Old timers remember when Chinatown generations ago was the destination after a night out for “siu yeh,” Cantonese for late night meals popular in Hong Kong and south China.
Those days may be decades past, but local leaders are banking on the reopening of the neighborhood’s oldest restaurant for a rebirth of area nightlife.
Sam Wo, built shortly after the 1906 earthquake at 813 Washington St., was famous for inexpensive barbecue pork rice noodle rolls and porridge called “jook” until 3 a.m. It was also infamous for employing the late Edsel Ford Fong, regarded as the world’s rudest waiter.
When the dive-y hole-in-the-wall closed in April 2012 after having its health permit suspended for sanitation issues and fire and building code violations it could not afford to fix, it wasn’t just the 100-year-old restaurant, but Chinatown’s last late-night spot that went dark.
Now after three years of community organizing and a handful of San Francisco nightlife investors, the family that owns Sam Wo is preparing to open its doors this summer at 713 Clay St., the site of shuttered Anna Bakery, as Sam Wo Restaurant and Bakery, The San Francisco Examiner has learned.
While the marble table tops will be resurrected at the new location, other fixtures will be replaced with up-to-code models, like the old dumbwaiter to be swapped with an electrical version to continue delivering food from the basement kitchen.
Owner and chef David Ho, 60, said he couldn’t even begin to imagine a promising business model a couple years ago, in the uphill struggle to reopen at the former site.
“The best part is that Sam Wo is a legacy restaurant and will able to revive itself in modern Chinatown,” Ho said in Cantonese. “It’s probably the only business built after the earthquake that remains to this day.”
Nightlife takes a hit
In the 1960s and 1970s, Chinatown late at night and into the morning bustled with people, both from and outside of the neighborhood, seeking a midnight snack or a hearty meal to sober up. Sam Wo, with Fong serving up insulting jokes and often the wrong dishes, was one of the most beloved eateries.
However, around 2 a.m. on Sept. 4, 1977, gunfire erupted between two Chinese youth gangs nearby at the Golden Dragon Restaurant at 818 Washington St. The Golden Dragon Massacre, as it became known, left five innocent dead and 11 injured, none who were confirmed gangsters.
Following the shooting, the number of late night visitors plummeted, but the local clientele returned within a few years, said Norman Fong, a longtime Sam Wo patron and executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center.
Then the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit.
The tremor significantly damaged the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway that fed into Chinatown, and despite much opposition from Chinese merchants whose business had declined without the State Route 480, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted by a narrow margin to support then-Mayor Art Agnos’ plan to demolish the structure altogether.
But the biggest hit to Chinatown nightlife, according to Steven Lee, a Sam Wo investor and project leader who used ate at the restaurant late at night in his college years, was street sweeping starting at 2 a.m. around the mid-1980s to 1990s. People issued parking tickets stopped frequenting Chinatown, restaurants started closing earlier and Sam Wo, the last to open until 3 a.m., went out of business. Now the latest Chinatown restaurants stay open is around 11 p.m., and it’s only a few that do.
Grant Palace Restaurant at 737 Washington St. used to close at 1 a.m. but a couple years ago began closing at 11 p.m. When business is particularly slow, owner Elaine Chiu, 61, shuts the doors at 10 p.m.
“We stay open hoping we can have a little bit of business,” she said in Cantonese, “Because even though we have fixed rent with a long-term lease, it’s still hard to survive.”
The new Sam Wo
Reopening Sam Wo “will be an experiment” on reinvigorating nightlife in Chinatown, said Norman Fong, who helped build community support and fundraise for the restaurant after its health permit was suspended for severe rat and cockroach infestation, improper refrigeration, food contamination and lack of a separate hand washing station.
About $350,000 was required for building and sanitation upgrades, and just as the Ho family and community members were coming up with sufficient funds, the landlord leased 813 Washington St. to people planning to open a spa. Back to the drawing board, Fong reached out to Lee, a member of the Entertainment Commission and founder of the South of Market nightclub The Grand, for help.
Well-connected in the nightlife industry, Lee found about 10 investors and identified 713 Clay St. — where Anna Bakery faced similar rat and sanitation issues and closed down — and bought the space for the new Sam Wo.
The new location for Sam Wo is not only centrally located across from Portsmouth Square, which has 24-hour paid underground parking, but Clay Street doesn’t have street cleaning until 4 a.m. Initially, Lee planned to staff Sam Wo Wednesdays through Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., but the Ho family volunteered to work the middle shift when seniors traditionally came for tea or coffee.
“I think what will happen is people will start to think this was the old place,” Lee said.
On Tuesday, when the site was still dusty with visible markings where out-of-code cooking equipment had been removed and scattered mousetraps, Lisa O’Malley, a principal environmental health inspector with the Department of Public Health, met with the Sam Wo owners and architect to go over what still needed to be done.
“Their plans look excellent. I don’t foresee any major problems or hopefully any problems in the future of the new Sam Wo,” O’Malley said. “I’m really excited for them and I think this is going to be a great success story.”
Once Sam Wo obtains its health and building permits and is up and running – the target is late July – Lee plans to sell Sam Wo branded frozen or instant food products to Asian food stores and national grocers like Costco and Walmart and incorporate items from old Anna Bakery.
The next step to bringing back late night business is to push street cleaning on Washington and Jackson streets to from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., said Lee, who also wants to hire promoters to take partygoers on a Chinatown bar crawl ending at Sam Wo’s.
Despite such efforts, some existing restaurants are hesitant to open late.
R&G Lounge at 631 Kearny St. has had “really good business” since the restaurant underwent renovation into a modern look, but a year ago changed its closing time from 10 p.m. to turning away customers at 9:30 p.m. sharp to save on overhead costs and for safety reasons, owner Kinson Wong said.
“I know we can do it but we don’t want to do it,” Wong said. “We just try to close the doors to make sure everything is OK.”
Past efforts at spurning night activity in Chinatown were short-lived. A night market at Portsmouth Square on Saturdays came to an end in 2010.
The golden age of nightlife in Chinatown is “gone, gone, really. Hopeless, I can say hopeless,” said Eddie Au, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and owner of Arts of China at 843 Grant Ave. for nearly 50 years. He is having a preretirement sale.
But the Ho family and investors are confident that Sam Wo will have renewed success. Ho’s daughter Julie, 33, who at age 9 began waitressing, food preparation became a supervisor at the restaurant, described the new restaurant materializing as “surreal.”
“I’m just excited because I grew up in Chinatown and I felt it was dying off and I’m hoping this will remind people of authentic Chinese food that is affordable and anyone can come eat,” she said. “People came to this place as strangers and left as friends. Everyone is one big family and I want to see that again – in a grander scale.”