Peter and Lily immigrated to the U.S with no more than $40 in their pocket. And while the dream of attending school, obtaining a degree and finding a respectable career seemed more possible in America, they soon had a taste of bitter reality. For one, their English was poor and thus obtaining a notable degree seemed not only unachievable but a long expensive journey. But more importantly, they needed money to simply have a roof over their heads and a meal on the table. So they scrapped school and threw themselves into low entry jobs. Chinatown is the first comfortable step Chinese immigrants land in and oftentimes becomes their first true home away from home. That is where my parents started. They worked day and night in restaurants as servers, busboys, and bar backs, for years. But surely, Peter and Lily didn't come to the land of opportunity to become waiters and waitresses. At the time, many of the restaurant owners that my mom had worked for were women and they were successful. I remember nights my parents would purchase duck neck for $0.25/lb because nobody wants scraps and boil it to death with tofu to make a one pot meal for dinner. As we sipped on our scrappy soup in our cold dark SRO, my mom would tell us grand stories of how her boss would eat something decadent every night, prime rib, chicken wings, pork chops, garlic bread. That's when my mom realized, the American dream can be real and attainable. These women were immigrants from China, just like her and they were sending their kids to private schools and piano lessons. My mom set her eyes on becoming her own boss lady one day and open a restaurant of her very own.
While my mom was thinking about the possibility of being able to afford school uniforms for her daughter and bringing home oxtail stew for dinner, my father was thinking about a much bigger pie. My father came from a highly educated and well to do family in Shanghai, two generations of successful entrepreneurs. He didn't want to own a restaurant, he wanted to get into real estate.
After a few years of working double and even triple shifts, my mom decided there was enough money saved to take the plunge. Peter on the other hand felt this decision was too risky. All the money they saved to be dropped into one basket? The realtor gig presented less risk, less fire, less chance of getting burned. Thankfully my mom is extremely headstrong when it comes to certain things in life. And this was something she was not going to back down on. She enlisted her father to help her find the right space for her very own restaurant. It wasn't long before they found a nice little spot at 919 Kearny Street, right at the edge of Chinatown and Little Italy. She immediately put in an offer to lease the space and in honor of her father for helping find the location, she named the restaurant after the city he was born in, Nanking. So, in 1988, the restaurant House of Nanking was born.
Once the lease was signed, my dad knew there was no turning back. Fearful that opening a restaurant would burn through their life savings faster than they could make it back, he immediately jumped in to help his wife open her restaurant. He was determined to do everything in his power to make the restaurant successful. To cut down on startup costs, my dad decided to do everything himself and I mean literally EVERYTHING. He built the dining tables, chairs, the shelves on the wall, the wooden trim on the ceilings, and designed the logo and signage. To cut down on labor costs, he decided to forgo a chef, prep cook and server. My dad figured he could cook, prep and serve. My mom could help serve and do dishes. In the back of his mind, he figured he would help get things started for his wife for a few months, help bring in some positive cash flow, at which point they can afford to hire help and he can go back to being a realtor.
Luckily my dad was innately talented at cooking and destined to do this; otherwise, my parents' idea for operating the restaurant would have been a disaster. Who opens a restaurant with minimal restaurant experience and more importantly, NO CHEF?! To think that this is how one of the most popular and famous Chinese restaurants in San Francisco got started is pretty wild. Needless to say, my dad never went back to his realtor job. He got sucked in and after “helping” out for months, he decided to stay on board with running the restaurant. My dad fell in love with the business and he discovered something he was really good at: cooking! What was once a past enjoyable passion of his now became something he could make money from. Customers loved his cooking and his personality, so people started waiting in long lines to eat his food. And the rest is history! If it wasn't for Mrs. Lily Fang's brave decision to take the plunge, House of Nanking would have never been born.
House of Nanking circa 1988 - The wooden shelves Peter and Lily and standing in front of are the ones Peter hand built himself.