Food brings people together in more ways than one. I recently had a food bonding experience that had nothing to do with food, except it happened during a food expo.
Last month we participated in the Fresno Food Expo, it was our fourth year to take part in this culinary event. More than a trade show, the Expo celebrates Central California’s vibrant food scene. We love the camaraderie we have come to share with the other vendors, and the show reminds us of the pride we feel to call home a region that supplies food to the world.
We appreciate that we have the opportunity to not only to showcase our product, but to to share China Alley and its stories with people from all over the world. Our booth is a stage, with large photos of China Alley as the backdrop. Standing in front of our booth is almost like standing in the middle of the Alley. But this year I feel a few of the Alley’s spirits joined us at the Food Expo, whispering the past into the present in a cowinkydinky experience.
During the morning portion of the Expo, I was about to leave our booth to take a break and explore. As I started to step away Steve called out my name. He was talking to Expo attendees, but motioned to a couple of gentlemen staring at our booth across the aisle. They weren’t looking at our tea; they were rather intently studying our booth’s décor, pointing to the photographic mural. The men were Asian, one older than the other. I figured the China Alley façade had piqued their attention and went to greet them as they moved closer to the booth.
“Would you care for some tea?” I asked.
The younger one responded while pointing to the older man. “He’s telling me that my great-grandfather had a gambling house in China Alley.”
I asked where in the Alley the gambling house was located. The older man spoke up. “In the basement of what became the Imperial Dynasty.”
I was startled at first and then felt giddy with the magic of synchronicity. I mentioned that the Imperial Dynasty had been my family’s restaurant and asked for the name of the gentleman’s great-grandfather. When he said, “Gong Guy,” I laughed out loud.
Not wanting them to think I was a lunatic, I quickly explained that I knew some of their family history because of my ongoing research on all things China Alley. Gong Guy owned the Sun Lung Jan establishment. Commonly recognized as a Chinese general merchandise store, there was also a thriving gambling room in the basement. What I found most amusing and most synchronous about the two men crossing my path was that Sun Lung Jan had been located directly below Mee Jan Low, great-grandfather’s noodle house.
Sun Lung Jan isn’t visible in the Alley today, but if you look from Green Street at the second building of the five that comprised the old Chinese Pagoda and Imperial Dynasty building, the two-story structure is there. On the second story a door belonging to great-grandfather’s noodle house is visible, though the first story entrance has been bricked over. Sun Lung Jan’s history lies behind those bricks.
I’m not sure when Sun Lung Jan opened but I do know it existed prior to 1913 as I have seen the name listed in the International Chinese Business Directory published that year. In 1922 Gong Guy, along with Y. T. Sue, Harry Lee, C.Q. Ying and my grandfather, helped to raise money to build a “new” Chinese school on Visalia Street, now home to the Kings Players. Sun Lung Jan most likely closed in the late 1940s or early 1950s when Chinatown began to fade away.
The three of us visited a few more minutes and then the Fresno Food Expo beckoned us along our separate paths, though I stood there for a few moments marveling at the mysteries of history and food taken together or separately or even more simply referenced to bring folks together in surprising and touching ways. We did not dine together, yet our experience of connecting was as food-based as the Expo itself.
This week I’m sharing a recipe that I’ve adapted from one of Mark Bittman’s that I saw in “The New York Times.” I’ve added ginger and bean sprouts, changed vegetables and added few other tweaks. If you haven’t used fish sauce before, don’t be afraid of it. Fish sauce is a magical, culinary weapon. Just a few drops intensify the umami flavor of any savory dish. Mom loves to season her coconut noodles with fish sauce. These noodles are easy to make and the perfect dish to share with family and friends.