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.
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Cecilia Chiang (1920-2020), the restaurateur and chef behind the iconic San Francisco restaurant The Mandarin, spent more than four decades shaping the Chinese American food landscape. She fought sexism, racism, and anti-immigration sentiments at a time when immigrant Asian female entrepreneurs were extremely rare to build a multimillion dollar restaurant empire.
Born in 1920 to a wealthy Shanghainese family in Wuxi, Chiang grew up enjoying a great variety of dishes cooked by the family’s two full-time chefs, as one was from Northern China and the other was from Southern China. When she was 4, her family moved into a 52-room converted Ming dynasty-era mansion in Beijing. However, in 1937, her privileged youth became marred by the Second Sino-Japanese War. Chiang spent the next few years fleeing to several Chinese cities, hiding from Japanese war planes, and surviving robberies by Japanese soldiers. One of the few bright spots during that time was her marriage to Chiang Liang, a former economics professor. After the war, the couple settled in Shanghai and had a son, Philip, and a daughter, Mary. But trouble was never far away. Amidst political instability during the Chinese Communist Revolution, the young family took the last plane out of Shanghai in 1949 and settled in Tokyo—leaving their son behind, as there were only three tickets available. They would be reunited two years later.
It was in Japan that Chiang had her first experience working in hospitality. She opened Forbidden City, a 250-seat Chinese restaurant that served traditional banquet food, with other relatives who had also escaped. The restaurant was a hit with local Chinese and Americans.
She wanted to introduce the Beijing cuisine she grew up with to the American public, who at the time had limited exposure to Chinese food outside of an Americanized version of Cantonese cuisine.
In 1959, Chiang went to San Francisco to visit her recently widowed sister. She initially only planned to stay briefly to support her sibling emotionally. But after helping some friends successfully negotiate a $26,000 restaurant lease, they backed out of the project and ended up sticking her with the space. Undeterred by that setback, she used the lease at 2209 Polk St. to open The Mandarin in 1961. She wanted to introduce the Beijing cuisine she grew up with to the American public, who at the time had limited exposure to Chinese food outside of an Americanized version of Cantonese cuisine. Her recipes were based on her childhood memories of dishes cooked by classically trained Chinese chefs. She hired a couple from Shandong to cook, and ran everything else by herself—including food prep, shopping, and dishwashing.
At first, her restaurant was unsuccessful and attracted few customers. Chiang also struggled to get a restaurant license to serve cocktails because she was not a permanent resident. The predominantly male Chinese American restaurant industry did not think she would last long. “People predicted that I would close in less than a hundred days,” Chiang said in an interview with Saveur, “because I didn't speak Cantonese, my English was not that great, and I was a woman. But I told them: ‘You guys just watch me. I’m going to do it. And I'm going to do it very well.’”
And soon enough, she proved her naysayers wrong. After journalist Herb Caen started raving about The Mandarin in his newspaper column, tourists, dignitaries, and celebrities like Mae West and John Lennon would flock to The Mandarin. The overnight success would persuade Chiang to stay in the United States. Her two children later joined her in San Francisco and she separated from her husband, who remained in Japan.
“People predicted that I would close in less than a hundred days...But I told them: ‘You guys just watch me. I’m going to do it. And I'm going to do it very well.’”
By 1967, The Mandarin was so successful that it had to move to Ghirardelli Square. Chiang upgraded from a 55-seat establishment to a 300-seat establishment, decorated in the style of the aristocratic Beijing home she grew up in. Her menu featured dishes new to the American palate, such as her own Chinese grill (kao rou), beggar’s chicken, smoked tea duck, Peking Duck, and squab in lettuce cups. Chiang was also one of the first Chinese restaurateurs to offer a full menu of fine wines and gave extremely popular cooking classes where Julia Child and James Beard were students.
Chiang opened a second Mandarin location in Beverly Hills in 1975. When the San Francisco Culinary Workers’ Union called her restaurant a “sweatshop,” she sued them for libel and won in the late 1970s. She handed control of the restaurant to her son in the 1980s.
She sold her restaurant in 1991 and it closed in 2006. In 2013, she was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award for lifetime achievement. Her work would be featured in many documentaries throughout the 2010s.
Chiang died at her San Francisco home at the age of 100 in 2020.
She is survived by her two children. Her son Philip cofounded P.F. Chang’s in 1993. The son of one of her chefs, Andrew Cherng, co-founded Panda Express.
Published on November 29, 2022