Flavor and Fortune Summer 2002
by Harley Spiller
The Ineffable Bruce Ho: Restaurateur
In the blazing hot Summer of 2002 I enjoyed several extended conversations about Chinese restaurants with a well-known innovator in the field, Mr. Bruce Ho. We met at his apartment on 57th street, just a stone's throw from his erstwhile and eponymous establishment, Bruce Ho's Four Seas, 116 East 57th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, Plaza3-2610. The address used to house East Horizon, the first Cantonese restaurant on 57th Street, but today the original bronze mirrored façade fronts a Starbucks.
Mr. Ho met me at the 10th floor elevator with a firm handshake and an ingratiating welcome. We chatted about the weather as we walked together to his apartment. Immediately I felt at home in the spacious midtown aerie filled with bronze, silk, mother of pearl and wood Chinese antiquities. I was to learn a lot about Mr. Ho's complicated life, the many ups and downs, and the names and places that weave in and out of nine different decades. Unlike other men in the Ho family, Bruce resisted life's many temptations, always walking the straight and narrow. "I want people to know me. I have had a tough life. I worked hard. I made myself. I'm still working hard," he offered, easing into the interview.
The ochre- and cinnabar-colored apartment features many framed pictures. My host pointed out autographed photographs of he and his family enjoying themselves at swanky restaurants with people like dancer Ginger Rogers and New York Mayor Abe Beame. From time to time during the interviews, Bruce's wife Polly would illustrate his tales with photos, menus and other memorabilia from a crowded hall closet.
Ho directed me to the mantel-place where, next to porcelain statues of Chinese gods, leans a framed menu from Port Arthur Restaurant, which his family once owned. Nearby hang two large frames filled with colored reproductions of trading and post cards dating back to the turn of the previous century. These keepsakes are a gift of Dr. Jack Tchen, a professor at New York University, and specialist in the lives of Chinese people in the Americas.
The old advertisements depict buildings and scenes from the early and formative Chinatown enterprises of Mr. Ho's grandfather, Soy Kee, which means nice and peaceful person. Soy Kee first came to San Francisco Chinatown and then to New York, around the 1880s. He was attracted, like other pioneering Chinese emigrants of the time, by the promise of the "Golden Mountain," mainland China's nickname for the deceptively lucrative new world. Soy Kee lived a "bachelor" lifestyle - strict exclusion laws prohibited most women, even wives, from entering the U.S.
Ho's grandfather must have instilled eponymity in Bruce. He started Soy Kee Company, an import-export emporium, and later his son, Bruce's father, acquired Port Arthur Restaurant from its founder, Cho Gum Fai. Grandfather Ho opened Soy Kee at the corner of Pell and Mott. Later he moved Soy Kee to a former horse stable, on the first floor of 7 & 9 Mott Street - downstairs (and eventually down a new-fangled escalator the Ho's installed) from the 2nd and 3rd floor Port Arthur restaurant and bar. Both Port Arthur and Soy Kee were conveniently located near the elevated train escalator at Chatham Square and the Worth Street subway station. One postcard of Soy Kee depicts well-heeled gents in an elegant "Reception Room," waiting to be shown the porcelain, silk, wood and curios that were highly prized in the new world. Around 1923 or 24, a second Soy Kee opened on 5th Avenue in what is now the Dunhill Building. It stayed in operation for about a decade.
Postcards show that Port Arthur had partitions in the luxurious main dining room to create East and West Halls for banquets and private parties of all sizes. There was a special room set aside for a bride's traditional change into four different red dresses for different parts of the reception. There were also four four-top tables on the second floor balcony overlooking Mott Street. The restaurant had elegant and expensive teak and mahogany tables with mother-of-pearl and marble inlay. There were ostentatious silk lanterns festooned with dragons holding red tassels in their fangs. Gorgeous gilded carvings, some with six-inch deep relief, covered every conceivable surface. Ho's father eventually sold 7 & 9 Mott Street, but the third floor Port Arthur dining room is still there, supposedly intact.
Grandfather's success enabled him to bring family members from China - an older sister moved her family to San Francisco at first, but Jack and his bride Kam See ("see" means Mrs.) came directly to New York City. Jack attended New York University business school, and went to work at Soy Kee. Jack's older sister married Lee Jee Mun, who became head of the New York On Leong Tong Association and eventually chairman of On Leong for all the major Chinese cities of the U.S.
Bruce, the middle of Jack and Kam Su's three children, was born in 1926 in Suffolk County's village of Bayshore, Long Island. Kam See was 27, and 28-year old Jack's occupation was listed on the birth certificate as "merchant." Their son's Chinese name, Kai (formal salutation) Hoy (open the door) was surely prescient for the baby maitre d' to be. A Catholic sister gave him the name Bruce in post-war English school, simply because it sounded beautiful. Kam See and Jack proudly attached a favorite baby picture of Kai Hoy to form 430 - his U.S. citizenship papers.
When Bruce was two years old his family moved back to China, to Shanghai. A major reason they moved was because of the success of Soy Kee's porcelain import business, and Jack's desire to monitor work at the factories in China. He had learned that importing goods from China was pretty good business, but exporting U.S. goods to China was not as successful.
Baby Bruce and two siblings settled with his mother in Shanghai. By the time he was four years old, the Japanese had come to occupy the port city. As a toddler, Bruce and his rather well off family were forced to witness Japanese soldiers make one of their female staffers strip and be mutilated. They cut off the cook's ear. Such terrifying war experiences taught Ho that "you have no right to speak without a gun, but if you have a gun you become too ambitious." Several times before he was out of his teen years, Bruce feigned death when attacked with a bayonet. Bruce is reflective but neither bitter nor judgmental, having long ago adopted the attitude that "people can never be sure how they will react in a given situation."
Around 1930, China's Number 9 army was commanded by General Choy Ting Guy who defeated the Japanese. Nonetheless, Ho's mom knew that sooner or later there would be more trouble, so they "went down to Canton" where young Bruce finished grammar school. When the Japanese arrived in Canton, his family moved again, northwards, where he finished high school and enrolled in officer training school.
Ho returned to New York on December 8, 1949 to work in the family business but by the end of WWII, Soy Kee was already gone." His father went back to China, and married many concubines, as was customary in the olden days. Two of Bruce's uncles, John and Charlie, attended West Point, and a third kid brother, George, got in to Virginia Military Institute because he was taller. Charlie and George lived the playboy life in the U.S. and eventually returned to China and got married.
Bruce's Uncle John stayed on Mott Street to work in the family business. Port Arthur was awarded Chinatown's first liquor license, and made good use of it. Mr. Ho said getting the first license was nothing special, they just "happened to be the first." The bar was in the back of the restaurant but in later years bars needed to be up front and visible from the front window to ensure no illegal operations were occurring.
Along with the bartender Sidney Dung John built up the nightlife to the point where the elite of Chinatown society came to drink at Port Arthur's second-floor bar every night of the week. It didn't hurt that Uncle John's brother-in-law was the "Mayor of Chinatown," "Shavey" Lee." Despite such social and political standing, the high life got the better of John, who drank himself to death.
Port Arthur's drink menus of the 1940s confirm Mr. Ho's recollections that Uncle John's bar was truly a high-class place to see and be seen. In addition to an international array of brandies, whiskies and gins, there are mixed drinks named Automobile Cocktail, Horse's Neck, Sherry Flip, even a Morning Cocktail.
The lengthy wine list is startlingly superb for a Chinese restaurant. More than 30 wines included red and white Chinese rice wines, three German Rhine wines, Hochheimer, Laubenheimer and Neirstener, but only two Italian wines, Bosca Red and Chianti. French grape was prized. Three-star Cognacs from Hennessy and Martell joined a Napoleon Fine Champagne cognac, and top-shelf champagnes included Clicquot White Label, Pommery & Greno Sec, G.H. Mumm and Co. Extra Dry, Veuve Clicquot, Metropole Red Top, Louis Roederer, and Perrier Jouet Brut, Blue Top for around $6 a quart or $3 a pint, each. Great Western and Gold Seal were domestic bubblies for about half the price. The Bordeaux region was obviously a favorite with clarets from Medoc, St. Julien and Chateau Pontet Canet, even a dessert Sauterne and Haut Sauterne. Burgundies hailed from Macon, Pommard, Beaune -- the most expensive one was something called Splendid Rose Pink.
Port Arthur served more different beers and ales than one usually sees on Chinese menus from any period, including today. In addition to ten-cent glasses of tap suds, there was Pabst Milwaukee for twenty cents and their better-known Blue Ribbon, which was tied at thirty cents with Budweiser Anheuser-Busch for the priciest beer. It was only twenty cents for imported British bottles of Guinness Stout or both White Label and Dogs Head from Bass. This was obviously a world class international high quality bar that, of course, had "Imported and Domestic Cigars and Cigarettes Always on Hand."
The 1943 Port Arthur bills of fare were printed in red and black on heavy card stock. Complex cover graphics include the Chinese characters for Liu Sun, the Chinese name for the Port Arthur peninsula, site of the Boxer Rebellion. There are two other characters that tell a lot about what's important to the Ho family: Gung Yin, or "respectful welcome." The name Port Arthur in English was done in now-cliché brushstroke letters meant to imitate Chinese calligraphy. Old-fashioned line drawings of clouds, which can symbolize wealth, run up and down the sides, and there is a dragon, two phoenixes and other mythical creatures.
There is one other Chinese character on the cover of the Port Arthur menu, the symmetrical Fa Long or "method of turning." It's repeated four times as a decorative motif, once in each direction. The ancient symbol illustrates a principal tenet of Buddhism, that life is ever-turning, that even in death there is reincarnation. Chinese people would know from the symbol that Liu Sun served vegetarian food befitting Buddhists. Today its part of the name of the Chinese religious group Fa Long Gung, but most Westerners wouldn't have recognized the symbol until the 1940s - it's the swastika.
Port Arthur's balcony and third-floor served food that was as good if not better than what was available in China, Polly reports. The head chef was Siu Tong and thoughts of his chicken stuffed with sticky rice and Chinese meats makes her pine for a style of regal Cantonese cookery that has all but vanished.
Inside the handsome menu are listed no less than 30 variations of Chop Suey, including plain Chop Suey for twenty cents and less common varieties like Mutton and Almond Chicken Chop Suey. "Special Port Arthur Duck Chop Suey, Served for Two" was $2.00. There were soups, chicken and seafood dishes, omelettes, fried rice, cold dishes, sandwiches and side dishes. Rice was "5 Cents Per Bowl Additional." Tea lovers had a choice of Oolong and the following varieties, all of which are unfamiliar to me: Loong Sue, Suey Sinn, Lin Som, Loong Jan and Won Moo.
Quite a few deserts were listed, in small columns headed "Preserves" (bottled fruits and ice cream); "Crystallized" ("golden limes" and "gingers"); "Cakes and Nuts" ("Almond Cake, Rice Cake, Li Chee Nuts"); and "Candies," a column which used the Latin name for sesame, "Sesamum."
After the War, Mr. Ho started college at New York University but did not have enough money so he switched to City College, working his way from non matriculated to matriculated student, and lettering in freestyle for the swim team. He recounts, "Again, I received ROTC in this country. The reason why I say that, "again," is because previously I received reserve officers' training in China. I was born in the U.S., an American citizen, but the reason I had to go into the Chinese army was because Chinese were starving, without any support from the U.S., and the only way you can do it right: have a gun in hand." The Ho family was fairly well off at this time and many of his colleagues at East South Officer Training School in Fujian were likeminded governor's and commander's sons, just itching to go into the army. Mr. Ho graduated an officer, was elevated to Company Commander around 1945, and thus became a World War II veteran in China.
In the early 50s, Bruce worked a variety of jobs, notably at Ruby Foo's on 52nd Street and Broadway, smack in the middle of the Great White Way. Ruby Foo's fun and successful style is still being copied today - she first opened in Boston and then New York, followed by Montreal and a small place in Miami much later. It's believed that the Italian underworld helped Ruby come to New York.
Around 1954, Mr. Ho contracted tuberculosis and couldn't finish school. "I could only read five pages of textbook in an hour. The City health department wanted to send me to a sanitarium but I refused. Finally I got rid of it and went to work in a couple of engineering firms, Nathan Straus, Duparquet, and Richard Roth" he remembered.
Closing in on the age of 30, Mr. Ho wanted to settle down so he went to work at "a place at 994 Second Avenue at 52nd Street by the name of Bill Chan's Gold Coin." The midtown Manhattan eatery had opened on September 23, 1953 and catered to an exclusive clientele. It steadily gained fame as one of the most exclusive Cantonese restaurants. Gorilla-tough Chan (1915-1995) had been recruited for St. John's University's basketball team, he never attended school because doctors found a problem with his heart. He went into restaurant work, and it was in the legendary second-floor Port Arthur bar, under John and Sidney's tutelage, that Bill Chan learned how to bartend.
Ho worked for Chan for a decade when a new Gold Coin opened on Second Avenue and 45th Street in 1964, providing an initial spark for the mid-60s vogue for upscale Chinese and Polynesian restaurants focused more on drinks and atmosphere than food. By then Ho had "become a big boy with a few dollars" so he struck out with a partner to open House of Mah Jong on Jericho Turnpike in Syosset, Long Island. "We did very well. There was a big garden and a couple of acres. We called it House of Mah Jong to make sure they knew it was a Chinese restaurant. We mostly attracted Jewish people [they had "few Chinese customers"], and Jewish people know mah jong has got to be Chinese.
"I opened Bruce Ho's Four Seas on April 30, 1964 and becoming immediate that I got most of the very good high clientele, very good people." Comedian Alan King, a friend and Manhasset regular, followed Bruce to Manhattan." King, who wrote a book called "Help! I'm A Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery," succeeded Frank Sinatra as head of the Friars Club, where Bruce became a member. It's at the Friars Club where Ho developed an amusing chopstick routine to entertain mainly Occidental patrons like Ginger Rogers. Burt Bacharach, a newspaper man who loved assorted seafood Cantonese, came to Four Seas and so did Burt Junior, the famous composer/musician, and his then-wife, the actress Angie Dickinson (who likes spicy dishes). Dudley Moore and Susan Anton were regulars who unfailingly ordered lobster rolls, spare ribs and sizzling pork wor ba. Gossip columnist Cindy and her husband, comedian Joey Adams, are Chinese food connoisseurs who regularly opted for black bean sauces dishes and dim sum. Designer Calvin Klein loved ribs and lobster fried rice while Studio 54 impresario Steve Rubell usually rushed in and out for a plate of mixed appetizers.
Ho did not have a staff photographer, but welcomed independent photographers looking to sell souvenir portraits to his patrons. Dignitaries from all walks of life ate at Bruce's, "we even had Roosevelt, Junior come in. Everyone just looked - no one was allowed to talk to him. Also, as you see [he showed a photograph], Donald Trump's father, and when we sit on the table with Holland Steel, the people who did all the big buildings and structures, mixing steel. Mr Jack Holland, a very good friend of mine, also the Fisher brothers, Zachary, Martin, and Larry." His customers were truly top-level. Ho is a discreet repository of Page 6-type info, such as the news that publicity and runway model-loving realtor Donald Trump likes to eat exceedingly simple food.
"I was a maitre d' at the Gold Coin. I learned the business from there. I already learned the business from Port Arthur, but then I come uptown, and I can come because I'm American born, and I'm a little taller, at that time 5'9", and a little slimmer, not like today with a big belly, and I greet people, ACCORDINGLY, and I become very good at receiving. You have to know your people. Who's taking out all the beautiful girls? When he comes here I know he likes to party! Some like to be treated like regal ladies. Then you're talking about the Attorney General of the United States who might come with some underworld people. I know where they want to sit [Ho never had enough capital to build an exclusive private room]. This is something that you have to know. You've got different atmospheres. You've got to know how to sit them. You've got to know how to deal with them."
In order to maintain decorum, sometimes Mr. Ho had to refuse entry. Heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis showed up one night at the Gold Coin with a party of 6 and no reservation. They had to go elsewhere. A famous couple like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme could get in without reservations, but not if they were improperly dressed. Gentlemen simply had to wear jacket and tie and Mr. Ho did not accept excuses like "but we just returned from the beach."
With a seating capacity limited to 80, Chan's spot became an exclusive restaurant and "everyone really wants to get in so much, as often as possible, and they really have to call up for a reservation to get in there. I worked there for 10 years then I thought that I'm ready. That's how I opened Four Seas."
Mr. Ho had longed for his own restaurant and he set up a menu of exclusive Cantonese food but would cook whatever customers asked for. The first cook.was Stanley Seid. Bruce said Seid was "more or less Jewish," Phyllis remembers how "Uncle" Stanley would cook for her with the "tiniest pinch of salt with the hugest spoon." Seid made a marinated pan-fried shrimp like none other - "even Bill Hong envies the recipe." Hong's namesake Cantonese spot, a favorite of Michael Jackson (shrimp and broccoli) and Mayor Giuliani, persists on East 56th Street. Polly wooed Seid from Trader Vic.
Ruby Foo's head cook Lau Wai, a my-way-or-the-highway man from Toishan, Guangdong, asked Bruce for a job. Lau Wai had learned cooking in Chinatown and was hired for his exactitude. He stayed as second cook until Four Seas closed in 1998. When Four Seas was finally being dismantled, Bruce found some long-forgotten bottles of snake heart. He'd given the workers some of the prized and potent tonic as a gift back in the 60s and gave some again to Stanley. They both felt it an emotional moment. Stanley had never worked for anyone longer than six months before he stayed with the Ho family for 30-plus years.
Cantonese Chow Mein was very popular, but no one was eating grittier Chinese fare like fish heads or chicken feet, which were reserved for staff meals. I asked if a Chinese restaurateur could successfully introduce Westerners to authentic Chinese fare such as the gummy ovoid cakes of rice sautéed with julienned meats and pickled vegetables called Shanghai chow ning goa. All Ho said was " where'd you learn all that?"
Diners and revelers flocked to Bruce Ho's Four Seas for both its cuisine and hospitable ambiance. Mr. Ho explained the critical factor of "understanding people, greeting people. See what they like and understand them." People might be reluctant to spend a certain amount of money on dinner, but "if they like the service, fine." He also stressed the importance of the maitre d'hôtel passing this knowledge to the captains and so on, all the way to the bus staff. "Instruct the people next to you, and they're gonna pass it down. "Remember what customers like," he said, and I interjected that it always feels good when a waiter remembers me and can bring my favorite tea without having to ask. He said "that's right, that's right. Exactly that way and no two ways about it."
I asked why Chinese food, an older and arguably more complex cuisine than French fare, can't command bistro prices. "It's a way of living," he replied, "when people go for Chinese food or French food, they really don't know what its all about. Once they taste it a little bit they say "oh that's very good. They're not a connoisseur. They say that just for compromise, oh it's very good, very tasty" but the discussion rarely gets deeper than that. "Also they want to show how intelligent they are." So you have conversations that begin with the food and wander into discussions of other topics, and "then you get lost somewhere."
Wine is becoming more and more popular with Chinese food today, the scion of Port Arthur's infamous bar noted. High standards in the kitchen were not enough and the Ho family always knew what side their bread was buttered on. All of their restaurants had long listings for specialty alcohols. Even early Port Arthur menus scream "ATTENTION is called to our wine list" in bold red lettering.
"About 25 years ago, after Four Seas was open for five or ten years, I kept increasing and stocking the wine list," Ho said. "At that time my bartender said 'who's gonna eat Chinese food and think about wine?' And I said 'look, you never know … if you try to set up a French style, high scale place where people enjoy slowly the taste of the food and people have a little bit of wine, particularly red wine, or if they have fish, white, particularly cabernet, any good brands, not particular, from Italy, anything, just a good brand, or a California popular name, and people will get it. Encourage people to taste foods and wine. Wine is not as strong as alcohol. And drinks over 12% alchohol have more tax. You take one ounce of vodka or scotch and you feel it, but one glass of wine is only 12%. People enjoy wine on the table more for food."
"So now a couple of restaurants have good wine, like Henry Leung's Evergreen. I know where he comes from a long, long time ago. He was just one of the street boys. Smart guy, pairing wines with Chinese dishes. Very popular. Now he's at 69th Street on First Avenue. He was on 34th Street and 2nd Avenue some twenty or thirty years ago, and then he and a friend opened up Chiam at 48th and 3rd Avenue but Chinatown tough guys took over financially. Then he went away for a while and then he come back with Evergreen."
In 1967, with Polly's coaching and tropical drinks expertise, Bruce opened another Long Island restaurant, Bruce Ho's Chi-Am, 1506 Northern Boulevard, in Manhasset - it stayed in business for a decade. In the 1960s, well after Ho had returned from China, he brought over a new kid step-brother, Gene Ho, Bruce's third step-mother's son. The quick and nimble little boy had great hands and grew into a Northeastern U.S. regional champion in gymnastics, particularly the pommel horse and still rings.
When Gene had summer break from school he would work at Chi-Am, which drew a big crowd from nearby Belmont Racetrack. Polly pulled out a photo of actor Telly Savalas surrounded by a dozen jockeys and Bruce recalled names like Shoemaker, Cordero, Turcotte, Maple, Arcaro. "The whole bunch" were patrons, he said, even Robin Smith, a 20-something female jockey who married Fred Astaire when he was 70-something. One day Bruce recounts that a horse trainer spotted Gene in the restaurant. He could see that the lad was deceptively strong for his scant 95 pounds, so he teased, "how come you're so small and your brother's so big? What can you do?" Mr. Ho laughed, proudly reporting that this was the start of Gene's very successful career as a jockey.
Conversation then turned to Richard Mei's King Dragon, another upscale Manhattan ricery, with quilted leather banquettes and white-glove service on 3rd Avenue near 73rd Street. Asked to confirm a rumor that Mei lost his entire restaurant in a polker game, Ho explained, "Richard Mei is a long story."
"One day before I started working at Gold Coin, I was standing on a corner in Chinatown, waiting for friends to go to Coney Island. At that time you stayed overnight in Coney, just on the beach, a whole bunch of Chinatown guy all staying on the beach. Seven or ten people and everyone got to eat and drink on the beach. Anyways, I was waiting on the street when this guy, Dong Yuen Hing, comes along and says, 'what are you doing here, and then I remembered him from the summertime when I used to work in Long Beach and they owned a place out there. I said 'I'm going to swim.' 'Well, he said, 'I opened a restaurant - wanna come help me?' I said 'ok, fine.' - if I can raise some money why not. At that time my apartment was only $23 a month."
"That place was called East Sea (Tung Hoy) in Larchmont at the Shopping Center. They had three or four places, East Sea, West Sea … now they had a place in Brooklyn and he was OK running a Chop Suey place but he really was green and didn't know anything about the sophisticated end of the restaurant business. They had no menu, and the place was opening up that day. He didn't know how to conduct himself, couldn't section out the stations for the waiters, the captain wasn't trained, nobody. I was new and just part-time so I didn't say anything. Finally they learned I can speak English a little bit and they knew I can write. They said 'Hey Bruce, (they spoke Chinese to me) - what can we do? We open up at 5 o'clock.' 'You got a mimeograph machine, I asked' 'I've got one in Brooklyn but this is Larchmont, a one-hour drive.' 'I said if you get somebody get the mimeograph machine up here and I'll start typing' - the restaurant address, telephone number, sautees, deep fries, about ten items of American food at that time, family dinner, you can take dinner for two, you take one in the A, one in the B, and then a la carte menu. So I got all that done. So OK. So I print it. Still wet when people coming in. True. I was just a waiter - 'do you have a jacket,' they asked? 'No, I just came in - I was standing in the street.' They gave me a tie, black jacket and put me right away in the front."
One of Dong's partners in East Sea was Richard Mei, who worked there as a manager before he opened his own place. When Mei quit, he insisted that he would only give back his initial investment if they got rid of Bruce Ho too. Bruce went to Brooklyn, to Dong's place then being run by their young daughter. "Soon I got out and went to Gold Coin," Bruce went on, "but back to the long story about Richard Mei. He opened King Dragon sometime around 1957 and stayed in business until the early 1990s, when he left to take it easy in Florida." Mei has since passed away.
Today, Ho remains a student of the restaurant business and has remembrances and anecdotes about seemingly every Chinese restaurant one can name. I asked if he was friendly with other restaurateurs of his era and he said yes, but they found him a bit independent. There was no association of restaurant owners, formal or informal, because everyone worked long hours. Of course, he said, "you pay your respects and visit other restaurants, and also go out to be seen, perhaps in a Madison Avenue hotel, or at Harry's Bar at the Waldorf" Astoria Hotel.
As attentive to cooking as he is, Mr. Ho never trained as a chef and does not cook for himself. His wife often makes a simple family favorite, chicken marinated in soy sauce and pan-fried. The couple married on June 28, 1959, and a traditional banquet was held, of course, at the Port Arthur. Bruce recited the entire wedding menu from memory:
Shark's Fin Soup Three Appetizers: Pan-fried Shrimp, Lobster Rolls, Crabs Rangoon Chicken with Broccoli Dai Buh Goo (large black mushroom in oyster sauce) Pork with Broccoli, Water Chestnuts and Straw Mushrooms Bird's Nest Soup Gua Loong Gnop (duck skin in wheat buns) Sauteed Hearts of Choy Sum (green vegetable) Duckmeat Young Chow Fried Rice Yee Mein (longevity noodle) and a dessert of Sai Mai Lo (tapioca pearls), which Phyllis noted is akin to today's popular "bubble" teas, known affectionately by many nicknames such as Dragon Eyes or Frog Eggs. There was even a second seating at this restaurateurs' wedding - to accommodate all the newlywed's colleagues who had to close up their restaurants before coming to celebrate at Port Arthur. After Bruce's recitation of their wedding banquet from half a century ago, Polly exclaimed wondrously, "You remember all that?"
Polly was always an integral partner in the business, largely due to her experiences in the late 1950s when she worked in her hometown of Seattle at the Trader Vic's in the Westin Hotel. Trader Vic was a legendary epicurean and bon vivant, a French Jew named Victor J. Bergeron, Jr. Polly described "The Trader's" first foray into restaurant bars as a "two by four [tiny] dainty old house." The small cabin in Oakland CA opened in 1934 with the quixotic name Hinky Dinks. Polly advised Vic as he opened branches in cosmopolitan cities worldwide, and worked for him from 1954 until the mid 1980s.
In the late 50s, Vic announced big plans for Polly in hustling Havana, Cuba, but she said "no thanks, that's the one place I won't go." She had heard that the Cuban staff was unreliable, and her decision proved wise: a short six months after Trader Vic's Havana opened in 1958, the manager was shot at as he ran for one of the last planes taking Americans out of Cuba. Later that same year, Polly accepted Vic's one-way airplane ticket and moved to New York to supervise the opening of Trader Vic's in the Savoy Hilton, 7 East 58th Street and 5th Avenue (the hotel was eventually razed for the current General Motors building).
New York's Savoy Trader Vic's was a huge success - one day Bruce asked the maitre d' "how's business" and was told "we're a little over 950 [reservations] for the day." When the hotel was razed for the General Motors Building, Vic scored a major coup and moved Trader Vic's across the avenue to the swankier Plaza Hotel. Donald and Ivana Trump bought the Plaza in 1989, and closed the restaurant. Despite a rash of closings in the mid-1990s, Trader Vic's operates a website, www.tradervics.com, and 17 remaining restaurants in places as far flung as Chicago, Oman, Singapore and Bahrain. Still, no one knows what happened to the 40-foot outrigger canoe that used to decorate the New York Plaza Trader Vic's. It was a real boat that Marlon Brando rode in the movie version of "Mutiny on the Bounty."
Sugary-sweet Polynesian fare was a draw, but the main attraction for Trader Vic's, and the legions of competitors it spawned, were tropical drinks. Four Seas eventually drew a competitor further east on 57th Street, Luau 400. With Polly's help, Trader Vic created gaily decorated cocktail menus featuring lurid descriptions of the exotic ingredients and reputed effects of Zombie's, Samoan Fog Cutter's, Mai Tai's, and the like, drinks which were hugely popular in the 50s and 60s before they became cliché in the 70s. Like the racially charged humor of Alan King, Buddy Hackett and other Jewish comedians, these often faux-tropical drinks became extinct in the 1980s just as culture became more sensitive to things foreign, only to reemerge at popular 1990s camp boîtes like Lucky Cheng's. The fun that can be swizzled with these off-color cocktails persists even against today's strong waves of political correctness.
"You know what it means?" Mrs. Ho asks about the "Banana Cow - for butterflies in the opu." "Opu means big, when you drink it, you be like … you know." She laughs about the silly things she wrote years ago on menus: "Suzie Wong - could be wicked. Sailors beware" and "Coolie Collins - It's no lemon. It's kumquat." She admits they had no connection to the famous actor when she created a menu announcing, "Charlie Chan proudly offers these Special Drinks." When customers would inquire about the nature of the "Tiki Puka Poka - strictly on the kini popo" her servers were instructed to "tell 'em anything and leave em" grinning and guessing.
It seemed like a good time to get Mr. Ho's take on the Chinese penchant for eating purported aphrodisiacs like tiger penis, and his response seems to concur with scientific findings about the thousands of different aphrodisiacs around the world - the most potent ingredients are somewhere in the ingestors mind. He said, exactly, "When you want to do that, you really think what you have to do, so you think, 'I want to.'
All those mid-60s kitsch palaces like Hawaii Kai, in Manhattan's Theatre District, with their poetic Pacific Island names, exotic "moon doors", bubbling brooks forded by faux antique wood bridges, humongous plastic clam shells complete with grapefruit-sized pearls, and monstrous "Tiki" glasses with 18 inch striped straws, owe their incarnation and success to the creative libations of the real-life Trader Vic, with not a little nod to Mrs. Ho, a keen observer and reporter of the likes and dislikes of Western patrons of Polynesian restaurant bars.
"Here's our collection of old, old menus," Polly said, pulling out a small stack of well worn bills of fare from Bruce Ho's Four Seas, Trader Vic's, House of Mah Jong and a few others. "Look at the price - dollar fifty, dollar twenty-five - ever hear of such a thing?" she marveled. Some are signed by a group of Baltimore Colt footballers, including quarterback legend Johnny Unitas. Another is signed by a favorite customer and friend, the Academy-Award winning actor Sidney Poitier, about whom Mr. Ho posited, "he doesn't seem to have black and white - he doesn't even think that he's a different color."
All of their restaurants, including the last one to open, in 1969, Bruce Ho's Chateau Gourmet (on route 9W about 10 miles north of the George Washington Bridge, used Bruce's own menu design. Short menus reflected his belief that patrons neither wanted nor needed to "spend much time reading a long menu - one page is fine." The food and drink offerings changed, but the large, distinctive white menu with red and blue lettering stayed fresh-looking for over five decades. Bruce's clever graphic device, a fake tear in the cover, provided a strong background for his Chinese calligraphy of Zhong Mei - Chinese-American in Mandarin - a reference not only to his food and restaurant, but to himself.
It seems that these upscale Chinese restaurants all took taglines. Richard Mei's was "the house of quality food for the epicurean," and Bruce's was "Sip, Savour for the Gourmet." Bruce is congenial and was always sure his menus noted that "any dishes not listed can be prepared upon request." He helped ensure good service with other menu entries like "Any suggestions or criticisms will be most appreciated to promote a more favorable atmosphere." A student of his customer's likes and needs from the get go, Bruce reports that it was customary for post-War diners to make a pit stop at the dirt-cheap Chinese restaurants on Delancey Street for a snack of egg roll or roast pork, and then come to Port Arthur for Chop Suey with ambience. Over the decades, Ho stayed abreast of foodways, adding and deleting Polynesian, Hunan or Szechuan dishes as trends waxed and waned. Ho insisted on old-fashioned Chow Mein - only onion, bean sprout, chopped chicken, gee yow (brown sauce), cooked very soft and tender, noodles on the bottom." He always consulted with the head chef to create the menu and was sure to incorporate any bright ideas from the chef. In addition, Ho put himself in charge of listing daily specials for captains to read to patrons. Although Ho's bills of fare were typical of the period in their large format, the actual number of dishes to choose from seems smaller than average. Bruce felt that a limited selection meant patrons "didn't have to keep flipping."
Where he drew a lot of Jewish customers, Ho knew it was best to keep pork offerings to a minimum and to have a full staff ready on Sundays. When he opened his first eatery in 1964, Bruce knew he should have a secret specialty to build camaraderie among regulars. He created Mish Mosh, a Yiddish expression meaning "all mixed up," adjusting sizzling Wor Ba platters by substituting Cantonese pan-fried noodles for the traditional crispy rice noodle cakes. "Everything else on top," Ho said, "snow pea, lobster, chicken, roast pork, all chopped up with Wor Ba seasonings." At first the captain didn't understand what some regulars were clamoring for, but soon even the waiters learned a little Yiddish. Mish Mosh was never put on the menu but remained a hit for Ho for 35 years.
Ho fed off of New York's internationalism and loves to relay how he learned about the Italian predilection for pig's knuckle. "During Prohibition, there was Tony Merenda - had around 40 speakeasies in the Bronx - the main one being Tony's Flash Inn, across from Yankee Stadium. They had lots of cash. Tony's son Danny was a real character - liked to challenge you. One day he told me he had very good pig's knuckles at Shun Lee restaurant - asked why can't I make it. Next time he came in with friends - I served him a plate - it hurt a little when he said 'just as good as Shun Lee."
I could only find one typographical error on all of Bruce's carefully-conceived menus, Parchmont Chicken (chicken cooked in parchment paper), a humorous and perhaps subconscious nod to the wealthy community of Larchmont. Ho would also create custom menus for special occasions, for example the Gala Bruce Ho New Year's Dinner 1967, which cost $15, including champagne.
The pretty and evocative menus from a bygone era made my mouth water with the imagined taste of specials that rolled out of Chinese American kitchens when I was still mawing pablum, wondrous sounding platters like "Mahi Mahi with Macadamia Sauce." When I inquired as to why shrimps pan-fried in the shell were listed with the inscrutable name "Shrimp Look In Shell," Ho could only laugh. When asked about the American side of the menu, he replied "…had to have American food in those years, you needed American food - steaks - because in compromise you don't want them to go somewhere else." "Oh, they got American food too," Mr. Ho explained his customer's mindset, "let's go."
Mr. Bruce Ho has always been open to new ideas. Sometime in 1969, he brought his family to Taiwan to investigate the possibility of going into the frozen Chinese food for U.S. supermarkets business. Polly and Bruce's daughter Phyllis is a fourth generation ABC (American-Born Chinese), dentist, and documentary filmmaker who is knowledgeable about international foodways in general and New York City Chinese restaurant history in particular. "I was too ambitious - I wanted to sell it in gourmet corners in all supermarkets but I never knew underworld people had a hand in it."
It had become clear during these interviews that I was dealing with a major major domo. Mr. Ho's got lots of good tips and when we ate take out dim sum at their home one Sunday, it had been procured at a number of different restaurants to ensure the highest quality of each dumpling. He recommends Hop Lee at 16 Mott Street for their authentic Cantonese fare, but he provided a live demonstration of how a sip of Coca Cola can stop a persistent cough, I knew I'd asked too many questions. I bid adieu, and Mr. Ho graciously escorted me to the door, in his inimitable, eloquent, and suave style. I could almost feel the 1950s and I imagined I was exiting Say Hoy, fully sated, a head full of Maui Waui, a bellyful of classic high-class Chop Suey, a celebrity sighting or two under my belt, and a hankering to come back a.s.a.p.
Harley Spiller maintains the world's largest collection of Chinese menus, dating back to 1879. He recalls entering Bruce Ho's Four Seas in the late 1980s to get a paper takeout menu, but regrets never having tasted their cuisine. Please contact Flavor and Fortune if you'd like Mr. Ho to hear about your recollections and anecdotes about eating at any of his establishments. He sends thanks to the Lisa Titus family for introducing me to Phyllis, Mark Varous for his wine savvy, Seth Boigon, and The Ho Family, including their dog P.G., whose kind and generous cooperation has made this story possible.
These two photos are from Bruce and Polly's 1959 wedding reception at their Port Arthur restaurant. Chinese brides traditionally carried trays of tea to the guests. The Ho's added two new twists to this tradition - the men helped and some of the tea was replaced with whiskey!
A portion of the elaborate staircase between the 2nd and 3rd floors of Port Arthur still exists today - these details highlight the superb craftsmanship that made Port Arthur an elegant and world-renowned restaurant.