Cecilia Chiang

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Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang
Native name
Sun Yun Chiang (孫芸)

(1920-09-18) September 18, 1920 (age 99)
NationalityChinese American
Spouse(s)Chiang Liang
ChildrenPhilip Chiang and May Chiang

Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang (Chinese: 江孫芸[1]; pinyin: Jiāng Sūnyún; born September 18, 1920) is a Chinese-American restaurateur and chef, best known for founding and managing the Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco, California.


Chiang was born in Wuxi, a town near Shanghai in an aristocratic family of 12 children.[2] At the age of 4, her family moved to Beijing, where she was raised in a 52-room mansion.[3] Her Chinese name, Sun Yun, means "flower of the rue".[4] As a child she enjoyed elaborate formal meals prepared by the family's two chefs, although the children were not allowed to cook or go into the kitchen.[5] Her mother had bound feet, but her parents refused to follow the tradition with their children.[2] She escaped with a sister from the Japanese occupation of China in 1942 by walking for nearly six months to Chongqing, where they settled with a relative.[2] She soon met Chiang Liang (江梁), a successful local businessman whom she married, establishing a comfortable life in Shanghai.[6] There they had two children, May and Philip (江一帆). During the war she operated as a spy for America's Office of Strategic Services.[5] She and her husband escaped from China on the last flight from Shanghai during the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949. With only three tickets for a family of four they had to leave Philip behind with her sister (the family was reunited more than a year later).[5] Her parents and siblings who remained were treated poorly by the communists. Her parents died poor. A brother died in a labor camp and one sister committed suicide.[7] Others were killed by communist soldiers.[5]

Chiang settled in Tokyo, Japan with her husband and children, May Ongbhaibulya and Philip Chiang.[2] In 1960 she came to San Francisco to visit a sister, whose husband had died.[2] Walking through the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown she met two friends from Tokyo who were planning to open a restaurant in a small space at 2209 Polk Street,[8][9][10] and agreed to help negotiate their lease.[7] She impulsively wrote a deposit check for $10,000 to secure their rent, which the landlord refused to return after her friends backed out of the venture.[7] Unable to terminate the lease she decided to run the restaurant on her own, although she had never before run a business.[5]

At the time, non-Chinese Americans in the city had very limited exposure to authentic Northern Chinese cuisine, being familiar with only the Americanized version of Cantonese cuisine.[7] Convinced that residents would enjoy Northern Chinese dishes, but unsure what would appeal to them, she initially listed more than 200 dishes on the menu.[7] Avoiding the common elements of American Chinese restaurant decor, she designed the restaurant to evoke the opulence of the palace where she had grown up. The restaurant was at first unsuccessful and had few patrons.[11][12] A Mandarin speaker, she had trouble communicating with suppliers from Chinatown, and also faced discrimination as a woman business owner. However, over time the restaurant began to attract loyal customers. Journalist C. Y. Lee, who had just written The Flower Drum Song, about San Francisco's Forbidden City Nightclub, became a regular and brought many friends. One day, Vic Bergeron (founder of Trader Vic's) came to the restaurant with Herb Caen, who immediately began to popularize the restaurant in his newspaper column.[7] The restaurant was called the Mandarin.

With the restaurant's new success, Chiang decided to remain in San Francisco. She separated from her husband (they never divorced) and brought her two children May and Philip, to live with her in Saint Francis Wood. She was the first non-white resident of the neighborhood, and was admitted by the homeowner association only after they learned that she was from an upper-class background in China. In 1968 she relocated the restaurant to a 300-seat location in Ghirardelli Square, which required a multimillion-dollar investment. Chiang was known for entertaining VIP guests in the dining room, wearing fancy gowns and expensive jewelry.[7]

Chiang sold the Mandarin in 1991, and it closed in 2006.[7] After living for many years in San Francisco, she moved to Belvedere in Marin County,[5] then back to San Francisco in 2011 where her daughter May and grandchild Alisa Ongbhaibulya live.[3] Retired since 1991, Chiang remains active in promoting charitable causes,[7] in particular the Chinese American International School.[5] Her son Philip continued to run a sister restaurant also named the Mandarin, a high-end Beverly Hills institution [13] established in 1974 and located on Camden Dr.[5] In 2001 Philip sold the Mandarin, which permanently closed sometime after 2007.

In 2013, Chiang won a James Beard Foundation Award for lifetime achievement.[14][15]

In 2014, filmmaker Wayne Wang's "Soul of a Banquet" documentary about Chiang's life was released.[16]

In July 2016, a six part cooking series The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang was released on PBS.[17]


Chiang is often credited with introducing San Francisco, and the United States, to a more authentic version of Mandarin cuisine.[18]

Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma, who enjoyed the Mandarin's "beggar's chicken" dish (a whole stuffed chicken), introduced James Beard, who became a friend and learned about northern Chinese cuisine from Chiang.[7] Alice Waters, who had just opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, learned Chinese cooking from Chiang, and the two became lifelong friends.[7] Waters said that what Chiang did to popularize Chinese cuisine in America is what Julia Child (who Chiang also taught) did for French Cuisine.[19][20] Waters, Chiang, and Marion Cunningham took a several-month tour of Europe in 1978 to sample as many of the best restaurants as they could.[21] George Chen, a founder of the city's Betelenut and Shanghai 1930 (now closed, as are his other ventures, Long Life Noodle Co. and Xanadu), waited tables for Chiang at the Mandarin in the 1970s.[7] Others who were influenced by Chiang include Jeremiah Tower,[19] and the food editor of Sunset Magazine.[7]

In a panel hosted by Anthony Bourdain, in response to a question from an audience member, Alice Waters said that she wanted her last meal on earth to be shark fin soup cooked by Chiang. The comment became a viral sensation, eventually leading the Humane Society International to obtain a pledge from Waters that she would never again eat the dish.[22]

Chiang's son, Philip, is a co-founder of the restaurant chain P.F. Chang's.[23]

External links[edit]


  • Cecilia Chiang, with Allan Carr (1974). The Mandarin Way. California Living Books. ISBN 978-0-89395-062-0. (Chiang has said she omitted a number of details from this early memoir so as not to endanger relatives who remained in Communist China)[7]
  • Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang. Madame Chiang's Mandarin recipe book. International Paper Co., Long-Bell Division.
  • Cecilia Chiang, with Lisa Weiss (2007). The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco. Ten Speed Press. ISBN 978-1-58008-822-0. (nominated for a 2008 James Beard Award)


  1. ^ 孟芳 (7 May 2013). 華裔廚神 中餐革命 母子傳承. 世界新聞 (in Chinese). Retrieved 7 March 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e Belinda Leong (July 20, 2018). "Cecilia Chiang, in Her Own Words". Eater.
  3. ^ a b Bauer, Michael (May 25, 2011). "At the Mandarin, Cecilia Chiang changed Chinese food". San Francisco Chronicle.
  4. ^ Chiang, Cecilia Sun Yun (1974). The Mandarin Way. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316139007.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Leslie Harlib (2007-09-27). "Cecilia Chiang - China's Julia Child". Marin Independent Journal.
  6. ^ http://www.saveur.com/article/Travels/Empress-of-San-Francisco
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Janet Fletcher (2007-10-27). "Cecilia Chiang's epic journey". San Francisco Chronicle.
  8. ^ http://www.sfgenealogy.com/san_francisco_directory/1962/1962_300.pdf
  9. ^ http://www.sfgenealogy.com/san_francisco_directory/1962/1962_2825.pdf
  10. ^ http://www.marinij.com/general-news/20070930/cecilia-chiang-chinas-julia-child
  11. ^ https://www.pbs.org/food/features/qa-cecilia-chiang-mandarin-restaurant/
  12. ^ https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/1611941
  13. ^ http://www.pdfsea.net/result/cecilia-chang-mandarin-restaurant
  14. ^ "2013 JBF Award Winners" (PDF). James Beard Foundation.
  15. ^ http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/across-the-nationacross-the-world/2013/san-francisco-social-diary-8
  16. ^ G. Allen Johnson (October 1, 2014). "'Soul of a Banquet': Wayne Wang's documentary on Cecilia Chiang". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  17. ^ http://www.kpbs.org/news/2016/jul/07/kitchen-wisdom-cecilia-chiang/
  18. ^ "Cecilia Chiang: The Seventh Daughter". Project Foodie. Archived from the original on 2008-05-11.
  19. ^ a b "Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang". the Asian Pacific Fund. 2004. Archived from the original on 2010-01-04.
  20. ^ Meredith Brody (2009-09-16). "Local Heavies to Celebrate Cecilia Chiang, the Julia Child of Chinese Cooking". SF Weekly.
  21. ^ Thomas McNamee (2007). Alice Waters & Chez Panisse: the romantic, impractical, often eccentric. ISBN 978-1-59420-115-8.
  22. ^ Michael Bauer (2009-07-31). "Alice Waters' own Obama Drama". San Francisco Chronicle.
  23. ^ Mimi Towle (December 2008). "Cecilia Chiang". Marin Magazine.