By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer
In Portland Chinatown, the Chinese community this year celebrated the 100th anniversary of the old O.B. Stubbs building. Most importantly, it houses the oldest Chinese restaurant in Portland, the landmark Republic Café which opened in 1927.
At dusk, the iconic neon sign glows Republic CAFÉ – Cocktails, Nationally Famous CHINESE FOODS, CHOW MEIN, CHOP SUEY.
On the sidewalk in front of its entrance, a bronze plaque reads:
Chinese men play mahjong, smoked water pipes, and gambled in clubs run by tong associations, such as the Suey Sing the Hip Sing, and the Hop Sing Association once located here. The tongs still provide a place for members to get together and gamble socially.– Joanne Hong
The new Chinatown and Japantown Historic District, within Old Town Chinatown, includes Portland’s second Chinatown (1900 to now) and Nihonmachi (Japanese town) (1890 to 1942). The Chinatown Gateway, hanging lanterns, bronze plaques, and the iconic Hung Far Low Chop Suey neon sign are tokens of a bygone era.
The Early Days
Around 1927, the sojourners and pioneers from the Sye Yup region of Kwangtung region established the Republic Café as a partnership.
They quietly served Cantonese dishes, including Chop Suey, the Americanized cuisine of classic Cantonese dishes. Chinatown and Nihonmachi were segregated communities during the White supremacy era. Despite the segregation, many small businesses thrived.
In 1940, the Republic Café was surrounded by sukiyaki restaurants, barber shops, a social club, a tofu shop, and a confection shop. They included the popular Tokyo Sukiyaki House restaurant, run by Tomhei Kawasaki, and Yodogawa Restaurant, run by Kiso. In 1942, the federal government interned the Japanese at a concentration camp. Nihonmachi would vanish forever.
On February 2, 1942, a perpetrator killed Wong Tung Hai, a cook with a meat cleaver at the Republic Cafe. The robbery was believed to be the motive for the crime. Police officers arrested Lock Poy as the murder suspect. But he committed suicide in his jail cell.
Around 1939, Sam Soohoo owned the Republic Café as the principal owner and served as the head chef. The trade was enough to survive. He had emigrated in 1928 from Yinping to the Port of Seattle aboard SS President Madison steamer.
The Republic Cafe opened seven days per week until World War II. On Tuesdays, when the restaurant closed, they made egg foo young, an omelet dish, for the United Service Organization.
Victor Wong, born in Portland, started as a busboy at Republic Café while attending Washington High School before World War II. During the War, he served as a dental technician for the US Army at Oakland Army Base.
After the War, Victor studied at Vanport College for a bachelor’s degree and at Pacific University in Optometry. He transitioned to managing the front as maître d from the early 1950s until he became a minor partner.
The Heydays of the Republic Café began in 1951 when Dr. Victor Wong secured a liquor license. Sam redecorated the dining rooms with a Chinese motif and added Ming Lounge to service cocktails, wine, champagne, and beers. Their extensive Cantonese foods included Chop Suey, Chow Mein, noodles, omelets, rice, house beef, pork, chicken, duck, and shrimp dishes.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Republic Cafe was a magical place. The restaurant stayed open until 4 a.m. on weekends. When the nightclubs and other restaurants closed at 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights, their customers poured into the Republic. On Sunday evenings, Jewish families lined up to dine or buy food to take out. On Mother’s Day, people would stand outside in the rain, waiting for a dining table.
The Ming Lounge was filled with big-name lawyers, powerful commissioners, and visiting celebrities. Mary Sasaki, a bartender, recalled, “My favorite was Harry Belafonte (American singer and actor). I fell in love with him.” when he enjoyed cocktails.
The Oregon Journal wrote: “Owner Sam P. Soohoo serves a large selection of all Chinese foods in this heart of Portland’s Chinatown, where connoisseurs of Chinese cuisine have been going for years. The Ming Lounge offers cocktails.”
After his graduation in 1951, Victor worked during the day as an eye doctor and during the night as the manager of the Republic Café during its heydays as the best Chinese restaurant in Portland.
Victor was dubbed the “Mayor of Chinatown,” an unofficial title he held for decades, by many of the regulars, among them dignitaries, politicians, and celebrities, who frequented the Republic Cafe,
Tracy Wong, Victor’s #1 son, recalled many anecdotes from him.
Being the frontman for one of the most popular establishments in Portland, Dad rubbed elbows not only with celebrities but with high-powered government officials, judges and law enforcement officers.– Tracy Wong
In the process, he became a person of considerable, though unofficial, stature as well. At some point he was dubbed the “Mayor of Chinatown,” a title he held for decades beginning in the 1950s. One of the actual mayors used to call Dad that. But the one official he knew best was Mayor Frank Ivancie, a longtime City Council member, former police commissioner and a regular at the Republic.
Tracy Wong shared his anecdote about celebrities.
Because the Republic Cafe was the best Chinese restaurant in town, it attracted some of the biggest acts to come through Portland.– Tracy Wong
“Our food made us famous. We started getting the big stars. Even when Trader Vic’s came in, all of the bellboys (at the Benson) told the big shots to come here.”
Don Ameche, Victor Borge, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey (and their orchestras), Harry Belafonte, and the Harlem Globetrotters, to name but a few. “A lot of agents called me up because I was the manager. So they asked me to take care of these big-timers. I took their orders and made them feel good. That’s how I got to know them all.”
Dad even spoke to the greatest mime of all time, Marcel Marceau, a man famous the world over for never uttering a single word. (This irony escapes Dad.)
Tracy shared his anecdote about Louis Armstrong, the American jazz trumpeter, and vocalist.
Another of Dad’s more memorable meetings occurred when Louis Armstrong’s band came after their show. Their manager told Dad that Satchmo would be calling him for a take-out order. A little while later, the hostess handed Dad the phone saying, “Vic, it’s for you.”– Tracy Wong
Dad answered, “Hello?” The deep, gruff, gravelly voice on the other end answered back, “It’s Satchmo!” Dad’s reply: “Satchmo who?”
Once Dad realized who it was, he was mortified.
Tracy also writes another anecdote about Danny Kaye, the American actor and comedian.
One of Dad’s favorite memories was the night comedian Danny Kaye came to town. His agent phoned Dad telling him Kaye was staying– Tracy Wong
at the Benson and to “fix him up.” Later that night, Kaye came down and had dinner.
“So I was outside lighting up a cigar and Kaye comes out there. He says, ‘Do you mind, where are you going? Can I join you?’ So I asked him what he wanted. He says sake. So we went down to a Japanese club and sat there till 2:30. He was feeling no pain and sat down with two Japanese girls and he’s kidding them and they were really getting perturbed. So he apologizes and leaves. Then the waitress tells them that was Danny Kaye. God, they were so upset. They came apologizing, jumping up and down, getting his autograph. Boy, were those girls happy. He was famous then.”
Richard Soohoo, #1 son of Sam, said, “During the 1960s, we opened the Republic Café at 5 o’clock. By 6 o’clock, the waiting line was out the door until 10 o’clock every night.” Tracy remembered, “When I was a busboy in the 1970s, the Republic Café was always packed with all kinds of Portlanders, not only Chinese and Japanese.”
Cynthia, Sam’s #1 daughter, said, “He realized that his best asset was his employees. He paid them well for their loyalty. His aim was to give the customers Chinese food they loved to come back for, served by an experienced and friendly wait staff.” Sam covered benefits for cashiers, waitresses, bartenders, and cooks with vacation pay, a health plan, and Christmas bonuses.
In November 1979, Sam and Victor sold the Republic Café to the Yee family from Salem.
Republic Café – Poetry Book
David Biespiel composed a single sequence and arranged fifty-four numbered sections, in his 2019 poetry book, Republic Café.
David remarked that: “Republic Café tells the story of lovers in the American West, the tragedy of September 11, my private navigations of memory and forgetting, personal pain alongside public anguish, and also situated inside the restaurant in the poem, you come to see that history is what we are made of, that to be present and mindful inside the most intimate of experiences, like making love, like sharing a meal, like talking as friends, we have to forget so much about time and history. And yet, those very things, time and history, make us who we are in those moments. They’re what we’re comprised of.”
In the Republic Café I am sitting with a light heart.
Outside there are little bundles of rain on the grass
And the birds are quivering in their cloaks.
As in a dream the air is red near the horizon
And orange at the rooftops
And a tree ripples with the music of a violin
That quiets, as if shuddering, atop the roof of a brown house.– David Biespiel, poet
While below a blind woman in a purple skirt holds a white fan,
Saying somewhere in our knuckles is the taste of blood.
Now, in 2022, Republic Café continues to serve Cantonese dishes. Rong Mui, from Taishan, the principal owner, and head chef, has operated it since 1997. They face challenges with a poor economy, wide homelessness, and spot violence.
The Republic Café opens from 5 PM to midnight daily. They serve chicken, seafood, pork, vegetables, noodle, egg foo young, chow yuk, chop suey, chow mein, and vice.
The red-hued Ming Lounge serves wines, beers, and cocktails. They host disc jockeys, bands, art shows, and comedies.
Republic Café’s slogan – “We bridge the past, present, and future of Portland Oregon’s Chinatown.”
Sarah Chung, an advocate for Portland Chinatown, closes:
Portland Chinatown Museum is pleased to introduce Raymond Chong, who has researched the 100-year history of The Republic Cafe, an iconic Chinese American restaurant in Portland’s Chinatown district. Raymond met the descendants of two previous owners during the heydays of the 1950s through the 1970s. He recognized the importance of their colorful stories. We are grateful for his research and writing of this legacy and its significant role in Portland’s Chinatown history.”
– Sarah Chung, Portland Chinatown Museum
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