A Stretch of Mott Street Remembered

The ornately decorated interior of Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant. (Photo via The China Press)

The ornately decorated interior of Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant. (Photo via The China Press)

Translator’s Note: Manhattan’s Chinatown has witnessed many changes over the last century. This article, which appeared in the September 1 China Press and has been condensed, recounts the history of some of the more noteworthy stores and Chinese restaurants that once graced the streets of this bustling community.

In the very beginning, New York’s Chinatown had only three streets: Mott, Pell and Doyers. A turn onto Mott Street led to what was known as the “world’s most famous” Chinese restaurant, located at 7-9 Mott St., on the left side of the block.

Opened in 1897, Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant operated until 1974 and is among Chinatown’s earliest eateries. It is unclear why the restaurant was named Port Arthur, though its Chinese name, Lushungang, refers to a port on the tip of Liaoning Peninsula, in northern China. Lushungang was controlled by the Russians during the Russian-Japanese war of 1905 and was called Port Arthur.

Perhaps the restaurant was given this name since, at the time, Port Arthur often appeared in the news.

From photographs and postcards, one can see Port Arthur’s ornately decorated façade, which was considered a Chinatown landmark. The interior hall was elegantly appointed, with intricately and delicately carved teakwood furniture specially ordered from Canton. Electric fans hung high from the ceiling, and Chinese lanterns, one of which had large characters of Port Arthur’s name carved into it, also furnished the surrounding space. It was all rather spectacular.

Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association President Eric Y. Ng, who collects antiques related to Chinese-American history, said that Chinatown restaurants used to print their own postcards, similar to today’s business cards, which they would place on the counter for customers to take.

Postcard depicting 7-9 Mott St., with Port Arthur Restaurant above Soy Kee. (Photo via The China Press)

Postcard depicting 7-9 Mott St., with Port Arthur Restaurant above Soy Kee. (Photo via The China Press)

Port Arthur’s postcard was exquisite and served as a great advertisement. The restaurant operated on the second and third floors, with the second floor reserved for American tourists who came to Chinatown to experience what it felt like to be in a foreign land. The third floor was even more outstanding, its banquet halls separated into east and west. In that space, customers could arrange private parties as well as entertain distinguished celebrities and officials. Chinese customers could also hold their weddings there.

The Royalist Society of China, which during the late Qing period (1644-1911) advocated constitutional monarchy as a means of political reform, was said to have held a birthday celebration at Port Arthur in honor of Kang Youwei, a Confucian intellectual. Later, the Republic of China’s former ambassador to the United States and noted essayist Hu Shih was also said to have attended a banquet at the restaurant.

Ng said he went on eBay and purchased a Port Arthur menu from the restaurant’s early days, which featured the portrait of owner Chu Gow on its cover. He later donated it to the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). The Romanization of Chu Gow’s Chinese name appeared on the menu, but his actual Chinese name had long remained a mystery – that is, until a woman from Hong Kong visited MOCA and spotted the artifact.

That woman, Meien Cao, said the man on the menu’s cover was her paternal grandfather whom she had never met. Cao said her grandfather’s actual Chinese name was Dinghua Cao, but because he was the ninth child in his family, he was given the nickname Cao Jiu (the Chinese character for nine). In Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese, it is most likely pronounced like the English name Chu Gow.

Cao said that her own father, Cao Jinhui, was born in New York in 1905 and later returned to China. She added that one of her cousins was the cousin of Sun Yat-sen.

In 2006, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Nom Hoy Shun Association, a Chinese community group founded in New York in 1934, paid a visit to the last Port Arthur proprietor, a man in his 90s named Yongtang Shao.

Shao said he joined Port Arthur in 1945, which at the time was run by Boxiang Zhu. Zhu did not have any kids, so he treated Shao as if he were his son, Shao said. Under Zhu’s tutelage, Shao later took over the business, running the restaurant until he retired.

“That generation and today’s generation are very different,” Shao recalled. “[Back then] you never went back on your word when you conducted business by verbal agreement. You absolutely did not have to sign a contract.”

Shao added: “Everyone who worked at Port Arthur, regardless of position, was treated like family. We didn’t separate the higher-ranking workers from the lower-ranking ones. Everyone pitched in to help one another.”

Below Port Arthur was another famous store called Soy Kee & Co., which sold Chinese silk, antiques, ceramics, embroidery and tea leaves. It was a veritable department store of Chinese goods, similar to Pearl River Mart on Broadway in SoHo.

Interior of Soy Kee (Photo via The China Press)

Interior of Soy Kee (Photo via The China Press)

Soy Kee’s history goes back even farther than that of Port Arthur. In the very beginning, Soy Kee was located at 36 Pell St., but in 1897 it moved to the first floor of 7-9 Mott St. after that property, originally a horse stable, was converted into a building. Soy Kee’s founder, surnamed He, worked in the import-export business, as well as in wholesale and retail.

Ng said that when he arrived in the United States in 1970, Soy Kee had already been shuttered. Later on, a general merchandise store called Jinguo opened up on the site. Following the September 11 attacks, Chinatown’s businesses fell on hard times, and Jinguo also closed. The space remained vacant for a number of years, but in 2006 the entire structure was renovated and converted into an office building that today houses businesses and community associations.

But Port Arthur was also much more than a restaurant. According to an older member of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who toppled thousands of years of Chinese dynastic rule in 1911 and founded the Republic of China, arrived in New York City for the first time in 1896 and later established the New York branch of the Revive China Society, a revolutionary group. That branch was housed on the upper floors of the same building that was home to Port Arthur.

An old photograph kept by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association shows a calligraphy scroll hanging on the wall that reads, “Treat each other with all sincerity.” In the photo are several men dressed in western-style suits who are reading over documents. Sitting in a chair off to the right, wearing a tie and a pair of pointy leather shoes, and sporting a V-shaped moustache quite possibly is Sun Yat-sen.

In another black-and-white photo taken around 1905, there is an eatery right next door to Port Arthur called the Imperial Restaurant, which was decorated in the exact same fashion. The Imperial Restaurant was said to be a direct competitor of Port Arthur. In that photo, a little farther off in the distance, one can make out the steeple of the Church of the Transfiguration, first built in 1801.

The Imperial Restaurant is at the far left, and Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant second from left. Above hangs a sign in English that reads “Chinese Empire Reform Association” and another in Chinese that says “School of Patriotism." (Photo via The China Press)

The Imperial Restaurant is at the far left, and Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant second from left. Above hangs a sign in English that reads “Chinese Empire Reform Association” and another in Chinese that says “School of Patriotism.” (Photo via The China Press)

The significance of revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen and political organizations like the Revive China Society associating with Chinatown restaurants shows how these eateries were more than just places to have a meal. But what about the food? And what about that ubiquitous Chinese dish called “chop suey” that was once a staple for so many New Yorkers generations earlier?

A century ago, the menu at Port Arthur was much the same as those at Chinese restaurants today. There were silk noodles with chicken or stir-fried meat; a Shanghai-style noodle dish; stir-fried rice with assorted meats and vegetables; eight-treasure rice pudding, made with steamed glutinous rice and bean paste; spicy beef; tomatoes and beef; beef with pickled Chinese cabbage; and char siu (barbequed pork).

Based on the menu, the price for one person to eat at Port Arthur ranged from 50 cents to $3.50. Each dish was valued differently. The cheapest were 25, 50 and 75 cents, while the more expensive ones were $1 or $2. A bowl of noodles in soup with roasted meat cost 10 cents, while Cantonese poached chicken, known as “White Cut Chicken,” and roasted duck were each 25 cents.

If 50 cents back then was equivalent to $10 today, the prices were about the same as nowadays. There was also another dish during that era that was popular, but it’s unclear why it ended up disappearing. The dish, known as chop suey, was listed on Port Arthur’s menu with an explanation that it was not originally from China, but was instead a new concoction conceived in the United States.

So what is chop suey? In English, it is described as “a mixture of pork, celery, onion, and green bean sprouts” and is “very popular.” Simply put, it was a hodgepodge of ingredients all blended together.

There were many varieties of chop suey that, for instance, incorporated mushrooms and chicken. A portion of chop suey cost a mere 15 cents.

Actually, chop suey can still be found in Chinatown today. Believe it or not, a trip to a Cantonese-style restaurant on Mott Street can get customers something similar to the chop suey from a century earlier. That dish is stir-fried sliced meat with vegetables and includes many of the exact same ingredients: meat, baby corn, carrots, mushrooms, celery, muer (an edible fungus), and bean sprouts.

3 Comments

  1. Ken Zimmerman says:

    I remember Port Arthur very well. We would make our Sunday trips to Chinatown during the 50’s and after. The first “exotic” food I had was Cantonese style at that magnificently appointed place. It was only later that other kinds of Asian delicacies from other Chinese provinces became available. In Herbert Asbury’s “Gangs of New York” the author refers to the peace agreement between two warring tongs, On Leong and Hip Sing (I cannot vouch for his spelling),
    which was sealed at the Port Arthur
    restaurant during which Tom Lee consumed over 100 cups of rice wine. Whether or not this is hyperbole I am unable to say. This historical eatery also figures in Tyler Anbinder’s magisterial study of the notorious Five Points. Now, my favorite place is the renown Wo Hop, opened in 1938 and still going strong.

  2. I grew up on that section of Chinatown and would like to insert some vivid memories from the late ’40s & ’50s concerning the Port Arthur site.

    The large storefront space at 7-9 was Chinatown Fair, a “penny arcade” amusement site complete with the caged chicken, Skee-Ball machines, and coupon redemption counter for “winnings” from play the Skee-Ball and pinball machines. Chinatown Fair subsequently downsized and moved across the street to the Mott Street exit of the Chatham Square movie theater.

    The storefront under the Port Arthur became a local supermarket after Chinatown Fair moved.

  3. In 1970 my class (2) went to Chinatown and ate at Port Arthur. We were in the banquet room and probably making a lot of 13 year old noise.

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