Published in the National Post, January 8, 2011:
When I arrive at the Shanghai Restaurant on Christmas Eve, everything is as it always was. Uncle Poi is in the back with an army of cooks, chopping chicken, frying egg noodles and stirring bright red sweet and sour sauce. Uncle Henry is in the front, escorting people to their seats and manning the cash register. Customers crowd the entrance while they wait for tables or for take-out.
Hugging a warm cardboard box filled with food, I squeeze around the waiters and their steel serving carts that rattle with dishes of glistening beef and battered shrimp. “It’s like the old days,” Uncle Henry says. “So busy.”
He means the 1950s to the ’80s, when the customer lineup started under Shanghai’s hulking, neon red sign and snaked around the building, which occupies a downtown block. People waited outside, even in winter, for as long as an hour to get into what was one of the first Chinese restaurants in Winnipeg’s Chinatown.
My relatives have worked here for almost 70 years, cooking, serving, making sure that everyone is greeted and fed. But these are its final days. Sunday is the restaurant’s last day in business.
My Uncle Henry visits each table and hands out postcards — photographs of the dining area from the 1950s and ’60s. To see it in the 1970s, you just have to look around. The roomy booths are upholstered in glittery gold-and-turquoise vinyl. The walls are decorated with silhouettes of Chinese landscapes and hand-painted murals. The dining areas are lined with planters stuffed with artificial flowers. The restaurant is a time capsule.
I sit on the squeaky bar stool behind the cash register — the same one that I had struggled to climb onto when it was at my eye level — and I greet the customers with a wistful smile. The retired police officer. The cherubic girls toddling on either side of their grandfather. They take matchbooks and menus as souvenirs.
One man tells me that when his son visits from out of town, he orders Shanghai food and freezes it to take home on the plane. A woman in her eighties says when she worked the night shift at a factory in her twenties, she would come by in a cab at 1 a.m. and they would hand her a bag of food out the back door.
Shanghai is part of their Christmas tradition. Their New Year’s Eve tradition. They’ve been coming for 30, 40, 50 years and longer. Longer than they’ve been married, longer than they can remember. They’ve been coming all their lives.
My family has been here for four generations. My mother grew up in the apartments above the restaurant. My parents fell in love here. My late grandfather, Hung Yuen Lee, celebrated his 80th birthday here.
A relative bought the Shanghai Chop Suey restaurant, as it was called, in the 1940s. After the Second World War, my great-grandfather, Lee How Guey, moved to Winnipeg to help manage it. The crowd was different back then. They could be rowdy in the late hours; they could be culturally insensitive. But after my great-uncle started working there, things settled down. There are stories of what a great martial artist he was. “He never lost a fight … one punch and that was it, the other guy was on the floor,” my Uncle Howard told me. The troublemakers disappeared.
My great-grandfather took over in 1951 and expanded the restaurant to three dining rooms (my grandfather, who managed it from the 1960s to the ’80s, added a fourth dining room to accommodate the crowds).
Customers called my great-grandfather “Uncle.” He was likeable, always smiling. He’d hire more than a dozen Chinese university students to work as waiters and busboys on weekends and in the summer. Some people worked at Shanghai to learn and then left to open their own restaurants.
My Uncle Henry, the second oldest of nine children, started there when he was a teenager, washing dishes, busing tables and he has worked almost every day without complaint. He too is likeable, always smiling. “We opened until 3 a.m. and people just kept coming. We had to work hard,” he says. “By my grandpa, I’m trained to work hard. I learned a lot of things from him.”
Uncle Henry is 74.
“Some customers say, ‘You cannot retire. You have to open somewhere else.’ They want Shanghai’s recipes. ‘Where am I going to eat? Do you have any recommendations?’”
That is hard to say because few places cook like Shanghai does, mostly because our menu has changed very little in decades. It specializes in “North American-style Chinese food.”
“People are very sad. Some even cried when they heard the news. They’re coming for their last meals here. Those customers have lots of memories of their parents and their grandparents here,” Uncle Henry says. “After so many years, there’s a bond between Shanghai and the public. They keep coming back. They cannot forget Shanghai. And they want more memories.
“I’ll remember them, too, for their friendship and their support.”
He pauses. “For myself, it’s very sad, too. But after 60 years, the time has come. It’s time to move on. Nothing can last forever.”
I remember when my sister and I first heard that the restaurant would be closing. “Why?” We asked, alarmed. “Do you want to run Shanghai?” Was the immediate response.
I have 16 cousins — many of us have memories of counting cash at the register, drinking Shirley Temples at the bar or sneaking suckers and mints from behind the counter — and we’re all grown, working as doctors, architects, etc., and raising our own families. Without the hard work at Shanghai and without the patronage of Winnipeggers, I wonder where many of us would be; the restaurant gave my family a foundation on which to grow. But although none of us wanted to take over, it is not a slight at the family business. It’s a testament to our appreciation for the opportunities that it provided. The kids are its enduring legacy.
I do feel sad for my family, for our customers. But mostly I feel grateful. It truly is a sweet and sour ending.