A Special Recognition to Silver Dragon’s Legacy

By Karen Dea

Bittersweet, extended family, 2 brothers, profound philosophy, community giving, tears of endearment, 5-6 generations, butterfly prawns, 55 years, 7 days a week, 4 restaurants, 54 years old, a special Jury menu, echo boomers, and that’s how the remarkable Silver Dragon restaurant entered it’s fire breathing legacy. In the 1950’s, Wah Quon Chee enjoyed working at the Sun Hung Heung restaurant in San Francisco; and this sparked his entrepreneurial dream of opening his very own Cantonese restaurant. This dream quickly turned into reality in 1956 when Wah and his wife, Jenny, proudly opened the Silver Dragon Restaurant at 710 Webster Street in Oakland, CA. Jenny and her youngest son, Wesley, were both born under the Chinese zodiac sign, the Dragon, thus entered the name, Silver Dragon restaurant! Families enjoyed the tasteful Cantonese comfort food, and Wah created his signature dish, Butterfly Prawns. This was the beginning of long-term, loyal employees and customers developing into an extended family relationship that would bud in an unpredicted horizon.

Oakland Chinatown was only 4 blocks in size, and there were only 4 Chinese restaurant establishments in 1974. Wah’s passion for the restaurant business excitingly grew to envision opening at a larger location. This strong desire was one block away at 835 Webster, and here began Silver Dragon’s iconic figure in the heart of Oakland Chinatown for 38 years. The initial move to a 3-story restaurant brought chaotic challenges that involved adjusting to serve an anticipated 650 guests vs 150 guests at the original restaurant, menu changes, and a learning curve that the two Chee brothers, Wesley and Lester, managed to the success of a daily operation that opened 7 days a week, serving lunch and dinner.

Left: Wah Quon & Jenny Chee at the original Silver Dragon Restaurant on Webster Street in the late 1950's. Right: Wah Quon Chee at work. Photos courtesy of the Chee family.

The new Silver Dragon Restaurant signage proudly hung at the mid-front of the restaurant. It was a circular sign outlined with an intricate resemblance of a dragon’s armored tile skin. After walking through enormous double doors, one entered a cocktail lounge, the first in Oakland Chinatown. It contained controlled laughter, unlimited socialization, and three levels of banquet floors beautifully decorated. One was quickly greeted by a friendly welcome from Wesley, Lester, or the hostess Helen Woo. Besides regular dining, weddings, birthday celebrations, civic events, anniversaries, red egg baby parties, fundraisers, Chinese New Year, and special occasions, one encountered an elegant dining experience for lunch, dinner, or banquets. As an introduction to Fine Chinese Culinary, the tasteful menu was purposely prepared with authentic quality ingredients and traditional flavors with an upscale presentation. Traditional dishes which became the favorite of generations included: Crispy Chicken stuffed with Sweet Rice, Peking Duck, Wah’s famous Butterfly Prawn’s, Shark Fin soup and Honey Walnut Prawns. The exciting kitchen scene bustled with one chef and six cooks. They occasionally prepared a special fixed Jury Duty menu for the nearby jury members during their lunch break! They enjoyed Vegetable Chow Mein, Asparagus Beef with Mushrooms, Garlic String Beans, Salt and Pepper Pork Chops, Egg Drop Corn Soup, Steamed Rice, and Lemon Chicken.

Advertisement of the new Silver Dragon in the 1974 Edition of the Wa Sung Community Directory

Silver Dragon became well-known for its unique quality dining, elegant atmosphere, 5-star rating in customer service, and smooth handling of operations. This philosophy of good work ethics and hard-working standards for the business and customers was attributed to Wah Quon Chee who died in 2001. The Silver Dragon legacy continued without missing a breath. Jenny and her sons, Lester and Wesley culminated strengths of talent and knowledge that successfully kept the restaurant operating to its traditional mission: serve the customers with quality food expectations, superior customer service, and give to the community. By concurring with recognized customer service standards, there was the challenge of re-training the staff to uphold methods of quality customer service.

There was a gradual recognizable market shift demographically and culturally in Chinatown starting in the mid-1980s. Many echo boomers (Gen Y), children of the baby boomers, were relocating away from Oakland Chinatown and living, shopping, and dining in the suburbs. Therefore, they visited Oakland Chinatown less frequently. Traditional family restaurant gatherings of celebrating with a traditional banquet style meal were being replaced with eating at buffet establishments. This change slowly impacted Silver Dragon as they notably saw less of their 3-4 generations of customers.

The owners and employees were very devoted to the restaurant business and did not succumb to this new market shift. Instead they adapted by working with corporate functions, providing superior customer service, and giving back to the community. Silver Dragon was honored as the Best Asian Restaurant by the California Restaurant Association’s East Bay Chapter.

In June 2011, Wa Sung President Roland Hui presented a Certificate of Appreciation to Silver Dragon in recognition of their 50 years of support

Coincidentally, Asian Health Services was founded in 1974 to provide primary health care services to low-income families in Alameda County. They are located across the street. From the beginning, they formulated a strong community relationship with Silver Dragon. It’s been close to 4 decades since they both nurtured community support amongst both businesses and friendships. Approximately in 2010, it was known that Asian Health Services was seeking another location to expand its health services that had a waiting list of 3,000 future patients requiring a physical exam. The locations they sought hit some challenges. While Silver Dragon was approached by interested businesses to lease a portion of their building, a light bulb idea hit Wesley: Why not sell the building to a community service purpose such as Asian Health Services. Wesley approached Sherry Hirota, CEO of Asian Health Services. It turned out to be a perfect win-win situation! In the Oakland North interview, it states Wesley, “ It is closing, Chee says, is not a result of pressing financial issues, but more as the result of uncertainty about the restaurant’s future. It’s not a single factor,” Chee says. “We’re competitive now, but a lot of money needs to be spent to upgrade the building and facilities, and maybe that money won’t be recouped in a reasonable amount of time.” In 2011, extensive preparations on both sides were done for the sale of the Silver Dragon restaurant to Asian Health Services

In October 2011, the general public learned of the future closing of the Silver Dragon restaurant in the early part of 2012. At the Silver Dragon Restaurant, on December 2, 2011, there was the official announcement and press conference of the Asian Health Services, New Clinic Expansion and Acquisition of the Silver Dragon Restaurant. Ceremonially, as Wesley passed the key of the front door restaurant to Sherry, he felt, “Bittersweet, it was time and positive for all parties concerned: from Silver Dragon’s management, employees, and shareholders and finally the conveyance of our iconic building to Asian Health Services.” Wesley and his wife Lilly exclaimed that “It’s time. Our family will be pursuing other plans, spend time together and Silver Dragon was a gift of a lifetime! ”

Since then it was non-stop of customers coming to enjoy a last dining experience ordering their favorites as this brought back the 2-3 generations! Customers expressed to the Chee family their love, support, letters, gifts, family-photo taking, and even tears of endearment. Each year, Wa Sung traditionally holds several major events at Silver Dragon and celebrated our annual Inaugural on January 5, 2012! As our event ended and right before leaving, I paused to take my last look at the decorative dragons on the stage wall on the 3rd floor and said a final sad goodbye.

Wesley and Lester Chee in front of the Silver Dragon Restaurant in Dec. 2011

The longevity of employee support were many but several shown such dedication and incredible loyalty: Helen Woo, hostess for 50 years; Daryl Butler, janitorial, started at 16 years old and worked up to 54; Kevin Suen, chef for 8 years and expressed that he has no plans to seek employment elsewhere; and stated he will wait for Silver Dragon to open another location. Wesley felt honored yet humble and commented there are no immediate plans to open a restaurant. A long-term relationship was definitely a trait that Wah Quon Chee believed in and was followed through by the Chee family.

Silver Dragon expressed heartfelt appreciation to their staff including their former staff; and all were chartered to Thunder Valley casino, treated to a very special sit-down fine dining dinner (this was the first for many), and were given good luck chips to enjoy their favorite casino games. When asked, What event was the proudest moment that you experienced at Silver Dragon?, Wesley said, “I feel all events (civic, personal, weddings, etc.) are unique and gratifying when we receive acknowledgments for the great service and making their event memorable and special. The event for the Oakland Museum Forbidden City Dinner Reception was quite memorable. We transformed the entire second floor and exterior walls with flags, banners and displays. It was quite a site!” Another daring question was, If you were going to do it over again, what would you do different and/or the same? “Definitely, have a smaller venue and be more progressive with changing markets and palates.” said Wesley. And of course I was on a roll, so my final question was, What words of wisdom would you tell us how to continue to improve and serve in community service? “Stay true to your mission and respect to all and smile!” both Lilly and Wesley answered.

After 55 years, the Silver Dragon restaurant officially closed on the weekend of February 4, 2012. And, the Silver Dragon legacy is best summarized by Wesley, “We are honored to make this our legacy, a legacy which will benefit many generations to come.”

Oh, there’s more! Lilly and Wesley can be visited at their Silver Dragon Café, opened in 2009, located in Oakland Airport Terminal 1 by Jet Blue Airlines. Their all-American breakfasts, pork buns, and orange chicken dishes are TOP sellers; and they feel this is still part of the Silver Dragon legacy! Wa Sung praises Wesley and Lester for their exceptional achievements and generosity. Thank you for your legacy friendship that you give to the community!