I have never met my grandfather, Tang Win Fat aka “Shorty Tang.” He died six years before I was born. I’ve only heard stories of him, of how great a chef he was, and how charismatic he was for his height (4’11’’). Whenever my father talks about his father, it’s always with the biggest smile on his face. He says my grandfather was a smooth-talker and a lover of Chinese opera.
Born in 1926 in Sichuan’s Nianchang, Shorty Tang started cooking at the age of twelve, working and sleeping in several restaurants. He would often sneak dumpling wrappers into the bathroom to practice shaping dumplings because in those days, Chinese kitchens didn’t teach everything to everyone.
At a young age, he and my grandmother were on their own in the streets of Nianchang because they weren’t raised in solid families. I have never met any relatives from my paternal grandparents’ side, and whenever I ask my dad about his parents’ relatives, he has no clue. In 1946, my grandparents left for Taiwan where Shorty became a street vendor and eventually opened a restaurant. In 1967, he came to America and settled in Queens, NY. In 1971, Shorty opened Hwa Yuan on 40 E. Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
At the time, there weren’t many restaurants serving authentic Chinese food, especially Sichuan cuisine, so my grandfather became famous for it. I’ve heard stories of how popular he was at the time, from my parents, grandmother, friends and relatives, but it was hard for me to believe that my grandfather was some kind of Chinese Master Chef, and that he was known for his signature dish: Cold Noodle with Sesame Sauce. Perhaps, it would’ve been easier to accept if I had met him. Then in 1976, he died at the age of 50.
In 2007, I was living and working in Georgia where every morning, I would read the NY Times’ Dining Section for interesting articles. In the April 1st edition, there was an article written by now NY Times’ Food Critic, Sam Sifton, called Food: The Way We Eat New York Noodletown. I couldn’t believe it! Sifton wrote an article about my grandfather, who had been dead for 34 years. It was about Shorty Tang’s famous Cold Noodle with Sesame Sauce.
My brother, Casey, was always a believer that our grandfather was this great chef, and thought that we need to tell his story and share our family’s dish with today’s generation. I wasn’t a believer until I read Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food. There Shorty was on page 195 with the dish that people still loved and wanted after all these years.
So, my brother and I decided to write this tribute to him on my blog. We are very proud that my grandfather is part of New York City Chinese-American history. It’s a story that should be shared with other people to keep his legacy alive. But, if you ask me to share that sesame sauce recipe, it will always be a family secret.