The Empire Dine and Dance

By Craig Dietrich

CAFAM members will recall that, among the materials collected by Gary Libby about Chinese in Maine, is the story of the Empire Dine and Dance restaurant on the corner of Congress and Forest. An effort has been underway to install markers on certain Portland buildings such as this one, to commemorate these Chinese connections.

On October 18, 2008, (thanks to the cooperation of the present owner, Bill Umbel) the first such plaque was dedicated at the location of the Empire Dine and Dance.

An enthusiastic crowd gathered in the brilliant autumn sunshine to witness the proceedings. Professor Ahkau Ng, past president of CAFAM opened the ceremonies. Gary sketched the Empire’s history. Also present was Kuo-Tung Yang, Director General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, accompanied by his wife Ying-Chuan Chung. Refreshments were served.

DrummerThe highlight was the drumming performance and the lion dance by members of the Ricardo Family Karate School in Limerick. Frank Ricardo, the school’s director was accompanied by students Mia Ricardo, Eryn Furlong, Mark Hayes, and David Benoit. After a percussion performance, a most excellent lion dance was executed by Mia and Eryn. These colorful and thunderous goings-on even stopped traffic on Congress Street.

Other Portland buildings will in due course have their own markers. Here is a description of the restaurant:

The Empire Restaurant was located on the second floor of this building which had been used as office space. The restaurant featured two dining areas which patrons reached via an elegant marble entrance and stairway. If one turned right at the top of the stairs, one entered a dining room reserved only for men in which smoking was allowed. To the left was a dining room for men and women. It had a dozen private booths finished in mahogany and cream, each with an electric fan and a wall button to summon the waiters. There were cream colored draperies at the windows in each booth. Fresh flowers adorned every table.

In addition to the booths there were between fifteen and twenty tables. The men’s dining room had another fifteen tables. Tobacco smoke was dissipated by what was described as a “clever system of ventilation.” A three piece orchestra and a female soloist performed from a niche between the two dining rooms. They played most days and every evening. The restaurant also sold Chinese candies and confections.

When it opened in 1917, the Empire advertised that it welcomed public inspection to demonstrate that it was a modern deluxe restaurant. The Empire’s menu offered select dishes from the country’s best American and Chinese restaurants. Lunch was served Monday through Saturday and a special Sunday Table d’Hote lunch until 3:00 p.m. Evening meals were offered a la carte until midnight.

The restaurant employed ten Chinese waiters and eight Chinese cooks and kitchen helpers.

The original manager, Chong L. Wong, returned to China in 1918 and was replaced by co-managers He Wong and Ping Wong. The latter stayed on until 1920 when Eddie W. Park joined He Wong as co-manager. Mr. Park appears to have earned considerable respect among the wider community since he was named chairman of the “Special Chinese Committee” associated with the local Chinese Famine Week Campaign fund drive in May of 1921. That committee raised $324.14 which it contributed toward the City of Portland’s goal of $15,000.

Eddie Park became the sole manager from 1921 to 1930 and by 1931 appears to have purchased the Empire , since he was listed in the City Directory as the proprietor from that date until 1953 when it closed its doors.

For many years there was a two-story-tall sign on the building, advertising “CHOP SUEY.” During World War II the Empire became a favorite honky tonk hang out for servicemen. One story has it that Charles Tolford, a Portland businessman, complained about the noisy juke box. When he asked how much it would cost to silence the thing for an hour so he could enjoy his chop suey, he was told five dollars. He paid up and ate in peace.

From the CAFAM November 2008 Newsletter

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