Photos: Local Asian American restaurateurs honor Lunar New Year with feasts

See how local Asian chefs and restaurant owners educated the county about Chinese New Year through cultural food.|

Lunar New Year starts on Jan. 22 and is widely known to revolve around communal celebrations involving fireworks, lion dances and a dragon snaking through a colorful festival procession. An integral part of the 15-day holiday goes relatively unseen in the public eye. It’s the New Year’s Eve feast, or “reunion dinner,” that is comparable to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

Local Asian restaurateurs have been paramount to Sonoma County residents’ understanding of the holiday as well as serve up traditional Asian cuisines.

Local Chinese historian, Jam Kee Restaurant owner Song Wong Bourbeau

Song Wong Bourbeau and her husband Charles Bourbeau owned Jam Kee Restaurant, an establishment that was considered to be the best Chinese restaurant in Santa Rosa for over half a century. Wong Bourbeau’s grandfather Poy Jam originally opened the eatery and then passed the business on to Wong Bourbeau in the 1920s when he retired. Jam Kee Restaurant would remain open until Charles’ death in 1988.

Wong Bourbeau, a Santa Rosa native, came from a notable Chinese family. Her father, Tom Wing Wong, was known as the “mayor” of Chinatown. Wong Bourbeau and her mother Lun Moon, were the only women in Chinatown at first. The two did all the cooking for an all-male boarding house for Chinese workers, which while Wong Bourbeau’s father also oversaw. The women also regularly held banquets.

Wong Bourbeau was vice president of the local Soroptimist Club and involved in several charities. By the 1940s, she and Charles Bourbeau were hosting Chinese New Year dinners at Jam Kee Restaurant.

The city of Santa Rosa honored Wong Bourbeau with a merit award in 1985 for her “quiet volunteer services” and the American Legion Auxiliary named her California’s Woman of the Year in 1992, the first Santa Rosan to hold the title. Before her death in 1996, she was heralded as the keeper of Santa Rosa’s Chinese history.

The Lew family’s Chinese culinary legacy

In 1941, Raymond Chin Hing and his partners opened Petaluma Grocery, which would enjoy nearly 40 years of business.

“It served the entire community, and at one time, was the largest grocery store north of San Rafael,” said Hing’s grandson Lance Lew in a Sept. 7, 2005, Petaluma Argus-Courier article.

Despite the owners facing discrimination, the supermarket endured, attributed partly to Lew’s father, former U.S. Army Sgt. Norman Lew.

According to a Jan. 12, 2008, interview with the Petaluma Museum, Lance Lew said his father would sometimes supply customers with authentic Chinese ingredients from their home.

“So we aided in the culinary education of our customers,” he said.

Lew discussed how Lunar New Year in particular was an important part of his cultural identity. Over the years, Lew’s renowned 10-course Lunar New Year dinners regularly sell for upwards of $10,000 at charity auctions, such as the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction, and has raised more than $125,000 for a dozen local nonprofits.

“Chinese New Year’s has been very close to me,” Lew said in the 2008 interview. “But how this all came about was educating my guests on the customs and the foods of Lunar New Year, because those are the things that I remember my grandmother always talking about, and the stories would all come about when we would eat each of the dishes, much like how a Passover Seder is, and that helps carry on your tradition of food and stories.”

See the gallery above for photos of local Asian American restaurateurs and their contributions to Lunar New Year festivities and local Asian cuisine.

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