Saturday, December 18, 2010

God Bless America

New York City, 
ca. 1956

When celebrity publicist Gary Stevens arrived for dinner at Sun Luck one evening in the 1950s, the manager asked him whether he knew the man sitting at a nearby table who came to the Chinese restaurant about three times a week. Seeing that it was Irving Berlin, Stevens walked over to say hello. After relating the manager’s theory that the songwriter was a garment manufacturer on Seventh Avenue, Berlin put his glasses on the table and said, “Gary, that’s very funny. Most people think I look like an accountant.”1, 2

Irving Berlin published his first song in 1907, and four years later, Alexander’s Ragtime Band became his first big hit. Over the course of his long career, he composed over 1,000 songs, such as Easter Parade, There’s No Business Like Show Business, White Christmas, and God Bless America, a paean to his beloved country. As composer Jerome Kern once said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.” And while Berlin spent a lot of time in Hollywood, he regarded himself as a New Yorker. Some of his favorite haunts in Manhattan were Gallagher’s, Lindy’s, Dinty Moore’s, and Sun Luck.3 (Berlin may have come to appreciate Chinese food while working as a singing waiter in Chinatown in 1906.)

Sun Luck was located at 143 West 49th Street, near the Radio City Music Hall and Berlin’s music company at 1650 Broadway. (A sister restaurant named Sun Luck East was situated at 75 East 55th Street.) In addition to its convenience, Sun Luck offered a wide variety of Chinese cuisines. Before immigrating to the United States, owner Jack Yee worked as a chef in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou.4 In addition to typical Chinese-American dishes like Chop Suey and Chow Mein, Sun Luck offered specialties from four different regions, making it one of the first Chinese restaurants in the country to emerge from the doldrums where such establishments had languished for decades.

“The fact that New Yorkers are becoming interested in Chinese dishes other than sweet and sour spareribs is a welcome sign that their gastronomical interests are widening, reported food critic Craig Claiborne in 1956. Feeding their new curiosity concerning the less familiar aspects of Chinese cooking is an exciting restaurant, Sun Luck…This large establishment, seating almost 300 guests, lists the specialties of Canton, which are already known to many here, plus the less well-known dishes of Peiping, Chungking, and Shanghai.”5 One of the dishes that Claiborne recommended was Soo Ja Shrimp—flaky, fried shrimp prepared in the “Mandarin” style, a term then applied to any Northern, non-Cantonese dish. One specialty called O. O. Soup was reportedly served to “the royal family,” presumably the Queen Mother who visited New York in 1954. In addition to the regular menu below, Sun Luck maintained a booklet listing more than 500 dishes that were also available.

Sun Luck opened its seventh location near Times Square in 1969, making it the largest Chinese restaurant chain on the East Coast, if not the country. However, the cycle of decline was soon evident, even though Claiborne reported that the new place came off “surprisingly well.”7 By the time Sun Luck ceased all operations in mid-1970s, innovators like Shun Lee Palace and Hunan were taking Chinese-American cuisine to the next level in New York

Chinese immigration, much like the Jewish experience, was often marked by struggle, progress, setbacks, discrimination, assimilation, and success. Indeed, restaurateur Jack Yee and composer Irving Berlin were success stories, each using his talent to enrich, and possibly even define, the American cultural experience. After all, what could be more American than inventive Chinese food and the songs of Irving Berlin?

1. Gary Stevens produced the television game show “Twenty Questions” and the celebrity interview shows “Luncheon at Sardi’s” and “The Stork Club.”
2. Robert Kimball, Linda Emmet, The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, New York, 2001.
3. New York Times, 23 December 2005.
4. Jack Yee previously worked as a chef at the Golden-Gate restaurant in Shanghai, the Capitol in Hong Kong, and the Diamond in Guangzhou.
5. New York Times, 31 October 1956.
6. Sun Luck locations included Times Square (200 West 44th St.), the Imperial (965 Lexington Avenue at 69th St.), Sun Luck East (75 East 55th St.), “Gourmet” (157 West 49th St.), Flushing (144-08 Northern Blvd., Queens), Elmhurst (91-16 59th Ave., Queens), and Sunnyside (45-12 Queens Blvd., Queens).
7. New York Times, 31 October 1969.
8. New York Times, 18 June 1972, 4 July 1972, 22 May 1973, 15 October 1974.

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