At night along Route 1 in Saugus, which is dotted with big and bold restaurant signage, it’s hard to miss the building with the soaring neon A-frame and giant tiki carving. Inside, Kowloon Restaurant has stood through many of the transformations Chinese eateries have undergone in the Boston area in the last half century.
As Chinese New Year approaches — the Year of the Snake begins on Feb. 10 — it’s a good time to look back on how different things are now. Boston has had Chinese restaurants since the late 1800s, most located in Chinatown and catering almost exclusively to the Chinese population; non-Chinese customers went to places that served chop suey and chow mein. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, fueled by Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, the Lower 48 fell in love with all things Polynesian or from the South Seas. Chinese restaurateurs were quick to notice the trend, and so added to their menu tropical drinks and dishes laced with sweet-and-sour sauce and plenty of pineapple. Restaurants were remodeled to add a festive, Polynesian touch. Although far removed from Chinese culture, the tiki craze helped make Chinese food — or more accurately, hybrid Chinese-American food — accessible to the wider public.
“My father had ideas from his travels to Hawaii on his honeymoon,” says Bob Wong, whose parents, William and Madeline, founded Kowloon in 1950. He is one of six Wong siblings and a current manager. In the ’60s, the restaurant began adding tiki statues, palm tree motifs, even a faux lagoon to dining rooms. Pupu platters, tiki drinks, and entrees such as “steak Hawaiian” were on a menu of chow mein and egg foo yung.
In the same era, the late Joyce Chen, a recent immigrant from Shanghai, sought to bring traditional northern-style Chinese cooking to the area. She taught cooking classes in Cambridge before opening Joyce Chen Restaurant in Central Square, with help and encouragement from Shanghainese friends. “My mother really wanted to serve traditional dishes from Shanghai and Bejing, what was known then as Mandarin food,” says her daughter, Helen Chen, author of “Helen’s Asian Kitchen,” her fourth book. The restaurant still had to have chow mein, chop suey, and the American dishes customers expected. Her mother began offering a Chinese buffet, with more familiar foods at the beginning of the lineup, northern Chinese dishes at the end. “Little by little, other foods were phased out,” says Chen.
Joyce Chen went on to open two more Cambridge restaurants, publish a cookbook, star in her own PBS cooking show, and develop a line of Chinese cooking utensils. “What she did for Chinese food in America was really quite extraordinary, considering what the food scene was like in the 1950s,” says her daughter.
Locals were not introduced to Chinese cooking paired with fine dining until 1984, when restaurateur Sally Ling and her then-husband, Edward Nan Liu, opened a high-end establishment on the Waterfront. “I have always preferred the upscale dining experience, and luckily in the ’80s the economy was able to support the idea,” says Ling. Ling and Liu brought in skilled chefs from China who had a refined touch. They served Peking duck, abalone, sea cucumber, and lobster with ginger and scallions.
In the white tablecloth dining room, food was rolled out on carts. Ling’s daughter Nadia Liu Spellman recalls that her parents decorated the walls with Chinese calligraphy, watercolors, paintings, and intricate wood carvings. “It was like a museum. Every piece of art had a spotlight on it.” Visitors included politicians, those in the neighboring Financial District, TV star Martin Yan, Julia Child, and Yo-Yo Ma.
The restaurant relocated to Cambridge, and then New Jersey, before closing. Spellman plans on opening a restaurant later this year in Boston to bring back some of those traditional flavors. CK Sau, the former executive chef at Sally Ling’s, now owns CK’ Shanghai in Wellesley. Joyce Chen alumni went on to open other northern-Chinese style and Sichuan restaurants, including Mary Chung in Cambridge, Chung-Shin Yuan in Newton, and The Wok in Wellesley.
At Kowloon, you can still get the dishes that customers who have been returning for 30 or 40 years expect, including 18 kinds of chow mein.
Long live pupu platters.