One of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Sam Wo, took great pride in featuring “the rudest waiter in the world.” His name was Edsel Ford Fung — at least he said it was. Sam Wo was founded in 1912. The name in Chinese means “three in peace,” which was a reference to the three immigrant brothers from Taishan, China who founded the restaurant. Soon after its founding, it became a popular late night Cantonese joint for both Chinese and Caucasians.
The original site was at 813 Washington Street in a narrow three-story structure. Over the years it catered to San Franciscans who enjoyed a bit of local color. In the fifties, it was popular with the Beats and their followers who came down from North Beach. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen reported the comings and goings at Sam Wo, and Armistead Maupin, author of the popular Tales of the City, which appeared first in the Chronicle and later as a series of books, immortalized the jook joint and its rude waiter.
Sam Wo was open until 3 a.m. Diners entered through the tiny kitchen and took a narrow winding staircase up to shabby rooms on the second or third floors. A sign taped to the wall read “no booze, no BS, no jive, no coffee, milk, soft drinks, fortune cookies.” Food was delivered from the kitchen below by dumbwaiter.
SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP
Meals were basic — wonton soup, jook (a rice porridge also known as congee), a few noodle dishes and what have you. Sam Wo closed in 2012 for various health and safety violations, but reopened recently at 713 Clay Street in Chinatown by the owner of 30 years, David Ho. At first, Ho tried to reopen Sam Wo at the original site. That didn’t work out, but suddenly there was a groundswell of support for the old place, and Ho and his family, along with a few investors, sought a new site. They found it at the Clay Street building, which once housed the Anna Bakery. The site is across the street from Portsmouth Square and just a few blocks from the Financial District.
The menu was upgraded as were the prices. Specials include barbecued pork rice noodle roll, salt and pepper chicken wings, tomato beef chow mein, Mongolian beef, kung pao chicken, wonton soup, all manner of jook, and other dishes savvy San Franciscans take for granted. The new place even has a dumbwaiter to deliver food. What made the old place so popular? Two elements — the dumbwaiter delivery in the narrow building, and the rude waiter whose welcoming line was usually “Sit down and shut up.”
Edsel Ford Fung, who died in 1984 at 57, was the son of Sam Wo’s owner and was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His name was really Edsel Fung, but adopting the name Edsel Ford was too good to pass up. You may recall that the Ford Motor Company came out with a dog of an automobile in 1957 and named it the Edsel after the son and only child of Henry Ford. Yes, that Henry Ford who developed the Ford Motor Company and built the Model-T Ford about which Henry said, “You can have it in any color you want -— as long as it’s black.” Before settling on the name Edsel for the automobile, the company asked famed American poet Marianne Moore, editor of Poetry Magazine, to come up with a name for the new car. She did — Utopian Turtletop. The Ford Motor Company disagreed. And so the Edsel was born and almost immediately took a dive.
THE EDSEL AND THE ZEPPELIN
But back to our notable waiter, his deportment, and his famous one-liners: If a customer took too long perusing the food-spotted menu, Edsel Ford Fung would cry out, “What is this, a library?” He was also famous for insisting that customers clean their own tables and for making passes at women customers. He also had a habit of complaining about his tips, cursing, spilling soup on the tables, and refusing to provide forks or English translations of what was on offer.
Now, on to my friend Zeppelin Wong — this San Francisco lawyer’s first name really is Zeppelin. You can check his birth certificate.
In 1929, the huge German dirigible, Graf Zeppelin, became the first lighter-than-air craft to circle the globe. On Aug. 25 it made several dramatic passes over San Francisco. The Wong family, who lived in Chinatown, witnessed the Graf Zeppelin flyover. A week later, Sept. 1, a male baby was born to the Wong family and his mother named him Zeppelin Wai Wong. The young man went on to attend Stanford University and to become a lawyer. He also owned a San Francisco restaurant in the financial district called the Red Knight, but he was never rude to customers.