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Chinatown Eatery Sam Wo Shuts Its Doors

Originally published at New America Media

By Vivian Po

Opened shortly after the 1906 earthquake, for more than 100 years Chinatown’s Sam Wo restaurant dished out cheap and tasty Chinese food to customers as famed as columnist Herb Caen, author Armistead Maupin, and Dr Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of China.”

It gained national fame for being home to the world’s “rudest waiter.”

The news was splashed across the pages of Local Chinese-language media. The Sing Tao Daily, which ran a full page spread on the eatery, made note of its failure to meet health and safety regulations.

Patrons entered the three-story building, located along Washington Street in the heart of Chinatown, through a narrow kitchen, ascending an equally narrow flight of stairs to the dining hall, where a dumbwaiter noisily brought food to hungry mouths.

Its antiquated features – the building itself had no walls, using those of neighboring buildings – are often what attracted customers new and old.

The name Sam Wo, explains the Sing Tao, means “three harmonies,” and comes from the fact that the restaurant was opened by three families: the Fung, the Lee, and the Ho family. The Ho’s were the last to operate the business until its closure Friday.

Sam Wo was one of the few places open to diners well into the morning hours. Hungry for some tomato beef chowmein? Sam Wo’s doors were open until 3 am, six days a week.

“My wife worked the day, and I worked the night,” owner Ho Gai-tung, 56, told the Sing Tao.

Recalling his early childhood, Ho said he often followed his father and grandfather around the kitchen. He took over the restaurant from his father, who retired thirty years ago. “My own children grew up in this place,” he said.

Ho’s daughter, Ho Yuen-ting, has been acting as the family liaison with the city government. She is quoted in the World Journal as saying that the Department of Health made routine annual inspections, requesting minor improvements here and there, which the family always made sure to comply with. 

But about a week ago, she says the health inspector returned and ordered the family to install a new refrigerator. The younger Ho decided on a temporary fix. When the inspector returned on April 18 with officials from the fire department and the department of building inspection, the family was told they had failed to comply and were ordered to shut down.

"This restaurant is my life," she told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We're definitely closing for the weekend, but beyond that nothing is definite." The paper reported lines around the block as residents clamored for one last bite of San Francisco history.

After the news broke, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and President of the Board of Supervisors David Chiu were quick to chime in.

According to World Journal, Mayor Lee contacted the Department of Health to look into the issue. A spokeperson with the mayor’s office said Lee would continue to monitor developments in the case and that he hopes Sam Wo would reopen shortly.

President of the Board of Supervisors David Chiu said Sam Wo carried special meaning for San Francisco and the local Chinese community, describing its closure as “heart-breaking.”

Tong Wai-Po, with the Department of Health, told the paper the closure did not come about all of a sudden, but was the result of a consistent failure to meet regulations. She explained the department did not want to see the restaurant closed permanently, but that it did need to make necessary improvements, including to its refrigeration and water supply.

Pointing to a Tuesday hearing over the closure, Tong said if the family were willing to make the changes, the restaurant could reopen and the department would be in full support.

Ho Yuen-ting told the World Journal that when the recession hit, the restaurant began to slip into the red. Still, given his love for the establishment, her father refused to let it go.

With the required upgrades – estimated to cost upwards of several hundred thousand dollars – there seemed little choice left.

Sam Wo employs ten waiters, all of who are now out of work. As for the owners, they say they’ve yet to hit retirement age and so will also have to hit the pavement in search of a job.

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