Bay Area Luminaries Share Memories of Cecilia Chiang, the Life of the Party
Remembering an icon who knew everyone’s name, never stopped moving, and dined out every day she could

George Chen of China Live
Long before Chen was the man behind Betelnut, Shanghai 1930, and the China Live complex, he was a waiter at Chiang’s groundbreaking restaurant, the Mandarin. Chiang knew Chen’s parents, and he says he remembers her stopping by their house when he was 12 or 13 to play mahjong, where she was introduced to him as Auntie Cecilia. When he enrolled in UC Berkeley, he “needed money,” he says, “so I called up Auntie Cecilia for a job.”

He ended up working at the Mandarin as a waiter from 1979 to 1984, where he says she presided over the dining room “like royalty… always dressed to the nines in her Chinese gowns and real jewelry.” He says that waiters were always thrilled when she’d head to one of their tables, because “she’d put on the charm, and the wine’s pouring, the ducks keep coming… everyone knew that if Cecilia was working my table, I’d [be] getting a bigger tip because she’s going to make sure that’s a really good check.”

Over their 50-year friendship, she went from being his boss to his consultant at his first restaurants, and was eventually a travel companion when, as Chen worked to open China Live four years ago, Chiang announced that she wanted to join him and his chefs on a two-week research trip across Asia. “She was 96, and her family said, ‘No, you’re too old,’ but she came… and she kept up, running through the markets, swinging eels.” It was a vibrancy she had all her life, Chen says. “Through her last days,” Chen says, “she always had her energy. She never wasted a day, and always had something planned.” – Eater San Francisco (10.20.30)