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Far East Café Reunion – Memories and Nostalgia - Part 2 of 2

>> Part 1

As part of the Far East Café Reunion, I gladly shared with the guests the story of the colorful life of Gim Suey Chong (1922-1979), my father. He had a humble beginning in Yung Lew Gong Village in Hoyping County of China. At nine years old, he took an epic sojourn from the Port of Hong Kong to the Port of Vancouver, across continental Canada aboard the Canadian Pacific Railway, to arrive at the Port of Boston in 26 days. He lived at his father’s Imperial Restaurant in Central Square in Cambridge.

Gim Suey Chong lived with his father, Moi Chung, at Yet Quong Low Chop Suey Café (aka Nikko Low) from 1936 to 1941. He graduated from Belmont High School as a member of the Winter 1941 class. Gim learned aviation mechanic trade from Curtiss Wright Technical Institute of Glendale.

During World War II he maintained the world famous “China Clipper” and other seaplanes for Pan American Airways on Treasure Island in San Francisco. During the post World War II years, he was partner, as well as waiter, at the renown Kubla Khan Theater Restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown with the colorful Eddie Pond.

In 1950, he returned to Los Angeles to stay at an apartment above popular Little Joe's Italian American Restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown. He worked for Lockheed California Company in Burbank as inspector from 1950 to 1979. During weekends, he worked as a waiter at Far East Café for his Hoyping cousins. He married Seen Hoy Tong of Santa Barbara. They raised two sons, Raymond and Michael. He died early in 1979.

At the reunion, Henry Fong, son of Lung Fong, talked about the Nikko Low Chinese Restaurant. Dr. Roger Pating briefly spoke about the Kubla Khan. William Tom proudly described his young days as a waiter at the Far East Café. He also related about his experience as an Olympic gymnast during 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Andrew Chong remarked that Far East Café was a fun workplace for everyone. He proudly worked as a busboy for $5.00 plus $0.50. He remembered Jimmy as a fun guy to be around with in the dining room.

But we couldn't talk about the Far East Café without tasting the food. Ming Chong, the headwaiter, from Vietnam and his assistant served the China meshi efficiently. In quick order, we feasted on tofu seaweed soup, cha shu, bok choy, sweet and sour pork, chop suey, hom you, and pressed almond duck. Soy sauce and hot yellow mustard were passed around and everything was washed down with cups of hot tea. The atmosphere was filed with gaiety and camaraderie. We closed the lunch with delicious gelato from Piccomolo.

Our honored guests included:
Tony Osumi and Jenni Kuida and Maiya, their daughter.
George and Betty Wakiji
Henry Fong, son of Lung Fong, principal owner of Nikko Low Chop Suey Cafe, and Jane, his wife.
Dr. Roger Pating, son of Eddie Pond, principal owner of Kubla Khan Theater Restaurant, and Isabelle, wife.
Dr. Andrew Chong
Archie Miyatake, son of Toyo Miyatake, the famous Mazanar incarceration camp photographer, with Taketo, his wife
Bill Watanabe, Executive Director of Little Tokyo Service Center,
From Little Tokyo Historical Society, Kiku Harada, Bill Shishima, Carole Fujita, Nancy Uyemura, Joseph Janenti, Sumi Tsuno, Hector Watanabe, Yuko Aoyama Gabe, Megumi Sumita, Frances Nakamura
Bobby Okinaka and Yoko Nishimura of Discover Nikkei
Gwen Muranaka, English Editor for Rafu Shimpo, later wrote “Far East Memories” article.
Susie Ling from Chinese Historical Society of Southern California made a brief visit.

Bill Watanabe, Executive Director of Little Tokyo Service Center, strongly felt that the Far East Café had a major impact on the Issei and Nisei community. After the end of World War II, they returned from the internment camps in despair. He wrote:

Return of Japanese Americans after World War II to Little Tokyo

When World War II broke out, all of the Japanese along the west coast of the United States were forcibly removed and incarcerated in camps in the interior portions of the country. Thus, from 1942 - 1945, Little Tokyo was devoid of any Japanese or Japanese American presence, and the area was occupied by others who came to Los Angeles from the south and midwest and were in need of housing.

After World War II ended in 1945, many Japanese Americans sought to return to southern California but they found there were few places for them to live. A number of families were housed temporarily at the Koyasan Temple on First Street in Little Tokyo - including members of my own family (Bill Watanabe's family). According to some folks who recall those days, after spending years in the camps and losing most if not all of their possessions, they had little spending money. They would go to the Far East Café across the street from the Koyasan Temple and the Chinese owners of the restaurant, who were familiar with many of these returnees, allowed them to eat "on credit," asking to be paid when they were able to do so. It could truthfully be said that this kind of goodwill helped to make the Far East Café, along with its famous cheap and tasty menu, the most popular and well-known restaurant in the entire Japanese American community.

Gary Miyatake, son of Archie Miytakte, reflected on the importance of Far East Café in Little Tokyo. His poignant remarks were:

Being that my family had a business in Little Tokyo, my views are a little different. My best friend was a member of the owners. They were the Mars (Jungs). Do Mar was my best friend. With that, I met Andrew Chong who remains a very good friend.

Far East Café was a favorite among the many people who visited Little Tokyo. Many people felt comfortable in places like the Far East Café. It is very important to have places like that. There is a lack of that now days.

After lunch, we interviewed folks near the Far Bar. Bill Watanabe, Bill Shishima, Carole Fujita, George Wakiji, William Tom, Lena Ho and Ming Chong sat down with our video crew. Later in the evening at the Monterey Palace Restaurant, we interviewed five people including: Steve Situ, Pauline Chin, Gary Miyatake, Dr. Andrew Chong, and Raymond Chong. They repeated a common theme about the hard times in Little Tokyo and happy times at the Far East Café. It was a bright spot in their harsh and bleak lives during the Great Depression and after World War II.

Before the program, I gave the records of War Relocation Authority of Hanhichi and Taneo Wakiji, parents of George Wakiji. Henry Fong kindly loaned me photos of the Lung Fong, father, in front of Yet Quong Low Chop Suey Café. I gave Chinese immigration photos of Lung Fong, Hanako Nishi Fong, and Von Chung Fong (aka Henry Chong) to Henry Fong. I was able to distribute some more historical photos to other guests as well.

I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response to our “Far East Café Reunion – Memories and Nostalgia.” I was ecstatic for this special occasion. This party was a surrealistic experience for me to be among patrons and workers of the Far East Café. People were happy to relive the good old days at Far East Café, either as patron or worker. Our program enlivened their precious memories. Their level for nostalgia runs deep in their hearts.

My mind is warmed by thoughts of this chop suey eatery for Gim Suey Chong, my father. Today, after my return to Texas, I cherish and value my new memories and nostalgia of the Far East Café and its people. The Far East Café was a unique place in the heart of Little Tokyo.

Many thanks for their help to:
Clinton Crosby of Lazy Mule Productions for videotaping our program and interviews.
Kevin Chin for conducting the interviews.
Lloyd Ho for shooting photos at our program.


* If you want to share your stories and photos about the Far East Café, please contact Raymond Chong at 510.915.9810 (mobile) or (e-mail).

© 2008 Raymond Chong