Feature photo: Kai Chan stands outside of the Golden Star Cafe, which three generations of his family have run. (Courtesy of Michael Fitzgerald)
Kai and Elaine Chan are selling the Golden Star Café, ending a 72-year-run in which three generations of Chans have satisfied south Stockton’s craving for egg foo young.
A San Francisco buyer will keep the café open, which is good, but without the Chan family slinging potstickers from behind the 12-seat lunch counter, a tradition since 1950.
“Next month, 43 years,” Kai Chan said of all the time he’s put in. “I was 23, now I’m 66. Look how young we’ve all gotten.”
Some of the Golden Star’s recipes trace to Kai’s great-grandfather, who in the late 1800s ran a café in Xinhui, China.
That chow mein? Strait outa Canton.
From Xinhui the Chans immigrated to San Francisco. They ran a store until the Great Quake of 1906. Kai’s father, though only 2 ½ years old at the time, vividly remembered his family scrambling outside just before the building collapsed.
The Chans lost everything.
They retreated to China. Kai’s grandfather returned to America in 1950, settling in Stockton, and opened the Golden Star Café. Kai’s father, grown up and married, joined him in 1952.
The Chinese migration from Canton to Stockton stretches back to the Gold Rush. The Chan family headquarters, the Gee How Oak Tin Association building, still stands at 538 S. San Joaquin St. The family association is still going strong.
Kai was raised on Stockton’s south side, attended south-side schools, and apprenticed at his parents café, so diversity has always been on the Golden Star’s menu.
“Oh, yes, absolutely. Ever since I started as a young teenager. Just about everyone, they loved our food. That’s what kept the doors open all this time.”
The beer signs alone tell the tale — Tsingtao, Bud Light, Corona – as does the menu, which ranges from Green Pepper Chow Yuke to cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Over the years, Kai’s four brothers left for other callings. Kai remained. “Since I been working here most of my life—I put hard work into this business—I figured I’ll just stay until retirement.”
Neither of his two sons wanted to keep the dynasty going through a fourth generation; they too left Stockton for white-collar jobs. “They want a better life,” Chan said.
That, too, is part of the Chinese-American immigration story.
Now Kai says he and his wife are as burned out as the neon “Chop-Suey” sign out front. “I’m tired, my wife is tired. It’s time for us to enjoy our life together.”
Some customers have deep ties to the Golden Star Café.
· “I been in Stockton for 50 years and this restaurant has always been here.” — Jeanie Fraumeni.
· “I’ve been coming here all my life. I used to eat in the back room with my mom, my gramma, and my great aunt.” — Karen Ivy
Ditto the folks on the Stockton History Facebook page.
· “My Dad loved their egg foo young and the chicken fried steak.” —Judy Lopez
· “Fried wieners over rice was my favorite as a kid.” — Irma Ulloa.
· “This must be a Stockton thing. Never have I thought to order hotdogs and gravy while dining out.” — Pastor Sharnice Marie Crayton.
Don’t judge us, woman.
The Chans haven’t firmed a date for the transfer to the new owners, but it’ll be in August. It may involve a brief closure. But the Golden Star will reopen — only without the Chan family, which long ago became part of south Stockton’s cultural and commercial identity.
“Just a lot of history,” said Chan. “What we have done and the success we became.”
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org