Sunday, October 08, 2006

The following article came from the Web site: Specifically, the Valley Voice Archive. I realize that this blog is about the Taoist Temple, but since the Imperial Dynasty is located right next to the Temple, the restaurant is part of the history of China Alley, as is the Taoist Temple. Hence, the posting of the following article on this blog site. Please note that at the end of the article, the restaurant's business hours and phone number are listed. As of this date, the restaurant is closed.

The Last Days of a Local Dynasty
By Cassandra Queen

Hanford - The Imperial Dynasty Restaurant in Hanford's historic China Alley will close its doors in mid-February, ending more than a century-old family business. The closing also marks the end to yet another great Chinese dynasty.

In Chinese history, a dynasty is a ruling family that passes control from one generation to the next. The longest Chinese dynasty lasted more than 800 years, while the shortest-lived lasted only 15 years. The ancient Chinese believed their ancestors in heaven had chosen their leaders and supported their rulers because of what they called the “Mandate of Heaven.”

According to family member Camille Wing, five generations of the Wing family have worked at the restaurant. Two of the family members owner and chef, Richard Wing and his sister Harriet are looking toward a long overdue retirement when the restaurant closes its doors at the end of this month. The two, both in their 80s, are part of the third generation of Hanford's Wing family.

Camille, who's also a member of Hanford's Taoist Temple Preservation Society, but no longer works in the restaurant, explains that it was Richard Wing's grandfather, Gong Ting Shu known by the Anglo name Henry Wing who first entered into the restaurant business when he began a small restaurant in the early 1880s, known then as Mee Jan Low (English translation: "Beautiful and Precious Restaurant"). This first Wing family restaurant occupied only the upstairs, central part of the block on which the Imperial Dynasty now resides. Gong Ting Shu passed away in 1923 and his son, Gong Chow Wing Richard Wing's father sustained the Wing family business.

In the 1930s, Gong Chow Wing like his father, he was also known as Henry Wing closed the Mee Jan Low and opened the Chinese Pagoda Restaurant on the corner of China Alley and Green Street. As you enter onto China Alley and gaze up at the corner of the building, the old Chinese Pagoda neon sign is still there. Take a few more steps and you'll see a smiling, fat Buddha statue standing at the entrance of the now-closed restaurant. Just a few more steps and you're at one of two entrances into the Imperial Dynasty Restaurant.

In 1958, the Imperial Dynasty was opened next door to the Chinese Pagoda. Through the purchase of bordering properties, the restaurant continued to occupy most of the building. According to members of the Wing family, by the late 1950s the Wings owned all the property on China Alley except the Taoist Temple and two properties across the street, Numbers 13 and 13 ½, which are now owned by the Taoist Temple Preservation Society.

Today, the restaurant is more than a historical landmark. If you ask patrons from near and far, they will tell you that the restaurant's legacy comes from a combination of its unique cuisine, its engaging environment, and most notably, the Wing family.

Richard Wing' had a remarkable career, which isn't limited to being a restaurant owner and chef. Before he entered into the restaurant business, Richard served as chief aide to General George C. Marshall from 1945-47.

“During the war and after the war, Richard traveled to Europe and learned a lot of interesting things about other cultures, other cooking. He was able to come home and practice what he'd learned,” said Camille Wing.

Richard Wing is credited as being an innovative, small-town chef who is well-known for creating culinary delights that are a fusion of Chinese and Continental (French) cuisine. Wing is said to be one of the originators of this cuisine, which was referred to "Chinois" beginning in the 1960s. The name may sound familiar, as Wolfgang Puck has a Santa Monica restaurant of the same name, described by some dining guides as a “Franco-Chinese” eatery. Wing is also legendary for his nine-course gourmet dinners for which reservations were required one to two weeks in advance.

In 1980, Richard received an invitation to prepare a special dish for the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. According to family members, Richard had to decline, in part because his leaving for the Washington, D.C event would have meant closing the restaurant doors to its everyday customers, to the already existing reservations.

In addition to his culinary genius, Richard Wing knows his wine. The restaurant used to have an extensive, award-winning wine list until the Wings stopped restocking their on-site wine cellar in preparation for closing.

“Customers used to always want to take a walk through the wine cellar because of the selection of wines there,” added Camille Wing.

The vaulted ceilings and walls of the Imperial Dynasty are dressed in Chinese antiquities and artifacts. Newspaper and magazine articles, as well as numerous awards, line the walls of the entryway, telling the historical tale of the restaurant and its owners. The most fascinating accounts of the restaurant's history, however, are the stories told by the fourth- and fifth-generation Wing family members, who like the generations before them, attentively and graciously tend to their nightly guests.

Fourth-generation family member, Sherrill Harris of Visalia, explains that the restaurant is more than a workplace for the Wing family. According to Harris, “This is where all of our family meets.” Her daughter, Erica Harris, also of Visalia, started working at the restaurant every weekend beginning at the age of 15.

Erica, who also works as a registered nurse, says that she has memories from helping out as early as age 10, which is the same age her mother started working at the Dynasty. “There are three generations here now,” Erica recently said during one of her shifts at the restaurant. “When I started here, it was my mother, my sister, my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins…when we have family come from out of town, they come here first because they know they'll always find their family here.”

Jennifer Wing of Hanford adds, ”This [working at the restaurant] is our daily bonding. Day in and day out, seeing each other.” Jennifer, also a fourth-generation Wing, says that it's easy to recount all the good memories of working at the Dynasty. “My favorite,” she imparts, “was when Bing Crosby was here and went upstairs to play the baby grand piano and he sang Pennies from Heaven to my Aunt Mary.” According to Jennifer, the restaurant has had its share of celebrity diners.

The Imperial Dynasty in Hanford much like Chinese dynasties of the past has many loyal followers, or simply “customers” to the Wing family. Ralph Tucci, the Executive Director of the Hanford Conference and Visitor's Agency, enjoys sharing his firsthand experience of assisting visitors who have come from all over the globe to visit the restaurant. He also notes that many San Joaquin Valley residents ride the train from Fresno or Bakersfield to have dinner at the Imperial Dynasty. There are also accounts of groups of businesspersons traveling from the East Coast to dine at the restaurant, tales of people traveling by car, train or plane to experience what Tucci describes as “an event.”

According to Hanford businessperson, Ed Broadus, a returning customer for more than twenty years, “This is the place to be and be seen if you're from Hanford.” Broadus describes the food as “amazing” and points out that the Wing family “always remember who you are and your drink of choice.”

Tucci describes eating at the Imperial Dynasty as a “real special event.” He said that he hopes they'll postpone closing until just after Chinese New Year's. “Now I look back and realize that I haven't eaten there as much as I should have. The days of the [Imperial] Dynasty as we know it, will be gone. It's been an icon and lot of it's him [Richard Wing].”

Richard Wing and his sister Harriet are just a few weeks away from retirement, but they are currently experiencing “an encore” because the Dynasty's closing date originally scheduled for the beginning of January was pushed out to the middle of February.

“It's time to retire and there's no family member to take over and no buyer,” Tucci succinctly stated.

Harriet, who has managed the Dynasty since its opening, is also the “backbone” of the family, according to Camille Wing. “She keeps the family together,” said Camille, adding, “She tells me that the first thing she's going to do [when the restaurant closes] is sleep.”

As they've been anticipating the restaurant's closing, the last couple of months have been “emotionally overwhelming” for the family, according to Arianne Wing of Hanford, who is also a fourth-generation Wing. She says that her family is grateful to the restaurant's customers. “People have been coming and telling us all these lovely stories…their own history of all these years they've spent with us,” recounts Arianne. “It just makes me realize how fortunate we've been…it's just nice to be spending these last months with so many friends and family and I wish we could thank all the people who have been so loyal to us all these years. We're seeing three or four generations of [customers'] families going through here ourselves.”

Regardless of when the Wing family closes the Imperial Dynasty's doors, its legend will live on in the stories told by five generations of Wings and the scores of delighted customers who passed through its doors.

The Imperial Dynasty is located at 2 China Alley in Hanford. The restaurant is open for dinner at 4:30pm Tues-Sun. For reservations, call 559-582-0196.


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