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The banquets are what I most remember about Hong Fu. Many of the customs of banquet meals in Taiwan were also present at Hong Fu, despite the fact that it served both Sichuan and Taiwanese cuisines and was in Cupertino, California. Upon our arrival waitstaff would present a variety of set menus in ascending order of cost per table to whomever had made the reservation. The number and order of dishes on a banquet menu are purposefully set, and the waitstaff brings out the food just as thoughtfully. Eight dishes are lucky because eight (“ba”) sounds like “fa,” a word that conjures prosperity. Four, which sounds like the word for death, ought to be avoided at all costs. A few select dishes come out at a time so that diners may enjoy a variety of flavors and textures at any moment; soup and cold appetizers arrive at the beginning, and fried rice and/or noodles come toward the end.

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My parents are Taiwanese immigrants. They moved first to Michigan, where I was born, then to the San Francisco Bay Area, where several groups of relatives later followed. It was one of my brother’s Taiwanese American classmates who first told us about Hong Fu’s renowned Taiwanese beef noodle soup. Word of mouth was how my parents learned which restaurants to trust in a new land. Hong Fu became the place where my extended family met for casual meals and also held celebratory banquets, rejoicing over birthdays, new jobs, and anniversaries within its cream-colored walls.

Traditionally, in these meals, the more luxurious the food, the more the host is able to “save face”—a Chinese phrase that refers to maintaining social standing through manners and courtesy. Abalone is prized not only for its delicate flavor and chewy texture but also because it is so complicated to catch. Whether served braised with black mushrooms, grilled in soy sauce, or sautéed with bok choy, it’s a delicacy that requires a significant investment of time by fishermen who have carefully sought the camouflaged fish and pried it from the rocks. Meat dominates banquet dishes because it signifies wealth. (A common joke in Han Chinese culture is that women—stereotypically watching their figures—are always complaining about the absence of vegetables.)

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At a banquet restaurant I feel like a member of the in-group, linked to the place and flavors from which my ancestors came.

The traditional Sichuan dishes served at Hong Fu were dramatically flavorful, and over the decades that we went there, my family developed a love for certain ones: gleaming, skinny toothpicks of beef soaked in chili oil (gan bian niu rou); my brother’s favorite, fried slices of pork with thinner slices of jalapeño (jiao yan pai gu); whole fish with ginger and scallions (qing zheng yu); chicken egg drop soup heavy with corn kernels (ji dan yu mi geng, popular with children); sweet walnut shrimp with mayonnaise (mi zhi he tao xia, always sure to please newcomers). Whether we chose a pricier banquet or a less expensive one depended on the importance of the occasion and how flush the host felt at the time. Walnut shrimp frequently appeared at our more casual banquets whereas fancier dishes like bok choy with sea cucumbers or Peking duck with sweet sauce and fluffy white buns were eaten less often. Even the questions around the table became tradition: To this day, my mother always asks whether I’d like some sea cucumber or bitter melon, even though I’ve never, ever said yes to either.

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Eating at Hong Fu also taught me the rules of Chinese manners and family tradition. Elders, for example, not only take the first seats at the round table but also eat the first bite of every dish. I learned that it’s important to check with everyone at the table before rotating the lazy Susan and taking the final piece. I learned that if there are leftovers whomever has paid the bill heartily encourages the guests to take them home. These behaviors became ingrained. When I ate dinner with my second-generation friends whose parents had emphasized assimilation, I found that their table manners more closely mimicked those of my white friends: Everyone sat down at random, the first bite of every dish was as likely to be taken by a child as by an elder, and the last bite was up for grabs. On the contrary and despite my passion for Saturday morning cartoons, the Bee Gees, and McDonald’s, my family’s banquets had succeeded—partially—in keeping me connected to our cultural origins.

The most famous banquet in Chinese history is the Manchu-Han imperial feast, which was held in Beijing’s Forbidden City during the reign of Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi (1661–1722). This apocryphal feast consisted of 108 dishes and six meals over the course of three days. Peking duck, shark’s fin soup, egg tarts, the “snowy palm”—a meaty bear claw with sturgeon. By the time Taiwan stood under Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century, banquets on the island were usually catered by restaurants—though in the countryside the host provided the tableware, stoves, tables, and chairs; a chef cooked in a makeshift kitchen; and the neighborhood ate and celebrated together.

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These were the original pan toh, or roadside banquets, that my rural-born mother attended as a child in Taiwan. She grew up in Pingtung, 25 minutes away from the much larger city of Kaoshiung. Her own mother’s wedding banquet was reputed to be the city’s largest at the time; as the lore goes, the Hsu wedding was made up of 100 tables. When I ask my mother about her favorite pan toh dish, she speaks reverently of pork with bamboo shoots, but not nearly as reverently as she does of cai wei tang, a soup full of whatever vegetables (the stars of the dish) and meats were fresh specialties of the region. “At the end of the banquet we put all of the leftovers into a pot. This is the most delicious,” she told me, laughing. “The secret ingredient is everyone’s saliva!”

Taiwanese banquets were how my parents celebrated their own wedding and many others, so it made sense that a banquet hall like Hong Fu became the locus of my family’s celebrations in the U.S. When my white, Southern boyfriend (now husband) visited me in California for the first time, I was adamant we go to Hong Fu. We’d met in college on the East Coast, back when Chris’s understanding of Chinese food did not extend far beyond kung pao chicken and General Tso’s; over the years of our courtship, my family and I grew to love his adventurous appetite and even declared him to have a “Chinese stomach.” When his New Orleanian family met mine and discovered Hong Fu for themselves, the most passionate fan turned out to be his sister. She adored Hong Fu’s special banquet dessert, xiao lao shu—adzuki-bean-paste-filled, deep-fried pastries in the shape of mice. She loves this dish so much, in fact, that her email address and social media handles are inspired by its name.

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In 2009, as Chris and I planned the menu for our Bay Area wedding, we decided on mostly Cajun food for the reception. Therefore, a banquet at Hong Fu became the obvious choice for the rehearsal dinner. We rented one of the restaurant’s handful of private rooms, each sizable enough for five large, white-tablecloth-covered, round tables that could serve the dishes we loved. Throughout the dinner, my fiancé and I went around greeting family and a single table of friends, many of whom had never before eaten the dishes that I now found so familiar. Even a friend who considers herself pescatarian enjoyed the tea-smoked duck. Compared to the hundred tables at my maternal grandparents’ wedding banquet, it was a paltry gathering. But I was thrilled to have so many loved ones in the restaurant where I could reenact, in my own way, my family’s manners and traditions.

A year later I had graduated from my MFA program in Michigan, and Chris and I moved to San Francisco. The city is known for its world-class Chinatown, but the restaurants there are primarily Cantonese, a reflection of the city’s Chinese population. The South Bay where I’d grown up was only an hour away, but it felt too far to go by myself to dine, especially because my parents had moved back to Taiwan while I was in graduate school. And so I took a long pause from eating Chinese food. I enjoyed all the culinary variety that San Francisco offered me, but if I truly thought about the food that I’d grown up with, I found myself bereft.

Hong Fu served its final meal on June 22, 2019. The owners’ children had sought careers outside of the restaurant, so there was no one to take over the business. I went with my remaining Bay Area family on that last day, to enjoy our final Hong Fu banquet. It was a bittersweet occasion, in which I relished the plates of spicy pork and chili-soaked sea bass but couldn’t bear the thought of never eating there again. My cousins, who had been eating at the restaurant since they sat in high chairs, had brought their long-term partners to the meal, which marked a passage of time that Chris and I found astonishing. We ate the same tea-smoked duck that I loved. As we left the bustling restaurant, I snapped a photo of the sign that hung over the koi pond in front, which thanked the customers, the staff, and their Buddhist guru before ending:

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We gave our best for the last 29 years With many shared great moments, cherished sweet memories, with gratitude,

We Thank You for Everything!

A hot pot restaurant was slated to replace Hong Fu—but the last I heard it was still dusty and empty inside.

  A Life in Banquets © Illustrations by Gabrielle Widjaja

Banquet halls in the Bay Area and beyond have been struggling since even before the pandemic, and these closures mean much more than a loss of places to eat. As journalist Melissa Hung and others have documented, banquet halls in many cities are community gathering spaces, particularly for the elderly, who are experiencing an uptick in violence due to anti-Asian hate crimes. A place for celebrations is crucial to keeping Chinatowns glued together: Hung also reports that in San Francisco banquet halls are centers for associations, civic organizations, and outreach to local politicians. Whereas the banquets I attended growing up were small affairs, a San Francisco Chinatown banquet could summon up to a thousand people. Now many of those grand halls are empty. Though I was never a part of that community, I can easily picture the shuttered doors of Hong Fu and consider the loss of celebrations and weekly family gatherings—so much more than what’s printed on a menu.

This was not, however, the end of banquets for our family. My sister-in-law Claudia’s family, Cantonese from San Francisco, had a favorite banquet restaurant of their own: formerly called May Flower and now called the Hong Kong Flower Lounge. It’s located just outside San Francisco, approximately an hour from where Hong Fu had been.

Flower Lounge is a much larger space than Hong Fu, able to seat up to 550 guests at a time. The Michelin Guide’s write-up seems clearly aimed at white diners, referring to it as a “palace of pork buns” patronized by “dim sum die hards.” But when I asked my mother about the Flower Lounge, she too spoke of it with reverence: “We moved to the Bay Area and it was impossible to get a table there!”

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After Hong Fu closed, our joined families began to have celebrations at Flower Lounge—most memorably, my niece’s Red Egg Party, the Cantonese celebration of a baby’s 100th day. A lunch banquet menu for a Red Egg Party starts at $259 a table, with 10 people at each table. We ate seafood and bean curd soup; those walnut prawns; Peking duck two ways, including tender sautéed and minced duck in crispy lettuce cups; lobster with ginger and bright green onion; fried noodles with sliced chicken. Other banquets might include braised dried oysters with sprinkles of black moss; white fish, gathered live from tanks and steamed; panfried sticky rice, both chewy and crispy.

Why, I asked my sister-in-law, was her family always able to get a seat at the Hong Kong Flower Lounge without hassle? Her grandmother, she explained, had long ago taken care of the owner’s ailing wife. Though her grandmother passed away years ago, the restaurant continues to lavish the Ngs with affection.

When I was a child my family frequented a salad bar chain called Fresh Choice. It appealed to us because it was all-you-can-eat American food for under $10. In other words, it was a place for penny-pinching immigrants. It was also a place where a white woman once shouted at my mother to “go back to China, and take those brats with you.” My American-born brother and I were, of course, the brats.

I care about the continued existence of banquet halls, and Chinese restaurants that serve banquets, because they are the antidotes to Fresh Choice. In a country that prioritizes the white experience, they’re sites that speak to my cultural background, my upbringing. At a banquet restaurant I feel like a member of the in-group, linked to the place and flavors from which my ancestors came. These restaurants offer immigrants a chance to connect where they are comfortable, without the expectation to perform “being American” in a way that demands familiarity with customs, language, and foods. As much as my mother enjoyed discovering the taste of avocados and tiramisu when she moved to America, eating at Hong Fu was like putting on a warm, familiar robe. It felt like a sigh of relief to be served foods that reminded her of home. Today when I take a nonTaiwanese or non-Chinese guest to a banquet, it’s an invitation, a question. I’m asking, as one of my favorite poets Lucille Clifton writes,

“won’t you celebrate with me

what I have shaped into a kind of life?”

To celebrate a new job, or a birthday, or simply that we have survived.

Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of the ‘New York Times’ best-selling essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias.

The Queen's 'incredible chocolate mousse' made with Drambuie whisky perfect for Easter .
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