Orange Garden history disputed with gang legend

Orange Garden, Chicago’s oldest Chinese restaurant, which recently sold its signature neon sign and is said to go on sale next year, may not be on sale at all.

Owner Hui Ruan said: “I don’t want to sell.” He spoke Cantonese, seated at a booth in the historic dining room in the North Center neighborhood. “I am 72 this year. Previously, I didn’t want to work anymore, because of my age, and because I was tired. But now my kids say they really like this restaurant, so I can’t bear to sell it.”

Now kids, an adult son and daughter, run the company, and are perhaps best known for their classic Chinese-American items including fu yong eggs and Chicago-style peanut butter egg rolls.

“If I can move, if I can walk, if I am healthy,” Rowan said. “Then I will definitely help them.”

However, his children do not want to take over the family restaurant.

“I can take over, or my sister, or both of us,” said Son Bin Rawan. “But the thing is, for my father to mentally move away from the Orange Garden, we need to shut down. Because if our family had it, he would still think about coming to work, then worry.”

Sister agrees.

“I want someone to take care of this restaurant and keep this place the way it is,” Julie Rowan said. “Or make it better if they can.”

It’s a new wrinkle in the long disputed history of the Orange Garden. The Rowans believe the restaurant opened in 1932. The daughters of former owner George Chen believe their father founded the restaurant.

In fact, the Orange Garden opened by at least 1927 with an owner unknown to descendants of both families. The 1928-1929 city guide is the first to list the restaurant, and it was compiled in late 1927, according to Matt Rutherford, Newberry’s librarian of genealogy and local history.

Rutherford said in an email that the listing referred to Chan Woods as the owner likely to live above or behind the restaurant.

Although telephones were not common at the time, a restaurant likely had one, and several were listed in 1925 and 1926.

“My hunch is that the restaurant started around 1927,” he added.

This is the same year that Won Kao, the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, was built. Legend has it that Al Capone was a regular customer, with a table overlooking Wentworth Street.

Orange Garden had a relationship with other gangs.

“A lot of people came to George Chen’s restaurants,” Tribune columnist Anne Keegan wrote in a profile. “One of his best clients was a good-looking man who was always polite. … It wasn’t until after his murder that George Chen realized that his best client was John Dillinger that his pictures were in all the newspapers.”

Chen bought Orange Garden in the early 1930s. He actually owned Jade’s Café in the Old Irving Park neighborhood.

In 1932 or 1933, Chen hired an artist, who came to Chicago to work at the Century of Progress World Gallery, to paint murals in both restaurants.

“My father told me these details,” said Philip Chen. His father, Alfred Chen, was one of George Chen’s younger brothers. “He actually told me the name of the Jewish-Russian artist, but I forgot it.”

Philip Chen, a family historian and art professor at Drake University, was born and raised in Chicago at the Jade Café, whose father eventually took over.

“A large part of my work is related to family history,” Chen said. He held an exhibition at the Museum of the Chinese in America in New York City on the Sino-American experience with images of immigration, marginalization and work.

By 1938, Chens helped a third brother open a third family restaurant, Oriental Garden in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where famous jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway was a client. There was a striking similarity between the eastern garden facades and the orange garden, with the same silver-adorned features.

Six years later, it appeared that the would-be founder of Orange Garden was still listing his address on the restaurant’s website. Rutherford said that a 1942 draft recording of “Chan Wute” mentioned the man as a resident restaurant owner in 1942-W Irving Park Road.

In the 1950s or 1960s, she helped Julie, the middle daughter of George Chen, at Orange Garden as a teenager. Her younger sister, Donna, has never worked in a restaurant, but she remembers going there to eat and putting money in music boxes.

“There were music boxes in every cabin,” said Donna Chen, a retired French teacher who taught at Lake View High School. “I was young, running back and forth. I would make my dad crazy.”

It remains unclear who commissioned the iconic neon sign and when it was installed on the sidewalk outside. The graceful sign—which reads in three lines, “Orange Garden. Chop sui. Chow Mein”—is made by Flashtric, one of Chicago’s oldest sign companies.

“I have the original signed contract of $9 to maintain as of February 16, 1961,” said Angela Demir, owner of Flashtric. Her father, Alexander Demir, bought the company in the early 1970s from Fred Parker, who founded the company in 1911. She acquired the company about five years ago.

In 1970, an offbeat restaurant column on the Tribune, “The Motley Crew” by John R. Thompson, may be the first mention of Orange Garden in the paper: “We had an order of Chicken Chow Mein ($1.95); two orders of Chow Mein ($1.95) each); an order of mushroom fried rice ($1.30); and an order of sweet-sour pork ($1.80).

By the mid-1970s, George Chen had retired, according to Tribune Keegan’s columnist profile. The front page headline in 1982 read: “Chinese family finds true meaning on the Fourth of July.”

In 1983, Charn Yuen, older brother of eight years from the current owner, bought Orange Garden.

Ten years later, he ordered new neon signs from Flashtric to hang in the windows on either side of the double front doors.

“My father painted the lighted window signs,” Demir said. “And at the time they were $475.”

Yuen’s niece and nephew started helping their uncle, while they were in high school, at the restaurant they would one day run.

“I’ve never had Chinese food like this before,” Julie Ruan said. She was born in Taishan, China, as were the rest of her family. “An old egg dish, shrimp and lobster sauce, I didn’t know what this was all about until I came here and tasted it. And the process of pressed duck is very long.”

At that point, her father was working as a kitchen manager at Young’s Chinese Restaurant in Glenview owned by his uncle.

In 2008, when his older brother was ready to retire, Hui Ruan took over.

“Kitchen management was nothing new to him,” his son said. “But the restaurant management was so, and that’s when my sister and I came in.”

Two years later, they began requesting estimates from Flashtric for repairing the famous sign.

“We were trying to see how we could renovate it to preserve its original aesthetics,” Demir said. The last proposal was in 2013, to fix the falling rust and get the neon back to working fully, for $4,100.

In 2016, it was Hui Ruan’s turn to retire, more or less.

“I went back to China for about a month and a half,” he said in Cantonese. People don’t know me anymore. It’s been decades since you left.”

Despite the old frescoes on the walls, and the atmosphere of another era charm, eating out has become the main business at Orange Garden.

“Even in the pre-pandemic era, dining in the restaurant was basically second to none,” said Ben Ruan. “Of course, business has been a little slower than before, because of the pandemic, but overall, we’ve kept the same amount of business.”

On April 30, they sold a so-called neon sign for $17,000 by auction to Chloe Mendel, owner of Madame Zuzu’s, a vegan tea café in Highland Park, where she plans to display it. Mendel bought the banner as a gift for her husband and business partner, Billy Corgan, lead singer of the rock band Smashing Pumpkins.

“We at least found someone who really appreciates the sign,” Ben Ruan said. “It’s in good hands.”

Now the Orange Garden may or may not be for sale, but not the building that Ruans doesn’t own.

“We hope that the new owner will retain our existing employees,” said Bin Ruan. “We have three cooks and two part-time servants.”

They are looking for a potential buyer to continue the restaurant tradition.

“We have had clients for many years,” Rowan said. “I heard they were here in the 30s, 40s, 50s. Their first date. They proposed here. They came back with their firstborns. Anniversaries, birthdays, and a lot of Christmases were held at Orange Garden.”

The price doesn’t really make much of a difference, he said, and he declined to publicly reveal what it would sell for.

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“When I get older, I like to sit back and reminisce to my grandchildren like the others have done,” Rowan said. “This is what we want.”

Meanwhile, Orange Garden still serves American Chinese food.

“We have small egg chickens and orange chickens,” Rowan said. “These are the popular appetizers.”

He added that peanut butter is an essential ingredient in egg rolls.

“It’s almost like cheese in a hamburger,” Rowan said. “Without peanut butter, they wouldn’t be, as people say, authentic egg rolls.”

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