18 October 2012

A Chinatown Institution on Opening Day

Since the day, back in March 2010, when I posted a series of ripe, flavorful photos from a curious 1978 New York souvenir book, readers have never stopped writing to me about them, commenting on and asking questions about them. I have even been contacted by a couple television producers inquiring how to obtain rights to the photographs.

Recently, I paged through the volume again (which was published in London) and stopped at the photo above. I hadn't realized what I was looking at when I first set eyes on the picture. This is actually an image of a newly born Big Wong Restaurant. Today, the Cantonese Big Wong is a Mott Street mainstay and Chinatown institution. But here we see it as the new kid on the block, with plastic flags and red-white-and-blue banners and everything. The place doesn't even have a permanent sign yet.

The now-gone restaurant to the left of Big Wong, Mon Sing, was well-regarded in its day. It, too, served Cantonese food. It was owned by Robert Tsang. Noted composer and arranger Hershey Kay loved the place and used to hold dinner parties there. New York magazine described it as a "good, cheap lo mein parlor that also serves won ton soup and spare ribs."

Another odd historical fact: the building Mon Sing was in, 65 Mott Street, was the first building in New York specifically constructed as a tenement. It was erected in 1824. It is still a residential building.


Mitch said...

My favorite thing in this photo is the old "chinese" decorated phone booth. These used to be around in Chinatown and were presumably the idea of some bureaucrat in the phone company (as it was known then).

Photodude Images said...

When I got out of school and started working on Wall St, there were a few women at my firm of chinese descent who took us to Big Wong for lunch one day. This place seemed so authentic - Raw poultry hanging in the window, the menu had minimal English. The women did all the ordering in Chinese, and what a feast that followed. It felt like I was really in China.

Proud NIMBY said...

"newly born Big Wong Restaurant."

Well, kind of.

The original location, which I ran across in the mid-70s, several years before this Mott Street location opened, was located a block further north: same side of the street but between Canal and Hester. It was called Wong Kee.

Wong Kee drew my attention to it because there were no Westeners eating there. Seeing that a good sign, I tried it and have never stopped going back. The owner was a character.

For reasons unknown to me, Wong Kee closed and moved a block further south around 1978, with the same owner, who, shall we say, did things his way.
One of which was to change the name from Wong Kee to Big Wong, realizing certainly, as a Chinese-American assured me at the time, of the double-entendre.

Wong sold his interest quite a few years ago and the restaurant is now called FYI, Big Wong King. They've recently raised their prices, but it is still worth it.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I did not know that part of Big Wong's history, NIMBY. Thanks for filling me in!