It’s been over two years since Cecilia Chiang — a beloved fixture in SF’s Chinese gastronomy — passed away at 100 years old; her evergreen advice on how to live a “long, fruitful” life remains something to return to, time and time again.
The ’50s and early ’60s were years filled with humdrum East Asian food here in the States; most Americans synonymized “authentic” Chinese cuisine with oil-slicked chow mein and bland chop suey.
Much like the microwavable TV dinners of those eras, Chinese cuisine was more of a means to an end rather than an exploration of refined flavors and preparations. But Cecilia Chiang — who came to the United States from China in 1949, fleeing the Japanese during World War II to then travel almost 700 miles on foot toward safety — changed the very notions of what we now think passes as staple Chinese food.
Chiang passed away peacefully at the age of 100 on October 28th, 2020, leaving the SF Bay Area community with a gastronomic void and a well of aspirational direction.
With her famed Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco (that opened in 1962), Chiang enticed diners with the dishes she grew up with at a time when doing so was a risk. Starting the restaurant was done on a whim: In 1960, she met two friends from Tokyo in Chinatown who told her they were planning to open a restaurant in a small space at 2209 Polk Street, and she agreed to help them secure a place.
Without giving it prior thought, she wrote a deposit check for $10,000 to secure their rent. The friends backed out, and the landlord refused to return the money, so Chiang made the decision to open the restaurant on her own.
While the streets were filling up with Americanized Chinese restaurants to appease locals, Chiang went with her gut: that people would enjoy her authentic Northern Chinese dishes. So that’s what she did, creating more than 200 menu items and outfitting the restaurant with higher-end furnishings.
Facing sexism as a female business owner and low interest in her food at first, she struggled for some time. Eventually, though, loyal prominent customers (including the founder of Trader Vic’s, Vic Bergeron) spread the word to others. Soon, success came.
In following her dream of providing real Chinese food, Chiang paved the way for other like-menued eateries to gain traction in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the country. As the New York Times noted in an ode to Chiang: Even the Mandarin’s early menus numbered some 300 dishes — which, by the Chinese takeout norms of the ’60s, was considered “small and focused.”
The Mandarin grew without hiccups over the years. By 1968, Chiang had relocated the restaurant to a 300-seat space in the Ghirardelli Square complex; a second location of the business, the Mandarin in Beverly Hills, opened to great praise in 1975. The ’80s saw the more casual, toned-down Mandarette Chinese Cafe take root in Southern California, and it was later helmed by her son, Philip.
After the Mandarin’s cafe model proved successful and profitable, Chiang’s son would later join forces with fellow restauranter Paul Fleming in 1993 to start a venture now ubiquitous around the country: P.F. Chang’s. (Heard of it?)
Though Mandarin eventually closed in 2006, Chiang continued to be greatly involved with the community. For decades, she mentored up-and-coming Chinese restaurateurs who wanted to bring their individualized touches to the style of cookery she helped introduce to millions. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that even well into her nineties, Chiang dined out regularly at the most sizzling restaurants in San Francisco with a certain vivaciousness and high level of enthusiasm.
Chiang frequented food festivals, parties, and film premieres. She drank at bars well into the wee hours of the morning. She was unfailingly gracious, unwaveringly creative, and uncommonly kind up until her final days.
In an Eater SF profile circa 2018, B. Patisserie founder Belinda Leong spoke with Chiang about her groundbreaking career and intrepid life.
During that discussion, Chiang offered an evergreen tidbit of guidance as to how to live a “long, fruitful life”: “I try to learn Chinese moderation. I really believe that: Never overeat, or never overdrink. Never overdo it.”