Imperial Dynasty

Some members of the Imperial Dynasty crew, wave goodbye to customers as the photo was taken the last night the restaurant was open for business, Feb. 18, 2006.

Courtesy of Noodles Through Escargots

Ten years. One complete decade. Including leap years, that’s 120 months or 3,652 days. Where did the time go?

Ten years ago, on Feb. 18, 2006, after 123 years in the restaurant business, the curtain came down, the lights went dark and the show was over — The Imperial Dynasty closed its doors. Our home place, the restaurant, was the beating heart of our family. With its closure, my own heart shattered into what felt like a billion and one pieces.

One thing I’ve learned over the past ten years is that endings are complex. They can be cluttered with the process of unraveling and the trials and tribulations that arise with everyone’s emotions in tumult. But perhaps even more importantly, endings can be occasions for celebrating what has been and for what is to come. They are beginnings, recommitments, and a wide-open space in which the future can unfold.

The past 10 years have rekindled in me an even deeper sense of commitment for studying and recording the histories of the early Hanford Chinese pioneers and for restoring and revitalizing China Alley. Past memories and reflections no longer trip me into a deep chasm of grief. I still have my moments of sadness, but the acute sense of loss dissipated over the decade. Life has moved forward and four years ago Steve and I opened our tea shop in China Alley.

Today as I write, I occasionally stop and peek out the Tea Room door to gaze at the Imperial Dynasty building. What is it going to tell me today? I whisper to it, “Ten years.” But I’m not sad or melancholy today. Snippets of tactile memory float through my mind and touch my spirit and suddenly I find myself reminiscing about setting tables in the restaurant’s dining rooms. Up until the very end, we were still setting tables — no utensils wrapped in a napkin for us — and resetting them each time the table turned over. Linen napkin in the center. Three forks on the left of the napkin; a knife on the right, with the serrated edge facing the napkin; followed by teaspoon and soup spoon. Bread plate to the upper left. That was the norm unless one was setting the table for one of Uncle Richard’s off the menu special eight-course “Gourmet Dinners.” Those tables were set with a multitude of utensils and wine glasses and by Uncle Richard’s standards. There were many times he stopped by a table I was setting with a yardstick or ruler in his hand. Each utensil, glass, plate, and napkin had to be set in proper alignment and symmetry. He measured each placement. Depending on the phase of the moon, Uncle Richard either simply stated or said in, um, a much louder voice, “Protocol. Proper place setting. Protocol.” And boy howdy, we learned not only how to set a table properly, but also very quickly.

Now I’m trying to unravel a piece of China Alley history, and I hope some of you may have some answers. As I’ve mentioned before, the Imperial Dynasty and Chinese Pagoda building was comprised of five separate buildings. The building that became the cocktail lounge was the Sue Chung Kee building, adjacent to the Taoist Temple. The Sue Chung Kee building was converted to the cocktail lounge in 1972. Prior to that, the lounge was situated in the dining room adjacent to the main dining room. I have a child’s memory of a man playing a baby grand piano in the old lounge. I’m writing “cocktail lounge” because that’s what it was called. At some later point, in keeping with more current vernacular, the lounge became “the bar.”

I also have a child’s memory of an enclosed walk-through in the Sue Chung Kee building before the new cocktail lounge was constructed. There were big windows and I believe local clothing stores (I recall Tina’s Fashions, Case’s, and Van Andels) decorated and advertised in the windows. I remember the well-dressed mannequins that were displayed.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate photographs of this walk-through or for the transformation of the Sue Chung Kee building into the Imperial Dynasty cocktail lounge. Do any of you remember the walk through and the advertising windows? The Sue Chung Kee remodel? Anyone have pictures? Please let me know if you do.

I know this recipe has been published before, but it seems only fitting to share it again to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Imperial Dynasty’s closure. I hope this recipe for Uncle Richard’s version of escargots brings many happy memories to you. Since the Imperial Dynasty closed on Feb. 18, 2006, my shattered heart has mended and continued to beat another 420,480,000 times. It’s still beating, and I’m looking forward to new discoveries and more adventures in the next 10 years and beyond in our beloved China Alley.

Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-operator of the L.T. Sue Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at ariannewing@gmail.com

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