One hundred years ago, Chinese workers poured into part of downtown Hanford, drinking tea in restaurants crowded onto the street known as China Alley.
It was Hanford’s own Chinatown, and it flourished until the railroad work dried up, the immigrants assimilated and the culture became more multiethnic.
Now China Alley is making a comeback as a historical site.
A key to that comeback could be the new L.T. Sue Tea Room & Emporium at the corner of Green and Seventh Streets, which opened last month.
The official address is 1 China Alley, signifying for co-owners Arianne Wing and Steve Banister what they hope will be the beginning of a restoration renaissance for the street’s historic old buildings.
“We really started taking a look at the Alley and realized how much potential there was there,” Banister said.
The effort got a major boost last year when China Alley was named one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historical Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was a key victory for the local campaign to save the Alley.
It brought global recognition through reports by more than 1,500 media outlets, according to Wing.
Wing has deep roots in China Alley. The street encapsulates much of the history of the Wing family, which distinguished itself through the Imperial Dynasty Restaurant.
Opened by Wing’s uncle, Richard Wing, in 1958, the Imperial Dynasty put Hanford on the map. In its heyday, it was a five-star restaurant that drew people from around the world to sample delicacies such as sturgeon poivrade, savory lamb shanks, coconut ice cream and other one-of-a-kind offerings.
The restaurant closed in 2006. Richard Wing told The Sentinel in 2005 that he couldn’t physically be present to keep the food up to his exacting standards. He died in 2010.
The demise of Imperial Dynasty has motivated Arianne Wing — she used to work at the restaurant — to dream up ways to do more than maintain the Alley and its Taoist Temple Museum as a historic site.
Wing wants to revive the business fortunes of the area. She sees the tea room’s opening as a big step in that direction. There are now six operating businesses in the Alley in addition to the Taoist Temple Preservation Society, Wing said.
“I’m home in the Alley,” she said. “To come back to work in China Alley, it just has a wonderful feeling for me.”
Wing and Banister see the tea room as a way to kill several birds with one stone — generate foot traffic, make China Alley a regular destination and raise money for preservation efforts.
A portion of sales from the tea room goes to support restoration of the L.T. Sue building, a separate structure that is one of the oldest in Hanford and serves as the inspiration for the tea room’s name.
In the early 1900s, renowned herbalist L.T. Sue ran a flourishing medicinal business there. Successive owners continued to operate under the name “L.T. Sue” until the 1950s, Wing said.
The tea room sells nearly 100 teas in old-fashioned jars bearing the classic L.T. Sue label. Eventually, Banister and Wing plan to sell it wholesale online. The business also features teapots, accessories, gifts, “tea” shirts and a lunch menu served from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
In the future, the shop may offer herbal medicines the same way L.T. Sue used to, Banister said.
The building housing the tea room itself is unique, with a round entrance and large oval windows. It started as a Chinese house of worship and went through several business incarnations stretching back at least as far as 1938 before springing back to life as the modern-day tea room.
Banister and Wing have a larger vision for downtown Hanford that goes beyond China Alley. Banister said he still has plans to bring back Art works, a once-popular coffee shop on Sixth Street near Star Restaurant that closed for renovation a few years ago.
Both entrepreneurs serve on the Downtown East Steering Committee, part of the Hanford’s downtown revitalization efforts.
Proceeds from the tea room may be used to help pay for Art work’s ongoing renovation, Banister said.
The owners said they’re pleasantly satisfied with the amount of business they’ve gotten so far.
But they have their sights set on bigger things.
“There so much potential in downtown Hanford,” Banister said.
The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 or snidever@HanfordSentinel.com.