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Restauranteur Bruce Ho, Part I

by Harley Spiller

People

Winter Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(4) page(s): 11, 12, and 27


This past blazing hot summer I enjoyed several extended conversations about Chinese restaurants with a well-known innovator in the field, Mr. Bruce Ho. We met at his apartment. It was a stone’s throw from his erstwhile and eponymous establishment: Bruce Ho's Four Seas at 116 East 57th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. The address used to house East Horizon, the first Cantonese restaurant on 57th Street. Today the original bronze mirrored façade fronts a Starbucks.

Mr. Ho met me at the 10th floor elevator with a firm handshake and an ingratiating welcome. We chatted about the weather as we walked together to his apartment. Immediately, I felt at home in the spacious midtown aerie filled with bronze, silk, mother of pearl, and Chinese wood antiquities. I was to learn a lot about Mr. Ho's complicated life, the many ups and downs, and the names and places that weave in and out of nine different decades. Unlike other men in the Ho family, Bruce resisted life’s many temptations, always walking the straight and narrow. "I want people to know me. I have had a tough life. I worked hard. I made myself. I am still working hard," he offered, easing into the interview.

The ochre- and cinnabar-colored apartment features many framed pictures. My host pointed out autographed photographs of he and his family enjoying themselves at swanky restaurants with people like dancer Ginger Rogers and New York Mayor Abe Beame. From time to time during the interviews, Bruce’s wife Polly would illustrate his tales with photos, menus and other memorabilia from a crowded hall closet.

Ho directed me to the mantel-place where, next to porcelain statues of Chinese gods, leans a framed menu from the Port Arthur Restaurant, which his family once owned. Nearby hang two large frames filled with colored reproductions of trading and postcards dating back to the turn of the previous century. These keepsakes are a gift of Dr. John Kuo Wei Tchen--known as Jack, a professor at New York University and specialist in the lives of Chinese people in the Americas.

The old advertisements depict buildings and scenes from the early and formative Chinatown enterprises of Mr. Ho’s grandfather, Soy Kee; his name means nice and peaceful person. Soy Kee first came to San Francisco’s Chinatown and then to New York’s, around the 1880's. He was attracted, like other pioneering Chinese emigrants of the time, by the promise of the 'Golden Mountain' which was mainland China's nickname for the deceptively lucrative new world. Soy Kee lived a bachelor lifestyle--strict exclusion laws prohibited women, even wives, from entering the U.S.

Ho’s grandfather must have instilled eponymity in Bruce. He started Soy Kee Company, an import-export emporium, and later his son, Bruce’s father, acquired Port Arthur Restaurant from its founder, Cho Gum Fai. Grandfather Ho opened Soy Kee at the corner of Pell and Mott. Later he moved Soy Kee to a former horse stable, on the first floor of 7 - 9 Mott Street--downstairs (and eventually down a new-fangled escalator the Ho’s installed) from the 2nd and 3rd floor Port Arthur restaurant and bar. Both Port Arthur and Soy Kee were conveniently located near the elevated train and its escalator at Chatham Square at the Worth Street subway station. One postcard of Soy Kee depicts well-heeled gents in an elegant 'Reception Room,' waiting to be shown the porcelain, silk, wood and curios that were highly prized in the new world. Around 1923, a second Soy Kee opened on 5th Avenue in what is now the Dunhill Building. It stayed in operation for about a decade.

Postcards show that Port Arthur had partitions in the luxurious main dining room to create East and West Halls for banquets and private parties of all sizes. There were also tables on the second floor balcony overlooking Mott Street. The restaurant had elegant and expensive teak and mahogany tables with mother-of-pearl inlay. Gorgeous gilded carvings were everywhere. Ho’s father eventually sold that place, but the third floor Port Arthur dining room is still there, supposedly intact.

Grandfather’s success enabled him to bring family members from China; an older sister moved her family to San Francisco at first but Jack and his bride Kam See ('See' means 'Mrs.') came directly to New York City. Jack attended New York University business school, and went to work at Soy Kee. Jack’s older sister married Lee Jee Mun, who became head of the New York On Leong Tong Association and eventually chairman of On Leong for all the major Chinese cities in the United States.

Bruce, the middle of Jack and Kam Su's three children, was born in 1926 in Suffolk County’s village of Bayshore on Long Island. Their son’s Chinese name, Kai (formal salutation) Hoy (open the door) was surely prescient for the baby maitre d' to be. A Catholic sister gave him the name Bruce in post-war English school, simply because it sounded beautiful. Kam See and Jack proudly attached a favorite baby picture of Kai Hoy to 'Form 430' on his American citizenship papers. When Bruce was two, his family moved to Shanghai mostly because of the success of Soy Kee’s porcelain import business, and Jack’s desire to monitor work at the factories in China. He had learned that importing goods from China was pretty good business, exporting to China not as successful.

By the time Bruce was four, the Japanese had come to occupy the port city. The family was forced to witness Japanese soldiers make one of their female staffers strip and be mutilated. They cut off the cook’s ear. Such terrifying experiences taught him that 'you have no right to speak without a gun, but if you have a gun you become too ambitious.' Several times before he was out of his teens, Bruce feigned death when attacked with a bayonet. He is reflective but neither bitter nor judgmental, having long ago adopted the attitude that, as he said: “people can never be sure how they will react in a given situation.”

Around 1930, General Choy Ting Guy defeated the Japanese. Nonetheless, Ho’s mom knew that sooner or later there would be more trouble, so they “went down to Canton” where young Bruce finished grammar school. When the Japanese arrived in Canton, his family moved again, northwards, where he finished high school and enrolled in an officer training school.

Ho returned to New York on December 8, 1949 to work in the family business but by the end of World War II, Soy Kee was gone; he went back to China and married many concubines, as was customary in the olden days. Two of Bruce’s uncles, John and Charlie, attended West Point, and a third kid brother, George, got into the Virginia Military Institute. Charlie and George lived the playboy life here and eventually returned to China and got married.

Bruce's Uncle John stayed on Mott Street to work in the family business. Port Arthur was awarded Chinatown's first liquor license; they made good use of it. Mr. Ho said getting the first license was nothing special, they just "happened to be the first." Then the bar was in the back of the restaurant. In later years bars needed to be up front and visible from the front window to ensure no illegal operations were occurring.

Along with the bartender Sidney Dung, John built up the nightlife to the point where the elite of Chinatown society came to drink at Port Arthur’s second-floor bar every night of the week. It didn’t hurt that Uncle John’s brother-in-law was Shavey Lee, the Mayor of Chinatown. Despite such social and political standing, the high life got the better of John, who drank himself to death.

Port Arthur’s drink menus of the 1940's confirm Mr. Ho’s recollections that Uncle John’s bar was a high-class place to see and be seen. In addition to an international array of brandies, whiskies and gins, there are mixed drinks named Automobile Cocktail, Horse’s Neck, Sherry Flip, even a Morning Cocktail. The lengthy wine list was startlingly superb for a Chinese restaurant. More than thirty of them, red and white. There were Chinese rice wines, German Rhine wines, and only two Italian wines. The French grape was prized as were Cognacs from Hennessy, Martell, and a Napoleon Fine Champagne cognac.

Top-shelf champagnes included Clicquot White Label, Pommery & Greno Sec, G.H. Mumm and Co. Extra Dry, Veuve Clicquot, Metropole Red Top, Louis Roederer, and Perrier Jouet Brut, Blue Top for around six bucks a quart. Great Western and Gold Seal were domestic bubblies for about half the price. The Bordeaux region was obviously a favorite with clarets from Medoc, St. Julien and Chateau Pontet Canet, even a dessert Sauterne and Haut Sauterne. Burgundies hailed from Macon, Pommard, Beaune -- the most expensive one was something called Splendid Rose Pink.

Port Arthur served more different beers and ales than one usually sees on Chinese menus from any period, including today. In addition to ten-cent glasses of tap suds, there was Pabst Milwaukee for twenty cents. Their better-known Blue Ribbon, tied at thirty cents with Budweiser Anheuser-Busch as the priciest beer. It was only twenty cents for imported British bottles of Guinness Stout or both White Label and Dogs Head from Bass. This world class high quality bar had 'Imported and Domestic Cigars and Cigarettes Always on Hand.'

The 1943 Port Arthur bills of fare were printed in red and black on heavy card stock. Complex cover graphics include the Chinese characters for Liu Sun, the Chinese name for the Port Arthur peninsula, site of the Boxer Rebellion. There were two other characters on it that tell a lot about what is important to the Ho family: Gung Yin, or 'respectful welcome.' The name Port Arthur in English was done in now-cliché brush-stroke letters meant to imitate Chinese calligraphy. Old-fashioned line drawings of clouds, which can symbolize wealth, run up and down the sides, and there is a dragon, two phoenixes and other mythical creatures.

There is one other Chinese character on the cover of the Port Arthur menu, the symmetrical Fa Long or 'method of turning.' It is repeated four times as a decorative motif, once in each direction. The ancient symbol illustrates a principal tenet of Buddhism, that life is ever-turning, that even in death there is reincarnation. Chinese people would know from the symbol that Liu Sun served vegetarian food befitting Buddhists. Today it is part of the name of the Chinese religious group Fa Long Gung, but most Westerners would not have recognized the symbol until the 1940's--it is the swastika.

Port Arthur's balcony and third-floor served food that was as good if not better than what was available in China, Polly reports. The head chef was Siu Tong and thoughts of his chicken stuffed with sticky rice and Chinese meats makes her pine for a style of regal Cantonese cookery that has all but vanished.

Inside the handsome menu are listed no less than thirty variations of Chop Suey, including plain Chop Suey for twenty cents and less common varieties such as Mutton and Almond Chicken Chop Suey. 'Special Port Arthur Duck Chop Suey, Served for Two' was $2.00. There were soups, chicken and sea food dishes, omelettes, fried rice, cold dishes, sandwiches and side dishes. Rice was '5 Cents Per Bowl Additional.'

Tea lovers had a choice of Oolong and the following varieties, all of which are unfamiliar to me: Loong Sue, Suey Sinn, Lin Som, Loong Jan and Won Moo. Quite a few deserts were listed, in small columns headed 'Preserves' (bottled fruits and ice cream); 'Crystallized' ('golden limes' and 'gingers'); 'Cakes and Nuts' ('Almond Cake, Rice Cake, Li Chee Nuts'); and 'Candies,' a column which used the Latin name for sesame, Sesamum.

After the War, Mr. Ho started college at New York University but did not have enough money so he switched to City College, working his way from non-matriculated to matriculated student, and lettering in freestyle on the swim team. He recounts, “Again, I received ROTC in this country. The reason why I say that, 'again,' is because previously I received reserve officers’ training in China. I was born in the US, an American citizen, but the reason I had to go into the Chinese army was because Chinese were starving--and the only way you can do it right: have a gun in hand.” The Ho family was fairly well off at this time and many of his colleagues at East South Officer Training School in Fujian were like-minded governor’s and commander’s sons, just itching to go into the army. Mr. Ho graduated an officer, was elevated to Company Commander around 1945, and thus became a World War II veteran in China.

In the early 1950's, Bruce worked a variety of jobs, notably at Ruby Foo’s on 52nd Street and Broadway, smack in the middle of the Great White Way. Ruby Foo’s was a fun and successful style still being copied today. “She had first opened in Boston and then New York, followed by Montreal and a small place in Miami much later. It’s believed that the Italian underworld helped Ruby come to New York,” he said

Around 1954, Mr. Ho contracted tuberculosis and couldn’t finish school. “I could only read five pages of textbook in an hour. The City health department wanted to send me to a sanitarium but I refused. Finally. I got rid of it and went to work in a couple of engineering firms, Nathan Straus, Duparquet, and Richard Roth” he remembered.

Closing in on the age of thirty, Mr. Ho wanted to settle down so he went to work at "a place at 994 Second Avenue at 52nd Street by the name of Bill Chan’s Gold Coin." The midtown Manhattan eatery had opened on September 23, 1953 and catered to an exclusive clientele. It steadily gained fame as one of the most exclusive Cantonese restaurants. Gorilla-tough Chan (1915-1995) had been recruited for St. John’s University’s basketball team but he never attended because doctors found a problem with his heart. He went into restaurant work, and it was in the legendary second-floor Port Arthur bar, under John and Sidney's tutelage, at which Bill Chan learned to bartend.

Ho worked for Chan for a decade when, in 1964, a new Gold Coin opened on Second Avenue and 45th Street. It provided an initial spark for the mid-60's vogue for upscale Chinese and Polynesian restaurants that focused more on drinks and atmosphere than food. By then, Ho had “become a big boy with a few dollars” so he struck out with a partner to open 'House of Mah Jong' on Jericho Turnpike in Syosset, Long Island. “We did very well. There was a big garden and a couple of acres. We called it the House of Mah Jong to make sure they knew it was a Chinese restaurant. We mostly attracted Jewish people [they had “few Chinese customers”], and Jewish people know mah jong has got to be Chinese.”
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This article will be continued, and finished in the next issue.

                                                                                                                                                       
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