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Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens
updated: Oct 06, 2010, 8:30 PM
By Neal Graffy XNGH
(Note: I wrote this for the Independent in July 2006 when Santa Barbarans were shocked to hear that Jimmy's Oriental Gardens would soon be closing. For many in the community, this was deemed a calamity far worse than any Mayan calendar could predict.)
Though the Santa Barbara community is focused on Jimmy's, a fixture on East Canon Perdido Street since 1947, the heritage of the restaurant and its founder are certainly worth reviewing, too.
In 1862, members of the Chung family left Guangdong, a province in southern China and settled in San Francisco. A son, Wah Hing Chung, eventually came to Santa Barbara and was hired as a chef at the Arlington Hotel. Sometime before the turn of the century, he left the Arlington and opened the Wah Hing Chung Laundry at 21 W. Carrillo. The laundry later moved to 113 W. de la Guerra street and closed down in the early 1940s, having survived its founder by a little more than a decade.
Wah Hing's son, James Yee Chung, was born in China July 21, 1910, and came to Santa Barbara in 1922. He attended the usual local schools and worked at his father's laundry. Somewhere along the line, he found laundry was not his calling and opened a restaurant, The Friendly Café, at 718 State Street in late 1936. Upstairs at 718 ½ was a Chinese restaurant, The Nanking Gardens, run by Fun Yee.
In 1940, Chung closed the Friendly Café and opened the "Oriental Gardens" at 330 W. Cabrillo. A few years later, he moved two doors down to 320 W. Cabrillo, and in 1947 moved the restaurant for the third and final time to 126 E. Canon Perdido.
Prior to 1925, Santa Barbara's Chinatown had been concentrated primarily in the first block of East Canon Perdido Street. Following the earthquake, the area was "revitalized", and Elmer Whitaker, a local contractor, built the two-story buildings along the 800 block of Santa Barbara and at the corner of Santa Barbara and Canon Perdido for the dislocated Chinese businesses and residents. Whitaker convinced Jimmy to move to the "new" Chinatown, to a site that was conveniently across the street from Mr. Whitaker's house. No need for take-out for him!
The existing building on the property was deemed unsuitable and was demolished. For at least two decades it had been a bakery, run at one time by a Spaniard, Jose Fernandez, and next Emilio Tabacchi a Swiss-Italian.
The new building, designed by local architect Roy W. Cheesman, was somewhat - and delightfully so - unusual. To start with, the building is finished with brick rather than the usual white stucco, which sets it apart from its Hispanicized neighbors, and also gives the building a quaint and older feeling. The black and red wood trim along the front flanks panels of black tile inset with pale green Chinese tile motifs. The shapes of the wooden brackets under the eaves cleverly continue the Oriental feeling. Topping off this architectural gem is the obligatory Spanish tile roof, which somehow doesn't seem out of place.
Behind the restaurant a two-story house was built where Jimmy and his wife, Nuey raised their five children, Bill, Tommy, Kong, John and Barbara.
Jimmy Chung died in 1970, and his son Tommy, who started working at the restaurant in 1967, took over and has kept it running and looking pretty much like it did when his father first opened it. A big difference between father and son however is that Tommy cooks and Jimmy didn't. Instead, he was a great "front door man".
That difference aside, both father and son have proved themselves as successful restaurateurs and made Jimmy's Oriental Gardens a part of Santa Barbara History.
After the Independent printed the article, Ray Chong, a cousin of Tommy Chung, contacted me. Ray kindly provided me with a very detailed record of the family tree, along with the actual Chinese names of several people key to the Santa Barbara Chung history. For example, Wah Hing Chung was Yee Gip Wah, and Jimmy Chung's birth name was Yee Kan Yak.
But wait, there's more!
I've also found that Jimmy Chung had a Jimmy's Oriental Gardens in Ventura on Main Street. I haven't checked for the dates, but it was probably in the 1950s. Anyone remember that restaurant?
2010-10-07 07:38 AM
Neal has done his usual wonderful job of teaching us about our local history. Thanks, Neal
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