My elevator rides with Cecilia Chiang, the Julia Child of Chinese food
We lived on the 6th floor. Cecilia Chiang lived on the 11th, the penthouse. It was a 1960’s building that looked like it belonged in Miami Beach, not at the top of a hill in Pacific Heights across the street from Lafayette Park in San Francisco. But it made sense that Mrs. Chiang lived there since it was built. It must have been a swanky place in the ‘60s. After all, her restaurant, The Mandarin, was one of the most popular spots in the city from when she opened it in 1961 until it closed 30 years later.
I would usually take the dog for a walk after work. When the elevator doors opened for me, she was often standing inside. She was petite, well dressed, with a huge, inviting smile on her face. She would be on her way down to meet a friend for dinner. Even though the ride to the lobby was short, we always talked.
She talked about the weather. I’d ask about what restaurant she was going to that night. Inevitably, the conversation ended with her commenting that the trendy place her friend wanted to go was “overpriced and not too good.”
“I like simple food. Have you been to Z+Y? Hong Kong Number Two? Those are really good,” she said.
Our elevator rides became my glimpse into a San Francisco that no longer existed. Pre-COVID-19, any new restaurant you wanted to try involved going at 5:30 or 10:30, or waiting in lines with bearded, plaid-shirted, AirPod-wearing, iPhone-glaring hipsters who seemed one or two steps ahead of each other in discovering the latest Hawaiian bistro, oyster bar, or, yes, Chinese place. Mrs. Chiang didn’t approve.
Her San Francisco was a place where men wore suits and ties and knocked back a few dry martinis before dinner. Her San Francisco was Jack’s at the Beach and the Tadich Grill. These places were lively, but you could hear one another talk. And of course, her San Francisco was The Mandarin, which introduced fine Chinese cuisine to America.
About a year after we moved into Mrs. Chiang’s building, our elevator conversations extended into an extra few minutes in the lobby where she told me about being one of 12 children in a wealthy Shanghai family. She married a businessman after World War II and had two children. When the Communists marched into Shanghai, the young family fled but could only get three plane tickets to Japan, so they left their son Phillip with Mrs. Chiang’s sister who took him to Taiwan. After a year in Tokyo, the family brought Phillip there where she and a group of friends opened a Chinese restaurant called The Forbidden City. (Phillip later went on to start the popular PF Chang’s restaurant chain.)
Over time, her life story unfolded, one elevator ride at a time: How in 1960, she moved from Tokyo to San Francisco to be with her grieving sister who had just lost her husband. How she was left stranded after friends backed out of her first restaurant venture which ultimately became The Mandarin. How her restaurant became the place to go. How she faced racism. Even though there were a lot of Chinese people in San Francisco, she told me, they never felt welcome early on, even in liberal San Francisco. How she taught cooking classes to Alice Waters, James Beard, and Julia Child.
She talked little of her husband whom I later found out never left Tokyo. They never divorced, but apparently, she lived alone. Nonetheless, she never seemed lonely. She had her nightly dinner out, she walked in the park every day, she did tai chi.
Earlier this year, there was a celebration in the lobby for her 100th birthday. Mrs. Chiang was now even frailer and clung to her walker. She was still sharp. I asked if she remembered what year she was born.
“1921,” she said.
Somewhat sheepishly I said, “Mrs. Chiang, that would mean you are actually only 99 today.”
“In China, you count the year your mother was pregnant,” she shot back, still introducing Americans to China. “I’m 100 today.”
We moved out of our apartment earlier this year. Cecilia Chiang died Oct. 28. She was 100 years old. I don’t miss San Francisco too much, but I do miss Mrs. Chiang’s San Francisco.
And my elevator rides.
Mark Eshman is founder of ClearRock Capital and lives in Sun Valley, Idaho.
For Mrs. Chiang’s recipe for Steamed Fish from her Mandarin Way cookbook, click here.