In The Wall Street Journal, James R. Hagerty tells the story of Cecilia Chiang. He writes (abridged):
Born in 1920 in Wuxi, near Shanghai, she was named Sun Yun, one of 12 children. She was later given the name Cecilia by a teacher at a Roman Catholic school. The family moved to Beijing when she was 4. Her mother, hobbled by bound feet, supervised the household servants. Her father, a French-educated engineer, decided that his daughters’ feet wouldn’t be bound.
That decision was particularly fortunate because, in the early 1940s, the young Cecilia and one of her sisters spent months walking across China to flee Japanese-occupied Beijing. With a few gold coins sewn inside their clothing, the sisters reached Chongqing, where they had relatives. There she married Chiang Liang, who had taught economics at her Roman Catholic university in Beijing.
The Chiangs fled to Tokyo in 1949, just before Communist forces won control of mainland China. With friends in Tokyo, Cecilia Chiang opened a Chinese restaurant, the Forbidden City.
In the late 1950s, she traveled to San Francisco to help a recently widowed sister. While there, she found two acquaintances who were trying to open a restaurant on Polk Street in San Francisco. Ms. Chiang wrote a check for $10,000 as a deposit for the premises. The other two women then backed out of the restaurant plan and left Ms. Chiang on the hook for the nonrefundable deposit. She decided to open the restaurant on her own.
She sometimes pitched in with the dirty work, including scrubbing the floor. Once the restaurant was established, she moved it to a larger space on Ghirardelli Square. In 1975, she opened another restaurant in Beverly Hills, later run by her son Philip.
In the mid-1970s, she returned to China to see her dying father. She found that her parents had been “broomed out the door” during the Cultural Revolution and for a time were street beggars. Her father spent his final days living in a hut with a dirt floor.
She is survived by two children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
With Lisa Weiss, she wrote “The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco.” A documentary about her life, “Soul of a Banquet,” was released in 2014.
In the 2013 interview, she recalled striving to educate squeamish Americans. “When I served fish with the head on, they said, ‘Please take that back to the kitchen and chop the head off. We don’t want to see it.’ But I still served it the original way.”
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