities that would grace his establishments whilst nurturing bonds with Chinatown comrades from the Old Country. Kan epitomized the edgier, risk-taking generation of American-born upstarts.
Caen met Johnny Kan for the very first time circa 1938 at The Blue Willow Tea Room, where Kan was working as a host. Caen vividly described his first impression of Kan thusly:
A handsome young man, he cut a striking figure in long, silken robes topped by a ceremonial headdress. In educated and urbane English, he would welcome Caucasians with a deep bow, pouring out Confucianisms. And as they passed, starry-eyed, into the pretty tea room, he would chuckle to a friend “White devils velly surplised hear young Chinese boy speak so good English, eh what?”
Later in 1963, when sociologists Victor and Brett de Bary Nee interviewed an older Kan, he was described as unconventionally raffish and debonair compared to his working-class Chinatown peers:
“We are surprised at how tall he is when he walks into the room. In a dark formal suit, Johnny seats us and orders drinks for everyone. Although we know he is fifty-seven years old, in dress, manner, and speech he is completely different from the old men with who we have spent the last few weeks learning about the history of Chinatown.”
Caen and Kan would remain close friends up until Kan’s death in 1972. Over the decades, Caen acted as a real-time biographer of Kan’s. His comings-and-goings, food preferences, (Kan reportedly had a great love for Spanish food) professional achievements, personal networks and political affiliations can be glimpsed through the pages of Caen’s lively column. “Kantonese Kooker”, “the Ruby Foo of Chinatown”, “king of the Grant Ave rice fryers”, the “chow mein chopper” and “Chinatown’s goodwill ambassador” were but some of Caen’s many tongue-in-cheek monikers for the restaurateur. Despite Kan’s autodidactic mastery of Cantonese cookery and savvy promotion of his recipes’ provenance claims, Caen reported that Kan’s maiden voyage to Asia remarkably did not happen until 1958. By then age 52, Kan already had two successful restaurants under his belt.
The Cathay House
In July of 1939, a Dr. Theodore Lee approached Kan with the idea of opening a restaurant. This was not a joint venture borne out of happenstance. Lee, a dentist, and Kan were already running in the same political and business circles. Both were senior officers of the newly formed Chinese Junior Chamber of Commerce, an offshoot of the more venerable Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Having operated by then for about ten months, the Junior Chamber of Commerce had amassed 75 members, two-thirds of which were American born. Twenty-seven was the average age of the members. “Young, enthusiastic,” and “in the position of being able to speak authoritatively for young Chinese business men,” the Junior Chamber was an incubator for the well-heeled and sophisticated entrepreneurs of Chinatown.
On October 7, 1939, the Cathay House officially opened its doors for business at 718 Grant Avenue. That day’s Chronicle reported:
“Hot off the griddle is a little number called Hung-ngon gai bing. If you can’t say it, just chew on it a while — it’s one of the tasties to be served at Cathay House, a new Chinese restaurant at California and Grant. Says Manager Johnny Kan: ‘We’ll carry on the tradition of 6000 years of eating delight.’”
Shortly after the opening, Lee sold his interest in the business but quickly involved another investor, Ernest Tsang. Prior to his involvement with the Cathay House, Tsang had worked for the United States Immigration Services for thirteen years. Surprisingly, Tsang had long ties with Kan’s brother Sam. In August 1931, the Chronicle reported on the daring arrest of Chinese drug lord Gee Yong Yuet in a sting operation by Tsang and Sam:
“Having for months evaded white officers, Yuet was finally outfoxed by Gon Sam Mue and Ernest Tsang, fashionably garbed Chinese wearing the shields of the United States Treasury Department. … Gon Sam Mue and Ernest Tsang, the Federal agents, are young Chinese of San Francisco birth. They speak English with the clear-cut enunciation of the college man but beneath their Occidental polish runs the cunning and grim patience of their forefathers.”
Not only did both Tsang and Kan invest in the business, they were the restaurant’s primary employees. One would think that the connection through Sam and the pressures of launching a business would have forged a bond between the two men. That was not to be the case. As Tsang tells it, tension and resentment erupted almost immediately between him and Kan: “At all times there was nothing but friction and bickering back and forth between us.” Kan felt that Tsang’s duties ought to be relegated to banking, cash reconciliation, purchasing the liquor, and “occasionally … [helping] on the floor” of the Cathay House. Kan, on the other hand, shouldered a wider range of duties as general manager: “purchasing all supplies, setting up the system of operations, taking care of the advertising, making up the menus, making any change that had anything to do with the operation of the restaurant.” Kan may have been looking for ways to mitigate his souring relationship with Tsang. Ever the opportunist, Kan soon partnered with Don Yee in the spring of 1940 to open Chinese Kitchen, a venture said to be the first delivery service for Chinese food.
The Cathay House boasted in advertisements of having “secured private recipes from the former Imperial Palace” and of its prowess to “duplicate any dish to be found in China.” What’s more, patrons visiting the restaurant were guaranteed to see “world famous celebrities, former residents of China and a multitude of gourmets.” The high odds of a celebrity sighting at the Cathay House were not an exaggeration. Caen and other Chronicle columnists faithfully reported every rumored celebrity sighting; among them, the son of Chiang Kai Shek, violinist Fritz Kreisler, watercolor artist Dong Kingman, and jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Ivie Anderson. One desperate female fan begged Kan to let her kiss the leftover napkin used by actor Robert Montgomery. Naturally, the gracious Kan obliged.
According to Chronicle columnist Bill Simons, prawns were a hit item at the Cathay House: “One of the week’s highlights were reached while eating fried prawns at midnight at Johnny Kan’s Cathay House.” Caen was enthusiastically adamant that “nobody can fry a shrimp like Johnny Kan can.” The recipe for Dry-Fried Prawns En Shell from Kan’s 1963 cookbook Eight Immortal Flavors lends clues as to the popularity of the dish. Unshelled jumbo prawns were first lightly fried in salted vegetable oil. Once both sides of the shells were nicely browned, the prawns would be given a quick toss with a coating of soy sauce, chicken stock and cut green onions. “Once you have savored prawns cooked in this Cantonese fashion,” Kan explained, “you will appreciate why boiled prawns lack flavor and juiciness. … Here again is an example of how oil and salt, plus browning, add to the succulence which deserves to be retained in this beneficial shellfish.”
One of the most raved about features of the restaurant was actually inedible. Part participatory theater and part publicity tool, the restaurant’s glassed-in kitchen was the “realization of a long-time dream” of Kan’s. Diners could stroll right up to the plate glass windows and watch the chefs cook the very dishes they would eat. Kan also intended for the voyeurism to double as an all-seeing sanitation inspector and “encourage everybody to keep the kitchen clean.
Chop Suey? Phooey!
Kan saw to it that one dish above all would never be served at his establishments, on account that “it ain’t an authentic dish” — chop suey. Kan bemoaned, to all who would ask, that chop suey was in fact a fake dish designed for Western palates. When Kansas City mayor Harold Roe Bartle dared to order chop suey at Kan’s joint, he was promptly chastised. “Chop suey … is an imitation of Chinese food, we wouldn’t insult our customers by serving it.” To Kan, chop suey represented a hasty, bastardized version of Chinese dining. Rather than succumb to the profitability of mainstream tastes, Kan embarked on a one-man crusade to introduce an elegant, educational fine-dining experience to a non-Chinese audience:
“I realized that the reason there were no first-class restaurants in Chinatown was because no one ever bothered to study, and to teach their employees, how to run a really fine place. And nobody had tried to educate Caucasians to an appreciation of Chinese food. There were over fifty restaurants in Chinatown — papa-mama, medium-sized, juke and soup joints, tenderloin joints, and other — where waiters just slammed the dishes on the table and cared less about the customer or what he wanted to eat. So we decided to launch the first efficiently operated and most elaborate Chinese restaurant since the collapse of the old Mandarin. Our concept was to have a Ming or Tang dynasty theme for décor, a fine crew of master chefs, and a well-organized dining room crew headed by a courteous maître d’, host, hostesses, and so on.”
The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 had the effect of upending American stereotypes of both Chinese and Japanese Americans. Almost overnight, Japanese Americans became vilified as “evil spies and saboteurs” whereas the Chinese were viewed as “loyal, decent allies.” A Gallup poll found that Americans saw the Chinese as “hardworking, honest, brave, religious, intelligent, and practical” and the Japanese as “treacherous, sly, cruel, and warlike.” Confounding Americans the most were the seemingly physical similarities between the Chinese and the Japanese. Caen reported that a Chinese busboy at the Copacabana felt compelled to carry a sign that read “Me Chinaman, Me No Jap.” TIME magazine’s Washington correspondent Joseph Chiang resorted to doing the same. Kan, who according to Caen, spoke some Japanese and counted the Japanese as some of the Cathay House’s best customers experienced this war sentiment first hand. Just six days after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Kan was stopped for heavy questioning by a guard on the Bay Bridge.
1943 also saw Congress officially repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. Historians note that this was “a decision almost wholly grounded in the exigencies of World War II, as Japanese propaganda made repeated reference to Chinese exclusion from the United States in order to weaken the ties between the United States and its ally, the Republic of China.” All of these factors may have played into Kan’s decision to voluntarily enlist in the U.S. Army on July 23, 1943. Stationed at Fort Custer, Michigan with the military police, Kan was apparently a decent shot. Kan was so good a sharpshooter that he was awarded the Silver Wreath, the highest honor for expert riflemen.
Ernest Tsang would soon find out the extent of Kan’s marksmanship.
After four short months in service, Kan was honorably discharged and returned to San Francisco with the hopes of resuming his manager role at the Cathay House. Kan’s wife, Helen, had been working there in his stead. By mid-December 1943, after several weeks of bitter arguments with Tsang over the terms of his re-employment, Kan was still not up and running at the Cathay House. Festering the dispute was the fact that during Kan’s absence, Tsang had managed to modify the legal structure of the restaurant to his favor and grant himself a raise of $250 in addition to his $500 monthly salary. So badly had the relationship between the two partners deteriorated that Kan allegedly brought a gun to the restaurant and threatened to kill Tsang. Not having executed an enforceable employment contract at the start of the Cathay House, Kan found himself without much legal standing and facing dwindling funds.
It would take a decade before Kan could re-enter the restaurant business on his own terms. While he galvanized his resources, Kan bounced around between random jobs. Some time in early 1944, Kan started working at Tiedemann & McMorran, a canned goods company on 101 Mission Street. Kan’s one-year earnings tallied to approximately $2,340, a far cry from the $500 that he commanded monthly at Cathay House. In 1946, he briefly peddled milk for Borden’s Dairy Delivery Co. in Oakland. A real fishing addict, Kan whiled away his free time during those in-between years on the Napa River or the San Pablo Bay. Throughout it all, Kan kept his social calendar busy, dining at Clay Street’s Tao Yuan or the Tonga Room with the likes of Federal Bureau of Investigations chief Harry Kimball, singer Marian Anderson, National Dollar Stores founder Joe Shoong, swimming legend Hazel Cunningham, hotel tycoons, federal prosecutors, and other power brokers.
This kind of dogged networking and business acumen is likely what landed Kan the financial backing of adventitious entrepreneurs George Hall and John C. Young. Unlike the self-made Kan, Hall and Young were highly educated and had received engineering degrees in the 1930s. Despite their academic backgrounds, the two Chinese Americans found that the xenophobic attitudes of the era still precluded them from getting the jobs befitting their academic accomplishments. Instead, the two founded the Wing Nien Foods, the first domestic manufacturer of soy sauce. Although the soy sauce business did not make them especially wealthy, Hall and Young would profit handsomely from their investment in Kan’s restaurant.
A Restaurant to Call His Own
In September of 1953, Kan’s long-awaited eponymous restaurant opened at 708 Grant Avenue, steps away from the Cathay House. After climbing a short flight of stairs, customers would be greeted by softly lit interiors, which Kan had completely redecorated in black, Chinese red and gold leaf by famed furniture company, Barker Brothers.
Lunch could be had for $1.50, dinner starting at $2.75 and upward, and drinks, for as little as 50 cents. With a few days’ advance notice, customers could savor an authentic, Cantonese banquet-style meal. As a further sign of Kan’s earnest zeal to educate non-Chinese patrons, a helpful guide to ordering was featured on the insert of his menu:
Each dish listed in this menu is custom-cooked in the manner of an a la carte order. Unlike Western arrangement of the menu, Chinese food is traditionally prepared in portions to be served “Family Style.”
For a party of two people, a soup and 2 or 3 other dishes with rice are sufficient. For larger parties order a soup, and other dishes in the same number as there are people in your party, plus “one for the table.” (Example — for a party of five, order a soup, 6 dishes, and rice.)
For a party of eight or ten, dishes must be enlarged to “Double Orders,” which is twice the ordinary quantity. In this case reduce the variety in accordance to your desire.
If you are unfamiliar with Chinese food, our waiters, hosts, or hostess will be only too pleased to help you select your dinner.
To deliver just the right air of exoticness and approachability, dishes were eloquently worded in English, followed by the pinyin of the dish’s Chinese name. None of the dishes were listed in Chinese characters nor were any spelling or grammatical errors to be found. Evocative, redolent — in some cases, paragraph-long descriptions — followed each dish. The descriptions also doubled as subtle dining pointers geared towards novices. For example, in the description for Whole Peking Duck, a parenthetical gently indicates that the skin of the duck, which is barbecued until “crackling brown”, is in fact, “the delicacy.”
Tellingly, the only string of Chinese characters on the menu comprises a poem:
Gracing the front cover of the menu, the ten characters act as a lyrical manifesto; it proclaims the restaurant as a high-end establishment, where patrons are guaranteed to be in the presence of distinguished society and therefore, must at all times dress elegantly. This ideograph shows that Kan, drawing on decades of restaurant and hospitality experience, wanted to redefine the appeal of Chinese ethnicity. Kan wanted to project an image that was prestigious, upscale and marketable, a stark contrast to the kowtowing, English slurring, be-robed character Kan himself played at the Blue Willow in the 1930s. In fact, Kan enforced the dress code so strictly that he refused entry to trouser-clad female customers during the 1960s, when pants came into fashion with the women’s liberation movement. “Two years ago, most San Francisco restaurants responded with horror — and confusion — to the notion of a woman arriving in pants,” Joan Chatfield-Taylor reported in the Chronicle. “You can wear them to Los Gallos, but don’t try wearing them at the Mingei-ya. The Pavilion will let you in, but Senor Pico won’t. If it’s Chinese you like, Johnny Kan will allow you to wear them for lunch, but not for dinner. ….” Even Kan’s most avid devotee was in disbelief over Kan’s unwavering pants ban. “I couldn’t believe that my old friend, Johnny Kan, is so uptight he won’t allow pantsuited ladies into his Chinatown fressery, but danged if it isn’t true,” Caen lamented. “Doesn’t he remember the days when Grant Ave. was filled with proper Chinese ladies — all wearing pants?” Beleaguered by public outcry, Kan later rescinded The Great Pants Ban…but with conditions: “Of course we allow pantsuits. If they’re elegant … no grubby old slacks.”
The visionary in Kan had a purpose for rigidly enforcing the manner of dress, the cleanliness of his staff and the level of service at his restaurant. All of these exacting details worked to suffuse a sense of taste, sophistication and quality to Kan’s restaurant, markers that would distance his venue from the plate-slamming, indifferent, pre-World War Chinese establishments that Americans had grown accustomed to. Kan was intent on providing San Franciscans of all backgrounds with a thrilling and, above all, authentic, experience of Cantonese haute cuisine.
One had to look no further than the inscription on the back of Kan’s menu for the ultimate stamp of approval. There, Caen pronounces that Kan’s establishment is San Francisco’s long hoped-for gateway to a definitive Chinese culinary experience, one that had previously been out of reach to the uninitiated:
“From the days of the Gold Rush onward, the tempting smell of roasting pork and the bittersweet perfume of candied melon rind have filled the air along Grant Avenue, and the tourists have gathered from near and far to feast on the golden fried prawns and the pork fried rice, and attempt to solve the intricacies of the chopstick.
But for the authentic delicacies of the Chinese menu — and they are many and delightful — it has been necessary to know a Chinese family, or one of the tiny basement restaurants that cater almost exclusively to the Oriental trade.
This fortunately, is no longer the case, now that Johnny Kan has elected to preside over a first rate Chinese restaurant dedicated to all that is genuine and worthwhile in Chinese cooking. On his menu you will find Peking Duck, Melon Cup Soup, Squab Stuffed with Bird’s Nest, Gold Coin Chicken, Pressed Mandarin Duck — dishes that heretofore have been denied to all but the cognoscenti.
But a word of warning. Don’t ask for chop suey. The highest compliment to Kan’s conception of Chinese food is the absence of this most ersatz of Oriental dishes from his menu.”
The quality of the food paralleled the elegance of the restaurant. Critics raved about Kan’s Hoong Siew Bok Opp, or Barbecued Soy Sauce Squab. This $3.00 delicacy called for the parboiling of squabs in a marinade of water, soy sauce, Chinese rock sugar, dried Mandarin orange peel, cinnamon sticks, and peeled ginger root. Once drained and cooled, the squabs were then fried in oil brought to a violent boil. Ever the savvy marketer, Kan’s menu acknowledged his benefactors Hall and Young by noting that the squab was marinated with none other than Wing Nien soy sauce.
Caen, who had a pair of ivory chopsticks kept at Kan’s for his use only, greatly favored Gold Coin Chicken (Gum Cheen Gai or 金銭雞), a dish that entailed much more than slabs of chicken. Listed on Kan’s menu for $8.00, the dish called for “alternate squares of ham, chicken, and pork barbecued together [and] served en Brochette with tiny hot steamed Buns.”
But the crowning chef-d’oeuvre on Kan’s menu was Peking Duck, which Kan boldly labeled “The Piece de Resistance.” Otherwise known as “Kwa Law Opp” (掛爐鴨) or literally “hanging oven duck”, the dish launched many a think piece and garnered fans such as Oscar Peterson and Joe DiMaggio. So enamored was composer Rudolf Friml with Peking Duck, that upon being told on an impromptu visit that the dish required 24-hours advance notice, he immediately ordered one and dutifully came back the next day to relish it.
That the duck required a full day’s notice signaled the complexity of its preparation. In fact, Kan discouraged customers wanting to enjoy Peking Duck standalone by assessing an additional service charge. To Kan, the duck was the most aristocratic of poultry and occupied an “ad astra” status. His chefs painstakingly examined each duck to verify that it was of the right lineage. Once confirmed, the cavity of the duck would be rubbed with a “secret pungent spice mixture.” As Kan imparted in his cookbook , “then came the anointment, compounded partly of professional pride and partly of boiling water and diluted wheat syrup (Muk Nga Tong) to accomplish the base for the resultant crackling skin.” Once properly marinated, the ducks underwent a 24-hour curing process. Electric fans were employed to achieve the perfect room temperature to mimic “the south wind.” “In Peking, the ducks hang all night while a south wind blows on them,” Kan explained in a 1959 interview. “Here we don’t have a south wind, so … we use electric fans blowing north.” All of this meticulousness was necessary for the crispness of the skin. One food critic reassured, “If they bring a whole duck to the table and it looks as if it has been varnished with Sherwin Williams, do not show alarm. It has been coated with honey and dried.”
Adding to the dish’s sui generis was the attention and care that Kan took in sourcing the ducks. Dubbed “the Peking duck man” by Kan, Otto H. Reichardt ran a farm that housed 42,000 ducks over several acres in South San Francisco and faithfully supplied Kan’s restaurant with birds fattened on corn, barley, oats, wheat, fishmeal, scraps, alfalfa, and rice products. Having operated for twenty-five years by the mid-1950s, Reichardt claimed that his father had founded the business with “a few dozen parent stock of ducks from New England whose ancestors did come from Peking.” In this regard, Kan was not so different from the early enthusiasts of the 1970s’ farm-to-table revolution.
However, Kan scrupulously guarded his Peking duck recipe. His reasons were rather anomalous to his usual candor with just about every other dish in his repertoire. He explains in his cookbook that the complexity of preparation and the difficulty in sourcing the right quality of ducks simply rendered the recipe inscrutable to the masses:
“But as a matter of culinary conscientiousness (and we believe there is such a thing) frankly we have decided for several reasons not to attempt to give you a recipe per se. But Peking Duck is such a fascinating dish — and the more times we are privileged to relish it, the firmer we are of this opinion — that we are moved to impart some of the background concerning this great gustatory achievement whereby we hope you will understand our reasons for ‘no recipe’.”
Interpreted another way, perhaps Kan was wisely protecting his business interests by withholding his most supreme dish.
San Francisco’s Hollywood Hangout
Much like his tenure at Cathay House, Kan amassed a steady celebrity following. Beard, who went on to pen the foreword to Kan’s cookbook, religiously made Kan’s restaurant his first stop for every San Francisco sojourn. Stars, notables and a veritable list of who’s who from the 1950s and 1960s hobnobbed under Kan’s roof: Rita Hayworth, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Vietnam’s “first lady” Madame Nhu, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Beverly Hills’ restaurateur “prince” Michael Romanoff, and opera star Regina Resnik, to name a few. Kan’s doorfront was a paparazzi’s dream; it was unquestionably the spot in town. The sheer amount of star power that braved Chinatown’s undulating topography to dine at Kan’s is proof positive of his marketing savvy and personal magnetism.
One celebrity in particular forged an indelible bond with Kan — actor and comedian Danny Kaye. Kaye enjoyed Johnny’s company and food so immensely that he regularly flew his personal Lear jet to San Francisco, just for quick bite at Kan’s. His love for Kan’s style of Chinese cuisine soon turned into a serious culinary obsession. Kaye began honing his craft in Kan’s kitchen, cooking well enough to gain the respect of Kan’s staff. “I have known Danny for years,” Kan said in a Chronicle profile piece on Kaye. “He frequently visits us, coming in by the kitchen entrance, putting on a cap and taking his place alongside our chefs. He works — and that’s all he does. No jokes, no bows, no appearance out front.” To the surprise of the likes of Walter Cronkite, Kaye regularly cooked meals at Kan’s without pretense, at times for crowds numbering the hundreds. When Kaye felt his skills to be finally up to par, he remodeled his home kitchen in Los Angeles to accommodate “a huge Chinese stove [with] twin five-ring burners … designed to deliver tremendous heat over a short period of time.”
A Leader in the Chinese Community
Despite the glitterati that paraded through his restaurant and the favors that he certainly could have curried, Kan continued to serve as an unspoken alderman within the community for both Chinese and non-Chinese alike. When Chinatown policeman Louis De Martini retired in 1957 after thirty years of service, Kan threw the man a retirement party at the restaurant. Kan, who admitted that Martini had decades ago “spanked” him for some minor mischief, expressed his gratitude to the veteran with the gift of a hand-painted scroll. To honor the loyalty of George Williams, a retired shipping executive who lunched daily at Kan’s for fifteen years, Kan affixed a bronze nameplate on Williams’ favorite barstool. When a white, female customer complained to Kan about the presence of an African-American man at the Cathay House and threatened to boycott the restaurant along with her “influential friends,” Kan unblinkingly defended his open door policy. He calmly explained that the gentleman, Jimmie Lunceford, was a friend and had every right to be in the restaurant. Further, Kan was happy to do without the lady’s patronage.
Kan was a passionate supporter of local Chinese artists; his restaurant frequently served as a gathering place for writers, art collectors, and painters. On the floor above the restaurant’s main dining room, Kan maintained an art-filled, “unusual salon” for private parties. He aptly named the room “Gum Shan,” or “golden mountain,” a term historically associated with the Chinese immigrant narrative. Inside the salon, diners could enjoy a private collection of watercolor paintings detailing the history of the Chinese in the United States. Kan hired Jake Lee, an Oakland-based Chinese-American artist, for the commission. Drawing from over a year of historical research, Lee’s twelve paintings depict the first Chinese gold mining immigrants disembarking in 1849, railroad laborers, and lesser known diasporic experiences, such as Chinese vineyard laborers in Sonoma, cigar makers in San Francisco, shoemakers in Massachusetts during the 1870s, and an 1862 view of the Chinese Opera house. The paintings were mysteriously lost when Kan’s restaurant changed hands after his death in 1972. Eight of the paintings were recovered in 2010 after some serious sleuthing by San Francisco’s Chinese Historical Society of America. They are now part of the Society’s permanent collection.
Even the bar menu at Kan’s reflected a nod to Chinatown traditions. After sponsoring a contestant in the 1958 Miss Chinatown pageant, Kan was inspired to create a cocktail (similar to Brandy Alexander) in her honor. He named it “Almond Eyes.”
San Francisco’s Greatest Duck Salesman
By the 1970s, Sino-American relations were thawing. On February 21, 1972, six days after the Chinese rang in the Year of the Rat, Richard Nixon became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China since it was established in 1949. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on Americans’ curiosity over this historic event, on February 15, Kan served a pre-Chinese New Year’s banquet inspired by his guesses as to what would be on Nixon’s menu. Caen gave an intoxicating description of the lavish meal:
“From Shanghai, spiced fish. Lily flowers and straw mushrooms from Swatow. From Peking and Tientsin: vegetable roots. Snow roots, preserved cabbage and turnip buds from Szechwan. Lotus roots, sausage, turnips, bean cake, black mushrooms and snow peas from Hangchow, mixed into a dish called “Cloud Ears.” And from Fukien olive seeds, baby bamboo shoots and gingko nuts … These imported mysteries were all familiar to Kan’s master chef, Sun Pui Wong. A decade ago, he escaped from Red China.”
Kan’s instincts were spot on. Americans were immediately stricken with onset “China fever.” What curiosity Americans had shown in Chinese food before the 1970s skyrocketed overnight after Nixon’s visit. Restaurateurs across America capitalized on the China craze by opening stylish restaurants and hiring famous chefs from Hong Kong and Taiwan to crank out signature dishes from each region: “spicy Szechuanese food, Peking duck, Cantonese dim sum, Shanghai soup dumplings, and Hong Kong ten-course banquets.” Six months later, Kan himself debuted a new menu that included seven dishes from Mainland China. Caen’s cheeky rationale for the “glamorous new” additions? …“in case Kissy Kissinger happens to drop in during one of those 21-day package tours of his.”
The early 1970s saw a dramatic increase in Chinese restaurants across the country. “When we opened, I couldn’t give away a Peking Duck,” said Susan Sih, co-owner of Chicago’s Dragon Inn. “And then President Nixon went to China. He’s been the greatest salesman for Peking Duck. Now many people want it.” By then, Kan had already served for years as San Francisco’s greatest Peking duck salesman and pulled ahead of the competition. Sadly, Kan had little time to bask in the satisfaction of watching mainstream America catch up to standard of cuisine that he had pioneered.
On Thursday, December 7, 1972, Kan died of cancer at St. Francis Hospital. He was 66. The papers reported no obvious signs of Kan’s illness or ailing health in the months prior. Just one month before he died, Kan was admitted to St. Francis but was well enough to receive a visit from Kaye. Even Caen was blindsided, having reported matter-of-factly on November 14 that Kan was out of the hospital and “regaining his bounce.”
Caen was right to anoint Kan as Chinatown’s culinary ambassador. Jack Sheldon, Kan’s friend and city guidebook author, credits Kan with single-handedly engendering the world to belly-up to San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“There is one man who surely deserves the credit for making San Franciscans as well as visitors to our city anxious to dine in Chinatown. He was Chinatown’s Mr. Ambassador to the world. Not only did he bring Chinese restaurants out of the alleys and proudly onto Grant Avenue and either side of it, but he never turned down an opportunity to spread the world extolling the delights of Cantonese cookery. He traveled, he wrote, he spoke, he greeted, he welcomed. And through it all, he kept his own restaurant highly distinguished among Chinatown’s most famed. He, Johnny Kan, gave this awakening to us.”
In a touching Chronicle tribute to Kan, Caen acknowledged the void in Chinatown that Kan’s death would leave. Scores of gourmands could now enjoy a broader range of Chinese viands thanks to Kan’s indefatigable efforts to steer diners away from the dross:
“After Johnny, Chinatown cooking was never the same. Chop suey has all but disappeared and you seldom hear anyone calling for “beetle juice.” In his wake came restaurateurs who tried to emulate him, and patrons who know the infinite variety that stretches beyond chow mein. Now, at 66, he is dead, a man who worked too long and too hard for the perfection he often achieved. In Canton, they should be aware that there lived in San Francisco a man who raised their cuisine to the highest levels.”
In Kan’s own words, to misrepresent Chinese food constituted an unforgivable sin: “Chinese cooking, with a recorded history of 47 centuries, is one of the world’s oldest and is the essence of the highest art of cuisine.” From his mother’s humble Portland scullery to the gleaming, prismatic kitchen on Grant Avenue, Kan spent much of life reclaiming the inauthentic, adulterated version of Chinese food that had permeated America and elevating it to the respectability that he felt befitting of such a venerable cuisine. In the process, Kan distinguished himself from the previous generations of immigrant Chinese, who were resolved to profit from unrefined, Americanized offerings such as chop suey and chow mein. Kan himself begrudgingly portrayed a stereotyped version of Orientalism to pander to American tastes during the downturn of the 1930s. This insatiable desire to innovate must have been a gamble financially. In a critique of the inequities that drove the Chinese in the first place to hawk some semblance of their food for non-Chinese audiences, theorist Rey Chow plainly asks: how many Chinese American entrepreneurs have the luxury of resisting the steady revenue of chop suey to instead offer authentic gastronomic experiences? Kan met that reluctance time and again with early business partners who were chary of upsetting the apple cart.
Aside from weaning American appetites off of inauthentic Chinese gastronomy, Kan sought to present Americans with a new ideal of Chinese-American heritage, one that exuded suavity, intellect and clout. Firstly, Kan styled himself after such an image. Then, he worked towards curating and amplifying positive images of Chinese ethnicity within the community, whether through civic participation, promoting the works of Chinese artists, immortalizing Miss Chinatowns or honoring a beloved district policeman. Kan also gave back to the community by mentoring immigrant chefs and donating money and equipment to culinary schools.
Kan’s restaurant has since changed hands and has regrettably fallen off the gustatory trail of Chinatown. But if young San Franciscan chefs of late are feeling newly inspired to “getting people back to Chinatown,” then Johnny Kan’s legendary presence must still be keenly felt.
This essay is based on a research project I did for the Food Studies masters program at University of the Pacific. For a version with full citations, drop me a line at email@example.com.