Events are conspiring to hurtle me into my distant past, to my childhood years in Oakland’s Chinatown, where my sisters, brothers and I served time at our restaurant, the New Eastern Café.
First, there was the closing of the Silver Dragon, an institution among restaurants in Chinatown; one of the first ones built for banquets and special events. Since 1974, when it settled in at Ninth and Webster Streets, it was a gathering place for the community, whether it was a young couple on a date or a family hosting a red egg and ginger party or a wedding banquet.
It’s being replaced by Asian Health Services, and that organization had a fundraising dinner gala the other night at the nearby Marriott, with 600 people in attendance. The featured entertainment was a tribute to the Chee family, the clan behind the Dragon.
Sherry Hu, the MC for the event, asked me to speak as part of the tribute, and, although I didn’t have the time, I made time.
You see, my family’s restaurant was sold, in 1954, to the Chees, who turned it into the first Silver Dragon. I was nine years old then, but my time at 710 Webster Street helped shape my life.
As I told the audience at the Marriott, the title of my memoirs, The Rice Room, is about a space in the back of that restaurant. “We were all in the rice room,” I said, “where rice, soy sauce and children were stored.
I continued, “This is where, while my parents were cooking and running a restaurant, I grew up. This is where I listened to the radio and fell in love with the medium, and began to dream that one day I’d be on the radio. It’s where I began to read, and thought that, one day, I might write, and that my efforts might be printed, the way I saw them published in the Oakland Tribune.” (I got into the paper’s kids’ section with drawings and stories a few times.)
This was our home away from home, until our parents sold it to Wah Quon Chee and his wife, Yuk Chun Chee. My parents had found declining...