Chinatown fixture Yuet Lee prepares for New Year with new leadership in the kitchen

Although Chinese New Year is a holiday, at newly anointed legacy business Yuet Lee the staff will be busy at work, serving one of the most important meals of the year.

And at the helm will be co-owner Wo Jie Zhen, who on Friday will be running the New Year’s Eve dinner for the first time.

The restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Stockton, on the border of Chinatown and North Beach, has been serving authentic Hong Kong style seafood dishes for the last 45 years. Every year on Chinese New Year’s Eve they host a family style feast, where community members gather and connect to their roots.

The no-frills, reasonably priced establishment transports customers to another time and place, and has served the Chinatown community with first-class food and opportunities for years.

Zhen immigrated to San Francisco from China in 2003 to make a better life for himself and his family. Within 10 days of arrival, he got a job as sous chef in the kitchen at Yuet Lee.

Working two jobs to support his wife and three children, Zhen labored 12-plus hours six days a week. He attributes his success to hard work, attention to detail, and the guidance of Yuet Lee founder Sam Yu.

Wo Jie Zhen, a co-owner of Yuet Lee Seafood Restaurant, will lead Chinese New Year dinner preparations for the first time this year. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“Sam Yu is a father figure to me,” Zhen said.

He likened Yu to a kung fu master passing everything he knows onto his student. Although Yu is still involved, the day-to-day operations are now the responsibility of Zhen and co-owner Yuhwo Wu.

It was imperative for Yu that the restaurant remain in good hands. Zhen said that having someone like himself, who has worked at Yuet Lee for 17 years and understands what is necessary to keep customers happy, has made it easier for the founder to step back.

Another aid in the transition has been continued cooperation with the landlord. Rather than hiking the rent, the building owners knocked $200 per month off the lease to help the new guard adjust. In an inhospitable, cut-throat environment where business rents are through the roof and beyond, Yuet Lee is a candle in the dark, an example of positive landlord-tenant relations.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who nominated Yuet Lee for legacy business status last year, said that he is thankful the landlords have maintained reasonable rent throughout the restaurant’s tenancy, and highlights it as an example of good landlords doing the right thing and still getting their rent.

“Yuet Lee is more than a forty-plus year old Chinatown anchor,” Peskin said. “It is a community institution frequented by locals and visitors alike and synonymous with a great intersection, where North Beach meets Chinatown.”

A regular customer, Peskin marveled at the restaurant’s seafood and hours. Yuet Lee is open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day but Tuesday. “I go there for lunch at noon, and then a late night meal at 12,” he said.

Yuet Lee Seafood Restaurant at Broadway and Stockton Street has served the Chinatown community for 45 years. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“We need to keep our legacy businesses like Yuet Lee open,” said Senior Community Organizer at the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), Rosa Chen.

CCDC works to support small businesses in the neighborhood, and wants Chinatown to provide all the resources that an immigrant needs upon arrival in San Francisco to allow for more success stories like those of Zhen and Wu, Chen said.

Wu also came to San Francisco from China, where he worked as a chef for 20 years before arriving with his wife and daughter. He says that the transition was challenging, and it took him and his family two years to get over their culture shock.

Wu said that prior to the modernization of China, immigrants had it tougher, arriving with less education, less English and fewer opportunities. Because of his cooking background he was able to find stability, working in kitchens all over Chinatown, including Yuet Lee. Immigrants who lacked his ability to adapt and support themselves often ended up going back to China, he said.

Families who aren’t at home cooking what is called a reunion dinner, often described as the Chinese equivalent of a Thanksgiving dinner, can keep tradition alive at Yuet Lee on Friday.

mgorelick@sfexaminer.com

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