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Chinese Food in America Matriarch and S.F. Legend Cecilia Chiang Dies at 100

4 mins read

Chinese food in America matriarch Cecilia Chiang passed away at 100 years old on early Wednesday. Siena Chang, her granddaughter, confirmed the news of the late businesswoman’s death, including multiple unnamed acquaintances. According to Siena, Chiang died at their San Francisco home of natural causes. Chiang is also famous for being one of the Bay Area’s most influential culinary history figures when she was still alive.

Chiang began her culinary career as the owner of a former San Francisco restaurant labeled Mandarin. The eatery set its mark in dining history by creating innovative Chinese cuisine ideas in America in 1959. She promoted delectable Chinese dishes to Americans, such as hot-and-sour soup, potstickers, and tea-smoked duck. Chiang also made connections with royalty and famous rock stars that aided her business’ popularity. She made it all possible despite not cooking the dishes herself while doing her role as the representative of San Francisco Chinese food and a respectable restaurant industry mentor up until her 90s.

Cecilia Chiang grew up in Beijing, China, and was born on September 18, 1920. She and her 12 other siblings grew up in a 52-room palace. Among her brothers and sisters, Chiang is the seventh daughter in the family who later became one of her chronicles. Her Chinese name, Yun, means “flower of the rue,” and her full Chinese name is Sun Yun.

During her childhood years, Chiang grew up in a servant-clad household and two cooks, one coming from Northern China and the other from Southern China. She and her siblings were never allowed entry into the kitchen. Chiang, however, never forgot the memories of the food she ate in her first 20 years.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2013, Chiang revealed tidbits about her family meals back in her childhood days.

“I never cooked, but I knew what the food should taste and look like,” said Chiang. I have an incredible palate and good memory,” she added.

However, Chiang’s privileged childhood ended in 1937. At the time, the Japanese occupation began in Beijing as foreign soldiers swarmed the Chinese capital. Awakened by the sound of gunshots, Chiang hid under her bed out of fear and safety. Life increasingly became difficult for her family several years later, as bargains are required to trade in food necessities like sugar, pork, and rice.

Chiang and one of her sisters fled the occupation in the wee hours sometime around January 1943, trekking 1,000 miles to reunite with their relatives in the free province. Barely in her early 20s, Chiang and her sister survived the six-month-long walk on gold coins and the kindness of strangers they met during their journey.

Soon, she eventually met Chiang Liang, a businessman who later became her husband. She and Liang had two kids, namely May and Philip. At the time, Chiang acted as a spy alongside American culinary pioneer Julia Child for America’s Office of Strategic Services during the war.

According to aspirants and fans alike, Chiang was the closest thing to royalty in the Bay Area. Her presence vastly influenced the entire culinary industry, regularly dining at the most popular San Francisco restaurants even in her 90s. Despite her age, acquaintances described her as a woman full of life and energy. She is also a respectable person who remembers every name and face she meets. Additionally, she gets invited to attend film premieres, food festivals, and A-list parties. 

In 2013, Chiang was the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She was the main inspiration for the 2014 documentary “Soul of a Banquet” that filmmaker Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”) directed and produced.  

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