Wonton Way: This History of Fort Erie’s Chinese Restaurants

This story I wrote about the history of Fort Erie’s Chinese restaurants originally appeared in Niagara Life magazine. This story was a year in the making and born out of a curiosity for why three Chinese restaurants existed side by side on the town’s quiet waterfront.

The mindless scrolling through my Instagram feed came to a standstill when I saw it.

It was a haphazard array of plates on a table: stir-fried vegetables with chicken, a combo meal with an egg roll and fried rice, and two half-drunk glasses of ice water. Peeking out from underneath the edible mess was a paper placemat, the kind that’s a magnet for the drippings of just such chop suey meals, easily replaced after the gluttony to make way for someone else’s order of sweet and sour and chicken.

Along the upper edge, May Wah Restaurant and Tavern was written in red Shanghai-style font. In the caption below her photo, diner Melissa Rebholz wrote, “When in Canada.”

The palatial May Wah is in Fort Erie where the Niagara River begins its unyielding advance toward Niagara Falls. Rebholz hails from a virtual universe away in Tennessee. The farmer and chef whose family lives in western New York, was fuelling up at the local legend – and one of a triumvirate of remaining Chinese restaurants that rule Fort Erie’s riverfront – after a day trip to Niagara Falls during the Christmas holidays.

“Stopping for Chinese food on the way is a must,” she added in a follow-up comment. 

For so many Buffalonians and western New Yorkers, it is. Ditto for Niagarans, who for decades have made the restaurants – May Wah, Happy Jack’s, and Ming Teh – pit stops in their travels, or dining destinations.

They’ve endured side-by-side thanks to those like Rebholz, who uphold them as institutions and visit them as much to maintain traditions as to get a chop suey fix.

May Wah Restaurant: The History of Fort Erie's Chinese Restaurants | eatingniagara.com

Judy, Carol, Eddie and Steve Cheu of May Wah.

Like Rebholz, the families running them are also keeping something alive: the legacies of those who came to Canada, at a time they weren’t welcome, to build a better life. Back then, racism limited Chinese immigrants’ career opportunities to operating laundries, grocery stores and restaurants, said Shirley Lum, a Toronto-based culinary historian. It was usually men who made the journey to Canada and they often came alone because the head tax, in place until 1923 to stymie Chinese immigration, made it too expensive to bring family with them.

Fort Erie’s first Chinese-owned eatery opened in 1920. The Bridgeburg Café on Jarvis Street was operated by two brothers, ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ I.P. Lee. Meanwhile, at the south end of town in the shadow of the Peace and International Railway bridges, Pong Hong ran The Blue Barn. In 1937, the Niagara Boulevard restaurant was taken over by Stanley Joe and renamed The New York Café. It was a landmark until it shuttered in the mid-1960s when Happy Jack’s, May Wah and Ming Teh carried on the story.

Their stately brick facades beckon those hungry for egg foo young, Peking duck, even cream pie. Every dish is a nod to each owner family’s history – and to Fort Erie’s. They’re a throwback to more prosperous times for them and their city, hit hard by factory closures, fluctuating currencies, and more onerous travel regulations. Their recipes remain rich in family loyalty and aspirations for a community’s future.

May Wah Restaurant and Tavern

You Yuen “Eddie” Cheu emerged from the kitchen at May Wah dressed in a baggy black Adidas track suit that belied the warm summer day outside. At the behest of his daughter Judy, the 83-year-old and his wife Carol gathered around a large table in the dining room to talk about the restaurant they built together. As they got comfortable, the couple’s son, Steve, tended to diners enjoying a late lunch. Broad vowels of Buffalo English filled the space between their forkfuls of fried rice and revealed which end of the Peace Bridge they call home.

“They say there are no Chinese restaurants in Buffalo,” Judy explained about May Wah’s international appeal. “They have every other ethnic (restaurant) but for some reason, Chinese, they can’t get it.”

Still, the diners making the trip across the Niagara River aren’t what they used to be. Their appetites for Eddie and Carol’s cooking were tempered in the early 2000s by a weaker U.S. dollar, SARS, the need for a passport to cross the border in a post-9/11 world, and the tenuous existence of the Fort Erie Race Track.

Wonton Way: The History of Fort Erie's Chinese Restaurants | eatingniagara.com

The ribbon cutting at May Wah in 1975.

In May Wah’s heyday, though, it was tough to get a spot in the 150-plus seat restaurant, which Eddie opened in 1975 after toiling in the kitchens of other local Chinese eateries. Within five minutes of horse races letting out at the track, the rush of orders for combo plates with an egg roll or soup jammed the kitchen’s pass. Bar goers and hotel workers in the neighbourhood filled the seats after the gambling crowd thinned. The Cheus pushed out meals to feed them until closing at 3 a.m., and started all over again a few hours later at 11.

During the week, when traffic was light at the Peace Bridge, office workers from Buffalo would come to fuel up on lunch and cheap gas. They’d share the restaurant with Fort Erie factory workers finishing their shifts on lines now silenced by slumping economies.

Eddie started learning the drill of feeding people when he came to Canada in the 1950s to cook with his father Pat at Parkview Restaurant, now May Wah’s parking lot. Unconvinced that his son was ready to run the business on his own, Pat sold the restaurant in 1966, and its new owner, Louis Louie, moved it across the street. The old Parkview location was leased to a new tenant. Eddie would spend the next nine years waiting tables for Louie, and getting more seasoned behind the burner so he could one day sate his own ambitions of running a restaurant.

“I went into the kitchen, watched them and learned how to cook,” he said.

When the lease on the old Parkview location expired in 1975, Eddie bought the building and opened May Wah where he and Carol served breakfast to shift workers, and became famous for their hot beef sandwiches, steak, pork chops and Carol’s Boston and coconut cream pies.

Three years later, Eddie tore down the old walls of his new endeavour and built an imposing hall where specialties like sweet and sour chicken, Cantonese chow mein, sesame chicken and spicy beef appeared on the menu.

Appetites began to change after Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, Judy said, and so came the curiosity and cravings for chop suey, the Canadian version of Chinese food consisting of a protein and vegetables cooked at rapid-fire speed, and coated in a thick sauce.

They were new Western foods created using Chinese cooking techniques, Lum noted, and they would fast become part of Canadian culinary traditions.

“It’s comfort food. Who didn’t grow up with chicken balls, Combo No. 1, 2 or 3, or chop suey?” Lum said.

May Wah was one of five Chinese restaurants operating in what was then a busy neighbourhood filled with hotels, grocery stores, laundries and a fish and chips joint. The Cheus lived upstairs with their five children, Kevin, Steven, Karen, Judy and Wayne. In the summer, they rented space on the building’s second floor to wait staff and cooks who came from Toronto for the work and wages they offered.

Save for the apartment still occupied by Eddie and Carol, the upstairs lodgings are quiet now, and the lights aren’t always turned on in one half of the restaurant.

Until the early 2000s, 80 per cent of their customers were American, the family said. Today, the demographics have swung the other way. While the Cheus still count on western New Yorkers stopping in, it’s the loyalty of Niagarans that has sustained them through outbreaks, cumbersome travel regulations and ever-changing exchange rates. Eddie has waved off suggestions to open a buffet to boost business, preferring to serve food that’s made to order instead.

Judy and Steve were the only Cheu children to join the business, their siblings leaving the restaurant, even the region, for other opportunities. They return every Mother’s Day, though. It’s May Wah’s busiest day of the year, and the occasion when Carol summons all her children back to help turn out orders.

They all hope business will pick-up again in a neighbourhood that’s “a ghost town” now, Judy said. “We just keep pushing away.”

On July 26, Eddie died at the age of 84. Without the family patriarch helming the kitchen, the Cheus closed May Wah at the end August.

“He was proud of what he built up,” Judy wrote in an email after her father’s passing.

Wonton Way: The History of Fort Erie's Chinese Restaurants | eatingniagara.com

Eddie Cheu

Happy Jack’s Restaurant and Tavern

Next door at Happy Jack’s, brothers Jack Jr. and Alvin Chew remember well Fort Erie’s – and their own restaurant’s – glory days when factories thrived, the race track was busy and Americans came in droves to try their luck on a pony or at the gas pumps.

Jack, Alvin and their older brother Jeffrey were boys at the time, seconded to their parents’ restaurant kitchen to help with meal preparation. Jack worked with his grandmother, peeling shrimp in 10-minute shifts before escaping to play with the Cheu children at May Wah.

Their father, Jack Sr., came to Canada in the 1950s to work as a cook in Toronto. He later joined his great uncle Stanley Joe in Fort Erie, cooking at the 30-seat New York Café, which was eventually expanded and converted to Happy Jack’s.

“It was chicken balls and chop suey – a very, very limited menu,” Jack Jr. said about the New York Café. “It was one of those ‘50s diners like what you’d see in Back to the Future.”

When Jack Sr. took the reins from Stanley Joe in 1967, he planned to mark the occasion by renaming the restaurant J Garden. An English teacher convinced him otherwise, Jack Jr. said. “His teacher said, ‘You’re always smiling, Jack. Why don’t you call it Happy Jack’s?’”

Until 1988, there were many reasons for the elder Chew to smile. Business boomed with enough hungry gamblers, workers and late night revellers to go around for everyone. On race days, traffic in the neighbourhood was so thick, “it would take literally two minutes to cross the street,” Jack Jr. recalled about the two-lane artery running in front of the restaurant.

After that, business slowed. It started with the recession in the 1990s and never caught another break. Unused parts of the restaurant remain in darkness on quiet days. The brothers work hard seven days a week to keep customers coming with good food. They remind people they’re here by sponsoring community sports teams and events.

Watching the brothers interact, the gentle ribbing, private jokes and smiles shared between them, they appear to be perfect business partners. Ask them and they’ll tell you they are.

“I’m the ingenuity guy,” Alvin said.

“That’s why I’m here, so it’s not Cirque du Soleil,” his foil, Jack Jr., interjected with a laugh.

But their parents never intended it to be that way. The restaurant was Wendy and Jack Sr.’s way of giving their boys opportunities they didn’t have themselves.

Wonton Way: The History of Chinese Restaurants in Fort Erie

Alvin and Jack Chew Jr. of Happy Jack’s.

“Our parents said, ‘You see us work so hard. We don’t want you to work so hard. Go do something else,” Jack Jr. recalled.

So they did. Alvin worked in Ottawa as an electrical engineer until his father died in 1986. He came back to Fort Erie to help Wendy run the restaurant. He thought he’d put in five years, but got married and stayed. It wasn’t his dream, he admitted. Jack Sr. “would probably kick me out if he were still here.

“Of course when you’re younger, you resent (working in the restaurant). You want to go out, go to the movies. But they instilled hard work,” Alvin said. “I’m very positive. I don’t look back at what could have been.”

Jack Jr. was studying genetics en route to becoming a doctor when a heart-to-heart with Wendy before she died in 2001 changed his path. She saw an entrepreneurial streak in her youngest son and told him the possibilities were endless running his own business. No one knew it would be the family business, however.

“We’ve always had a strong sense of family,” Jack Jr. said about his decision to give up medicine for the restaurant. “You take care of each other.”

Their cousin Stanley runs the kitchen today, though both Jack Jr. and Alvin have spent time mastering the family recipes for chilli jumbo shrimp, sweet and sour chicken and wonton soup.

On Thanksgiving, they serve 2,600 pounds of turkey. Other days harken back to the New York Café era. “Believe it or not, we sell a lot of burgers and fries,” Jack Jr. said.

Both hope Fort Erie’s fortunes will change. Fingers are crossed the proposed Canadian Motor Speedway is built and that car races can bring the traffic horses once did.

In the meantime, they know their parents would be proud of what they’ve accomplished at Happy Jack’s. And they’re grateful for all Wendy and Jack Sr. did for them.

“You saw how hard they had to work, the sweat and tears, the discipline,” Alvin recalled. “As the owners now, I say ‘Why did they do that?’ For a better life, I know that.”

Ming Teh Restaurant

If it’s not owner Wendy Men, it’s the artwork of Siu Kui Cheung that greets visitors to Ming Teh. And hanging among his paintings are multiple readers’ choice awards from The Buffalo News. Despite its location, Ming Teh, which means outstanding morals, has dominated the category of best Chinese food in western New York, attesting to who’s eating here.

It was Cheung who opened Ming Teh in 1977, at the site of an old dock for ferries that ran between Buffalo and Fort Erie. He did it so he could sell his paintings. His nephew, Mandel, arrived in 1983 from Wuhan, China, to help in the kitchen. Five years later, Mandel’s wife, Wendy, immigrated to work front of house.

It was busy back then. The family added to the building twice to accommodate diners, which included the likes of Goldie Hawn, Woody Harrelson and Robert Redford when they shot movies in Buffalo. Seven people worked the kitchen. Today there are six staff running the entire restaurant, three of them part-time.

“Before, lots of Americans came,” Wendy said. “It was just like a neighbourhood. There was never a passport issue. Then people got frustrated to get past the border, the customs. Lots of people didn’t come to Canada anymore.”

The couple, who took over after Cheung retired in 2006, would sooner offer a plate of their new pa pao chai than the story of Ming Teh or their decision to come to Canada, however. “It was just immigration” that brought them to Fort Erie, Wendy insisted.

Though it being close to the local Chinese community likely compelled Cheung to open Ming Teh where he did, the Mens talked instead about what sets them apart.

“People discover our restaurant and know our food is different from others. It’s the most authentic,” Wendy explained. “We don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. We do a lot of specialties, a lot of Szechuan.”

It’s unlikely anyone will carry on the business after them. Their children, whose names they choose not to disclose, are studying commerce at Queen’s University and at the University of Waterloo. The couple accept the restaurant’s fate, though they hope Fort Erie’s fortunes change for the better.

“I’m glad they can do whatever they want to do. When we came here, we didn’t have the skills except to work in a service business,” Wendy said. “The restaurant takes a lot of work and effort. The young generation may not want to put in the same work as their parents for a small profit. They have a passion to do their own thing.”

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