Far East Cafe closing: Native Chinese San Franciscans share affectionate memories

Linda Shen, left, and David Lei held their wedding at the Far East in 1974. (Courtesy photo)

The century-old landmark restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown, the Far East Cafe, will close at the end of 2020. Though the owner still has a glimmer of hope of returning sometime in 2021, the community less optimistic is saddened by the news.

An outpouring of affectionate memories from native San Franciscans about the Far East follows, revealing how deeply this popular banquet space was connected with the City’s Chinese American culture.

Decades ago, Chinatown had a number of restaurants that could single-handedly accommodate banquet settings for hundreds, if not over a thousand. Now, only two remain, one being the Far East.

Long-time Chinatown activist and former president of the Rotary Club of Chinatown Vanita Louie 楊文姬, has both attended and hosted events at the Far East, whether “it be a red egg party celebrating a birth, a wedding banquet, a benevolent annual association dinner at Chinese New Year, or assisting a worthy non-profit to help raise some needed funds.”

“This landmark legacy banquet restaurant will be truly missed if the City, the owners, and the community leaders let it disappear,” Louie told the World Journal.

Julie Soo 蘇榮麗, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, remembers a vibrant and festive Chinatown in the 70s to 90s because of the nonstop banquets events.

“Four Seas, Empress of China, and Far East were the go-to restaurants for big parties,” Soo recalled, noting that even if she forgot which restaurant her event or party was being held, she would just go from one place to the next, then inevitably she would run into friends or make rounds at multiple parties.

According to Soo, the tight family and community relationships fostered by the social gatherings in those banquet restaurants contributed to a stronger community, influencing generations of Chinese Americans to carry on the tradition.

“I hope that for the sake of maintaining our culture that we can rebuild (the Far East) after the pandemic,” she said.

The Lee family association 2020 spring party at the Far East. (Photo: Han Li)

Another native San Franciscan, Myron Lee 李永明, called the Far East his “home.”

“I’ve been there more than 100 times,” he said. “Going to a banquet at the Far East is like going home.”

Lee began dining in Far East’s second-floor banquet room as a child because his father held senior roles at various Chinatown family and benevolent associations. He describes the Far East as the “dining room” for Chinatown, serving Chinese chicken salad, honey walnut shrimp, and other Cantonese-style dishes.

Others recalled celebrating their most cherished moments at the Far East.

In 1974, David Lei 李萱頤 and Miss Chinatown beauty queen Linda Shen 沈元元 held their wedding reception at the Far East. Lei, who later became a Chinese American culture expert and is a former board member of the Asian Art Museum, said the reception had 700 guests and a dragon parade down Grant Avenue.

“I ate there quite often,” Lei said, highlighting the dishes of paper-wrapped chicken, the hand-pulled chicken salad, the “pressed duck,” a sweet and sour “tourist dish,” and the shark fin soup which was “the best in Chinatown”.

But in his youthful recollection, the Far East had a titillating atmosphere with dining booths that were once supplied with curtains to maintain guests’ privacy, making the Far East a dating hotspot for passionate lovers.

“Once you pull the curtains, the waiters will not come until you ring the bell. This was where you brought your girlfriend to have privacy — like renting a cheap hotel for the price of a meal,” Lei said.

“We old-timers did pretty well without smartphones and internet — great fun growing up in old Chinatown.”

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The Chinese language version of the story appeared on the World Journal on December 25, 2020.

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My personal favorite Far East cuisine:

Steamed whole fish.

Usually, you will be asked to put on flowers at a Far East event.

04/29/2018

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The tale of the Far East booth & curtain follow-up:

I was told that the Far East took away the curtains from the booths because too many couples were making out and the turnover of the tables was too slow.

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Bilingual journalist. San Francisco-based.