How would you feel if you walked into a restaurant this evening and were immediately greeted by the head waiter admonishing you in a broken English Chinese accent to “sit down and shut up”, then ignoring you completely or, if you were lucky, hurling the menu at you? Oh, and don’t make the mistake of requesting an English translation of that menu if you want to avoid a further volley of vitriol. And if you are a woman, or have women in your party, keep a close eye on that waiter because he is prone to grope female customers (the only time he is likely to crack into a smile).
So how would you react? Walk out? Ask to speak to the manager? Post an adverse review on TripAdvisor? Sue the restaurant? Punch the waiter’s lights out?
Well, that is likely to have been your experience had you visited the Sam Wo restaurant on Washington Street, between Grant Avenue and Waverly Place, in Chinatown during the decades following the second world war. And it is equally likely that you may have chosen to dine there in the express hope that you would be on the receiving end of such appalling service. Indeed, being insulted at Sam Wo became as much a “must do” San Francisco experience as drinking Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café or driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Your tormentor would have been Edsel Ford Fong, the “world’s rudest waiter”, who, in the words of Stephen Jay Hansen in his excellent The Other Guide to San Francisco – or 105 Things to Do After You’ve Taken a Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf, “baits and berates male customers and shamelessly hustles every woman who enters his domain. He’ll throw you a load of chopsticks with a brusque “Dry!” or spirit away your date to help him wait on tables. He’s a refreshingly irreverent wit and an absolutely crazed madman”.
It’s No. 58 by the way (of the things to do that is, not a dish on the menu).
Fong, who was born in Chinatown on 6th May 1927, was an imposing figure measuring six foot and weighing 200 pounds, sporting a severe crew cut hairstyle and wearing both a long apron and permanent scowl. He exploited his reputation brazenly, criticising customers’ menu choices, getting orders wrong (deliberately?), slamming food on the table and spilling it over the customers, refusing to provide knives and forks as alternatives to chopsticks, removing plates before the customer had finished eating, and reacting angrily to tips that didn’t exceed 15% (surely such an entertainer has a right to expect more?!). Unsuspecting white tourists were particularly fair game for his most patronising and scurrilous comments.
Herb Caen, the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist, was a regular patron of Sam Wo and an amused advocate of Fong, repeating Edsel’s finest insults from the night before in the next morning’s edition of the newspaper. Fong would respond by proudly waving it at anyone in the restaurant who was interested or wan’t, it was all the same to him.
He died in April 1984 but his legacy lives on in many ways, not least in the occasionally churlish service still prevalent at Sam Wo today, though it lacks the panache brought to it by Fong. A series of club-level Asian food stands at AT& T Park are named after him, and his status in the community has been visually commemorated in his inclusion in the 200 foot long, 7 foot tall “Gold Mountain” mural depicting Chinese contributions to US history, painted on the side of an apartment building in Romolo Place near the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach.
Fong also appears in Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin and was played by Arsenio “Sonny Trinidad” in the ensuing miniseries.
I’ll finish with an excerpt from the book where our heroine, naive Mary Ann Singleton still fresh out of Cleveland, and taken to Sam Wo’s by bumbling private investigator, Norman Neal Williams, bears the brunt of Fong’s ire:
“Hey, lady! Go wash yo’ hands!’
Thunderstruck, she turned to see where the voice had come from. An indignant Chinese waiter was unloading plates of noodles from the dumbwaiter. She stopped in her tracks, stared at her accuser, then looked back towards the rest room.
The sink was outside the door. In the dining room.
A dozen diners were watching her, smirking at her discomfort. The waiter stood his ground. ‘Wash, lady. You don’t wash, you don’t eat!’
She washed, returning red-faced to the table. Norman grinned sheepishly. ‘I should have warned you’.
‘You knew he would do that?’
He specializes in being rude. It’s a joke. War lord-turned-waiter. People come here for it.’
‘Well, I didn’t’”.