Introduction: Charlie Chin presents another indelible portrait of Chinese Americans, this time it’s restaurant workers and a legendary manager, Benny Chu, whose story wends and winds through the back alleys and byways of a long-gone New York. If you like O. Henry and Damon Runyon, you’ll appreciate these wry and wicked licks from Charlie Chin.

      Back in 1960 the Cantonese people in America had two occupations, the hand laundries or the Chop Suey joints.  I did both.

     In fact, there were other Chinese here, Taiwanese engineers from MIT and Shanghai bankers that had fled China in 1949, also some merchant class Cantonese who had done well in Import Export.  But of them, they were few in number and they didn’t mix with us.  We were the descendants of farmers and peasants.  My father had raised me in the back of a hand laundry, so I grew up pressing shirts and working the mangler.  When I was old enough, I was apprentice with one of the legends in the Chinese restaurant business, Benny Chu.

New York Chinatown cooks circa 1940s. Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig).

      Benny had done it all.  Some claim he had even invented the “One from column A, one from column B,” system.  He ran the front dining room staff and the kitchen crew like a benign drill sergeant.  He started me off as a busboy.   While I was crumbing tables and place setting, I had to memorize the Four Regional centers of Chinese cooking, Shanghai, Canton, Sichuan, Beijing, and chant aloud the eight immortal flavors, salty, bland, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, fragrant, and golden.  When I had enough experience, I began to work as a waiter.  By that time Benny was already prepping me to be a bartender.  He was constantly drilling me on how to muddle an Old Fashion, the variations in the Martini family, the right way to candle port, and making the exotics, like the Singapore Sling and the Zombie, he passed on all the tricks that kept the percentage up, and the overhead down.  In short, he gave me a respected occupation.   In time, under his guidance, I took wine courses at the New School and studied Industrial Feeding with the Culinary Institute of America, then moved on to Food and Beverage Management at some of the bigger hotels in Manhattan.

     This was back when restaurants were a serious business, and cooking was a skilled craft, one you could be proud of.  Not like today where bored young computer jockeys play at hobby cooking and dream of becoming a celebrated chef on the internet.  All of this, mind you, without knowing at what temperature water boils and how to make a Hollandaise sauce from scratch.  If old Benny could see the Frankenstein concoctions they make today, like Pastrami Egg Rolls and the Kiwi Sushi Burrito, he would roll over in his grave.

New York Chinatown circa 1930s. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone.

     By 1982, Benny was old, too old to work the floor as a Maître de anymore, so he retired.  I got into the habit of stopping by his little apartment in Chinatown once a week to chew the fat.    To do the right thing, I’d always bring a bottle of Remy Martin cognac or a box of Dim Sum, and we would talk about the old days.

     One week, he was sitting up in bed and was very quiet, after thoughtfully munching on a Dun Tot, Benny turned to me and said,

     “Charlie, they’re ringing up my check for this table and I going settle up with the cashier.”  I started to worry, this was not like Benny, I never heard him talk in such morbid a mood before.  I assured him,

     “Benny, your money’s no good.  You’re on the cuff with the manager.”

     “No dice Charlie.  I’m getting eighty sixed.  I’ve done my shift, and the house wants to turn this table over.  Before they give me the bum’s rush, there’s something I want to tell you.”

     “Benny, don’t worry about skipping the check.  Everybody in the house owes you big time.  We all got markers with you.”

     “No, no, I want to get my cash box straight before the last call.  It can’t be short.  I don’t want to be on anybody’s pad.   Remember, like I always taught you, from the time you started with me wiping tables, a professional is always neat.  A stand-up guy busses his station when his shift is over, so the next guy can start clean.”

     He looked at me sadly and then brushed the cookie crumbs off his chest, propped himself up on one elbow and told me this story.

    “It was back in 1923.  I was working a joint on Pell Street called Woo Sung.  Things were good and the money was easy.  Me and some of the other guys in the joint used to date some of the girls over at the Roxy Burlesque on the Bowery.”

     “You mean White girls?”

Faith Bacon, famed burlesque dancer, in 1929. Portrait by John de Mirjian.

    “Hey back then, because of the immigration law for Chinese people in the United States, Oriental girls were harder to find than hen’s teeth.  Anyway, I was dating a girl name Carol De La Santora.  She did a strip tease act called “Bimba, the Jungle Girl.”  She used to come on stage wearing a leopard skin costume.  She took it off slowly as she danced to Ravel’s Bolero.  Let me tell you, you had to be there.  Anyway, come one weekend Carol and a couple of her friends at the theater wanted to go to Coney Island.  It was a great idea.  But the problem was.  Carol had me, her friend Cherry Redd, was seeing a wise guy they called, “Joey bag of donuts”, but the third gal Greta Swenson, her stage name was, “Greta, the Swedish Meat Ball,” she didn’t have a date.

     I really wanted to go out with my honey, but Carol wouldn’t think of going anywhere without her two friends, so we had to find a date for Greta.  At the time, we had a Chinese dish washer at the restaurant.  He was a new guy, a real Green Horn from Hunan.  He had jumped ship and couldn’t speak any English.  I told him he should come with us and I would take care of him.  I taught him how to say three things.  “You bet, ”  “You’re telling me,” and the phrase, “And how.”  I figure that would cover anything that might come up.

 

Coney Island in the 1930s.

     I found him a cheap suit and a fedora hat, and we met the girls down at the Canal Street subway station near Chatham Square.  We grabbed the express and rode all the way to Coney.  We were all young, happy, and having a great time.   After an hour or two, I noticed that Greta had gone for the Greenhorn in a big way and wanted to take the crease out of his trousers.  When we got back from Coney, she took the Greenhorn over to her place on Henry Street to do the horizontal Hokey Pokey.  After that, anytime she wasn’t working, she started to come over to see him.  A couple of months later, Carol whispered to me that Greta was pregnant.   I found a way to tell the Greenhorn about it when Greta wasn’t around.  He got spooked, kept saying in Chinese that he had no time for this, and the next thing I know, at his next shift he was a no-show.  Seems he took a berth on a tramp steamer going back to China.

    Well, Greta had the baby, a cute kid.  We all tried to help but Greta was proud.  She thought she could make enough for her and the baby by working at the Burlesque houses.  But walking around in those drafty old theaters with no clothes on, she got pneumonia and died.  The baby boy was put up for adoption and a nice couple from Delancey Street named Kugelman adopted him.  They gave him the name, Aaron Kugelman.  He grew up not knowing who his real father was.  Last I heard, Aaron and his son Solomon were running a factory on Long Island that made Junior Frocks.  That’s it.

     When Benny had finished, I was a little confused.

     “What makes this story so important Benny?”

     “It’s like this, pretty soon I’m getting a one-way ticket to Marble Town to catch the Dirt Show and I think somebody else should know.”

Benny pointed to the night stand next to his bed and commented,

     “Open that drawer and see what’s inside.”   I reached over and pulled the drawer open.  Inside was just a single old yellow photo.  I inspected it under the lamp by Benny’s bed.  It was photo of three couples standing on a boardwalk at the beach.  One couple was a woman with too much make-up on and a guy that looked like a thug.  The next couple was Benny with a full head of hair, wearing a  snappy suit and hugging a full bodied laughing woman,  and the last couple was a thin, long legged Blond girl, pretending to eat a hot dog, that was being held by a very young, very skinny, but recognizable, Mao Zedong.

   I looked up at Benny, he read my thoughts.

    “Yeah, I know the history books say he spent that year wandering the Chinese countryside talking to the peasants.  But he got a bunion right away and hitched a donkey ride to Shanghai.  That’s where he signed on with a freighter.  And now you know the rest of the story.”   Benny laid back and fell asleep, so I tiptoed out of the apartment to let him rest.

Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan. Poster by Liu Chunhua

     What was there to say?  Greta and the Greenhorn were gone.  The Kugelman family wouldn’t benefit, and China’s history books would have to be re-written.

    The following week I stopped by Benny’s place.  He sat up to drink some cognac with me, then looked out at a distance, and said,

     “I’m sorry, if you don’t have a reservation, you’ll have to wait at the bar.”  And with that, he was gone.  He was a restaurant man to the very end.

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Author’s bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).

Cover Photo:

William Wong, cook at Oriental Restaurant, Portland, ME in 1930s. Photo from Maine Historical Society.

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