One late afternoon not long ago, I headed downtown to Hop Woo, a restaurant that has been a fixture in Los Angeles’s Chinatown for twenty-nine years. The pandemic has been hard on Chinatown. The streets, which used to teem with tourists and neighborhood folks, were empty, with a stillness that felt like being underwater. A pillowy plastic bag blew down the sidewalk, unfettered. Neon jittered in a few windows, not quite bright in the middling light. For more than a century, L.A.’s Chinatown has risen and fallen and risen again. The original enclave, established in the late nineteenth century by railroad workers from Guangdong Province, was razed in the early nineteen-thirties to make room for Union Station. A simulacrum Chinatown—designed by a socialite named Christine Sterling, who had previously developed a Mexican-themed neighborhood in the city, called Olvera Street—opened a few blocks away, in 1938. Known as China City, Sterling’s creation featured rickshaws, costumed workers, and buildings and props salvaged from the M-G-M film “The Good Earth.” (After repeatedly catching fire, China City finally burned down in 1949.) In the meantime, a Chinese American architect named Peter SooHoo organized a consortium of Chinese businesspeople to buy land near China City, and, also in 1938, his New Chinatown—the first Chinese district in the United States developed and owned by Chinese Americans—opened with a celebration that drew thirty thousand people.
Yening Liang (1960-2022), Hop Woo’s founder and chef, came to L.A. on an indirect path. He learned to cook as a child in Guangdong, and then apprenticed in a Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong. His grandfather had emigrated to Mexico decades earlier, and more Liangs followed. In 1978, Liang moved there from Hong Kong to work in a Chinese restaurant in Rosarito Beach owned by his uncle. He took to it. In short order, he picked up what he called “menu Spanish,” began calling himself Lupe, and adapted his Cantonese dishes for a Mexican palate: jalapeños featured prominently. In 1983, Liang decided to move north to L.A. He married a fellow Chinese Mexican immigrant, Judy, and together they opened a tiny eight-table version of Hop Woo in New Chinatown, just a few yards from where they eventually opened the larger restaurant that exists today. It is a classic of its kind: red vinyl booths; yellow vinyl chairs; lazy Susans in the center of Formica tables; Peking ducks swinging by their necks behind Plexiglas; ten-page laminated menus boasting a hundred and forty-three items. The doorway features a photo wall of Liang posing with local luminaries, and a picture of a table comically overloaded with dishes, captioned, “I am once again too full to eat all the Hop Woo food I ordered.” The restaurant, at its peak, was a humming, bustling place, open well past midnight, where families might split a platter of fried sesame balls and beef chow fun after a Dodgers game.
Liang was always partial to his Spanish-speaking customers, who accounted for at least half his business. About ten years ago, he had a notion to make his menu trilingual. Up until then, the dishes were listed in Chinese on the right, English on the left. But many of his customers couldn’t read either. At the time, no restaurant in Chinatown offered its menu in Spanish. The project was a family undertaking. Liang’s daughters, Mary and Kelly, began feeding the names of the menu items into Google Translate. Their cousins in Mexico were called. “Some of the noodle dishes were really hard,” Mary Liang said recently. And it was a particular challenge to “translate our Traditional Menu,” she noted. “I mean, there’s frog on there.”
The début of the trilingual menu was eventful. Customers were stunned to see Ejote en Salsa de Kung Pao and Alita de Pollo Empanizado en Salsa de Piña alongside what they were used to, Spicy Braised String Bean and Chicken Wing Lollipop with Pineapple Sauce. “We kept hearing, ‘Oh, my God, Spanish on the menu! Spanish on the menu!’ ” Mary said. “They were so excited.” Inflamed by the success of the Spanish renditions, Liang decided to embrace another subset of his customer base, the Vietnamese who had begun settling in the neighborhood. Another round of translating was undertaken, but, eventually, owing to the visual clutter on the menu, the Vietnamese listings were omitted. During the pandemic, as business slowed, Liang wrote a memoir called “Hop Woo: Recipes and Stories from a Chinatown Legend,” with recipes for the restaurant’s most popular dishes, and stories of his journey from China to Mexico to downtown L.A. He had hoped that the text would be in English, Chinese, and Spanish, but page-count constraints trimmed his ambitions, and it was published only in English.
The evening I had dinner at Hop Woo, the other customers were speaking Spanish, chattering over a soundtrack of Mariah Carey and Steve Winwood. I had asked Mary what the restaurant’s name, Hop Woo, means, and she told me that it translates roughly as “happy together” or “unity.” A restaurant in Mexico owned by Lupe’s brother had the imposing name of Royal Palace, and Liang’s father had urged him to use it for the L.A. restaurant as well. He resisted. “He didn’t want such a grand name for a small place,” Mary explained. “He wanted something that was more a reference about togetherness, about how to get along.”