The Jook Sing Café
177 Harrison Avenue
Boston, MA 02111
May 26, 2015
The Jook Sing Cafe with its colorful sign on the sparkling plate glass window gives off a sunny come hither vibe. Step inside the door: first impression… spotless, airy, gleaming, inviting. The modern LED signage over the serving counter is clear, bright, informative, displaying the whole menu on a loop of rich color photos.
Form and function might as well be on the menu here. Stainless steel ovens, serving trays, grills, and fryers in the compact service area sit behind low glass panels. Ink colored tables with comfortable wicker toned chairs are surrounded by banquettes on two sides. A line drawing of a row of bamboo plants stretches across the rear wall of the cafe. Nice touches. At first glance, just a statement showing the aesthetic sensibility of the owners. But why does this space seem to be an old soul in a new body? Stay tuned.
A steady stream of clientele, staff from the nearby Tufts Medical Center, policemen, EMTs, and patrons from the neighborhood, including many Asians, is filing into the place. I’ve come here on a whim. For others, this appears to be their customary lunch destination.
A sense of community and comfort permeates the room as emphatically as the smell of frying food. Customers seem to know the woman at the register. Banter and laughter are sliced and diced into the ordering process.
"What do the Chinese characters on the back of your T-shirt mean?” I ask a young man behind the counter. "The Chinese characters say, "ABC, American-Born Chinese."
It is about this time that I fumble around for a pen and a scrap of paper. "Talk to the woman over there, she can tell you more, she's the daughter of the owner."
“For 15 years, our family ran this place as The Harrison Café,” Jadine Soo Hoo says as she pulls up a chair at my table. “Before that my father used to own the Chinatown Café for 20 years and sold it. He decided to retire 5 years ago, live in Florida and spend his time fishing. He has the restaurant business in his blood so that didn’t last too long.”
The man purposefully checking the food locker in the kitchen nearly hidden from view is 77 year-old Hing Soo Hoo. Jadine and her sister run the front of the house and “Uncle Soo” is having way more fun stir-frying than surfcasting.
“My father, Hing Soo Hoo, is known for his cooking. One item on the menu is ‘Uncle Soo’s Fried Rice’. Years ago my father was in charge of poultry and egg delivery for all the restaurants in Chinatown. I grew up in restaurants! When we went on vacations, he would pick locations with Asian populations. We tried food from all over the world…Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong. One of the things he searched for was a perfect recipe for a wonton soup. Our customers love it.”
To say that this restaurant is customer driven is an understatement. Mr. Soo Hoo and his family were barraged with entreaties. Why are you open only Monday through Friday? We want to eat your wonderful Won Ton soup on weekends too. The customers won.
“We spent eight months renovating. Everything went out, we redesigned the interior and re-opened on May 2 as The Jook Sing Cafe!” Jadine says.
The ABC logo on Jadine’s T-shirt? And the painting of bamboo plants that covers back wall? Jook Sing’s web site tells the story.
The term Jook Sing translates to Hollow Bamboo and is a slang that refers to an American Born Chinese (ABC).
Bamboo is hollow and compartmentalized, thus water poured in one end does not flow out of the other end. The metaphor is that Jook Sings are not part of either culture: water within the jook sing does not flow and connect to either end.
We are First, Second and Third generation Jook Sings. We identify with this term in a positive way. Growing up in Boston's Chinatown, we were raised with our parents' cultural and heritage backgrounds but also adapted to our American surroundings. We got the best of both worlds. We get to break all the stereotypes!
Here at Jook Sing Cafe we feel it is important to offer the best of both worlds and to make our customers feel welcomed. We offer Traditional Chinese dishes, "American" comfort food and a mixture of goodness.
Go back far enough in American history and all of us spent at least one generation as a version of a Jook Sing. Some have assimilated entirely, some consciously retain vestiges of their culture and heritage, and some still struggle within a compartment that does not flow easily into the mainstream.
The Jook Sing Cafe is the Soo Hoo family’s model of assimilation and aspiration that boils down to a cup of really delicious Won Ton soup.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr. with his iPhone5