Words by Diamond Yao
The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!
Today, Chinese restaurants are inescapable in the American culinary landscape.
But it was not always this way. Sylvia Cheng (1915-2022), the restaurateur, cookbook author, and humanitarian better known as Madame Wu, spent nearly four decades serving Chinese cuisine to Hollywood superstars. She is most well known as the entrepreneur who started the iconic Los Angeles fine dining restaurant Madame Wu’s Garden at a time when Asian restaurants and Asian American female entrepreneurs were exceedingly rare.
Born in 1915 and raised in Jiujiang, a city southwest of Shanghai, she learned to cook at a young age by watching the cooks employed by her wealthy family. After Japan invaded China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, her family escaped to Hong Kong. After the Second World War broke out, a friend gave her a one-way ocean liner ticket to New York City. According to Mashed, she traveled alone to the United States, a country where she knew nobody, during wartime.
Madame Wu preferred her own cooking, as she was extremely disappointed by the quality of the Cantonese food...in her new home. “Chop suey everywhere. All you see are chop suey houses,” she famously told USA Today.
After arriving in New York City, Cheng studied education at Columbia Teachers College. After graduating, she relocated to Los Angeles with her new husband for his job. It was after her marriage to King Yan Wu, an engineer, that she became known as Madame Wu. In California, she settled into the life of a sophisticated housewife and hostess who eventually learned how to prepare a full Chinese dinner for her family in under an hour. Madame Wu preferred her own cooking, as she was extremely disappointed by the quality of the Cantonese food—then the predominant Chinese cuisine in Southern California—in her new home. “Chop suey everywhere. All you see are chop suey houses,” she famously told USA Today.
That experience inspired her to open her own restaurant. Her husband was skeptical at first of her plans, but she did not let that stop her. A savvy businesswoman, Madame Wu sought the support of her church and of her friend Robert E. Kintner, who was the NBC president of the time, to drum up publicity for her new venture prior to the grand opening. She transformed 2628 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica into a 50-seat restaurant. When Madame Wu’s Garden opened its doors in 1959, it immediately became the hottest fine dining restaurant in town. She sold out the first night and had people lining up at the door for the next six months.
Madame Wu ran every part of the restaurant like a boss—she bought food, led the kitchen, and answered phones for take-out orders.
Hollywood A-listers loved eating at Madame Wu’s. Many had their own favorite dishes—Peking Duck for Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco, bird's nest soup for Mae West, and Wu’s special beef made with steak, onions, and oyster sauce for Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow. She even created a now-iconic chicken salad with lettuce and cabbage, wonton strips, and tossed with peanuts or sesame dressing for Cary Grant. Madame Wu ran every part of the restaurant like a boss—she bought food, led the kitchen, and answered phones for take-out orders. She would greet every dinner guest dressed in a cheongsam with her hair in an elegant up-do.
In January 1968, Madame Wu's Garden moved to 2201 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. The new location, which could seat more than 300 people, featured pagoda-style decor with jade statues, a stone waterfall, and a koi-filled fountain. The menu got revamped and featured some 200 dishes adapted to American tastes. In the 1970s, Madame Wu became a national celebrity. She published cookbooks, appeared on cooking shows, and got involved in humanitarian work.
The entrepreneur closed her restaurant in 1998, after changing tastes slowed down business. But she immediately regretted the decision and opened Madame Wu’s Asian Bistro & Sushi. Although the new restaurant did not last, affection for her never faltered. When she turned 100, her old dinner guests rented out a hotel ballroom for the celebrations.
Madame Wu died on Sept. 19, at the age of 106. She is survived by her two sons and her grandchildren.
Published on October 11, 2022