Chinatown landmark Empress of China set to shutter

On Wednesday, the Empress of China, affixed on the top two floors of a building in the heart of Chinatown and the last fine Chinese dining restaurant and banquet hall of its kind in the neighborhood, will close its doors after serving the community and a diversity of customers for nearly half a century.

Its shuttering leaves behind an institution with decorations deemed to be of museum caliber. The centerpieces of the dining rooms on the sixth floor are century-old chandeliers so intricate they seem out of this world. The ornate banquet hall on the fifth floor that accommodated 600 to 700 guests in its heyday has overlooked the rise of new buildings through the decades.

When the building was constructed in the 1960s, Kee Joon Lee, an immigrant from Canton, China, approached the owners with a vision for a rooftop restaurant with views of Portsmouth Square, Chinatown and the rest of The City. Lee's dream became the premier place for Chinese weddings, red egg celebrations and other special occasions, with bookings up to two years in advance.

“He wanted to serve people not only of Chinese descent, he wanted to introduce the Chinese cuisine to everyone — Westerners, Easterners, foreigners — in an exquisite, elegant manner,” said Lee's daughter, Barbara Yee, 80. “When it started, people couldn't even go up there to eat unless you wore a tie. If you didn't have a tie, they had a tie ready for you.”

The restaurant's closure also brings into question the future of merchants in the lower floors that have served Chinese-speaking locals for decades, and whether the tenant taking over the restaurant space will maintain the traditional feel. Some said they worry that the change will become a prominent sign of gentrification in the neighborhood.

Employees at the Empress of China, which opened when the six-story building at 838 Grant Ave. was completed in 1966, received notice in September that the restaurant would be closed at the end of this year because the building is up for sale. It wasn't a complete surprise — rumors had been going around for about a year.

Chong Investments, the primary owner of the building, offered the Empress of China a new month-to-month lease, but Pearl Tom, a member of the restaurant's board of directors, said she and her partners turned down the offer because it cannot operate that way.

“What do you do when the landlord won't even talk about a [long-term] lease?” she said. “How do you do business when you need bookings at least six months for a wedding, if not a year?”

Chong Investments member Erick Tom — not related to Pearl Tom — said the sale of the building his grandfather, father and two brothers had constructed was “a family decision.”

“Everyone has their own different directions,” Erick Tom said, declining to elaborate on the reason.

Two members of Erick Tom's family sit on the Empress of China's board. They recused themselves from decisions around the restaurant lease, he said.

“When we talk about the Empress, we have to talk to them at arm's length because it would not be fair to have insider information,” he said.

The Empress of China isn't the only tenant leaving. Asian Artwork, which sells fine art and jewelry on the mezzanine level of the building, will shut down Wednesday as well. On the floors above, there are small businesses that have served locals within walking distance — dentistry and law offices on the third floor and, on the fourth floor, insurance, accounting, broker and travel services.

A tenant for 34 years, Harvey Louie, 66, an agent for Farmers Insurance, said he will most likely retire if the new owner decides to remodel the building and asks businesses to move, even temporarily.

“I don't think it would be in my cards to move and then come back for just a few more years,” Louie said.

No one has been asked to leave, said Erick Tom, who runs a merchandise store in the basement, though the building has “generated quite a bit of interest.”

Community members say the building is on the market through the real estate firm CBRE for about $25 million.

The Empress of China's fate follows the closures of The Emperor and Tommy Toy restaurants, the only two other large, fancy Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. The neighborhood has only a few large restaurants with banquet halls that are more casual remaining — Far East Cafe on Grant Avenue, the New Asia Restaurant on Pacific Avenue and the Imperial Palace on Washington Street. Already shuttered in the latter category recently were Gold Mountain and Four Seas, and they're not being resurrected.

New food-service businesses opening up in Chinatown are smaller, cafe-style or holes in the wall that also offer takeout. The larger ones that are surviving are flexible enough to cater to different customers — banquets, special events, restaurant style and dim sum, said Cindy Wu, community planning manager at the Chinatown Community Development Center.

“It is indicative of something shifting,” said Wu, who is also Planning Commission president. “In the '80s, there were more big banquet-type events like weddings and red-egg celebrations. Now, not everyone feels like they have to do the big event and do simpler milestones.”

The brokers put out a vision for a tech-type company in the restaurant's place to help guide bids for the space, but the building code for the space only allows for service-oriented and education offices, residences and a restaurant that was grandfathered into the provisions, Wu said.

But just because a tech company is barred from occupying the space does not quell fears that other types of businesses might move in that would bring change. Hakkasan, south of the neighborhood on Kearny Street, for example, serves modern Cantonese cuisine that appeals to a younger, wealthier demographic.

Chinatown is one of the few neighborhoods in The City that has not been transformed by gentrification and residents are “very watchful of any threats,” said Mabel Teng, executive director of the Chinese Culture Foundation.

“The Empress of China has been very supportive of the community, available at below market rate and I have yet to hear any of the new tenants coming to Chinatown have that kind of orientation,” she said. “I don't think the community wants to see a restaurant business using Chinatown as their venue.”

San Francisco Heritage, a nonprofit, has named Empress of China as one of The City's legacy restaurants and bars.

The Planning Department has started preservation initiatives in South of Market, Japantown and lower 24th Street in the Mission. Wu said she would like to see Chinatown included and that the initiative be more creative on how to preserve use, not only specific businesses and institutions.

“If we're only preserving buildings and festivals, then we're only preserving the shell and not the heart of what culture is,” she said. “I want to bring to attention the everyday case and to make sure they continue to have a home in Chinatown.”

More than 60 Empress of China employees — many whom have worked there for more than 20 years — will be out of work, and local vendors will be affected, too. The Empress of China is among their biggest customers.

“Our produce lady is right across the street on Clay. Our chicken supplier is right across on Grant and we won't be buying there,” Pearl Tom said.

Restaurant floor captain David Wong, 72, who has worked at the Empress of China for the last 14 years, said he will retire after the closure but worries about the job outlook of younger employees he supervises who do not speak English.

“They ask me, 'Uncle, what are you going to do?' I am their leader,” Wong said. “I said, 'Sorry, kids, this is what the boss is going to do, and I cannot do anything about it.'”