July 29, 2022

Goodbye Wing Fat

By Leonard Chan

Not long ago, I picked up the picture book “Everything Naomi Loved” and it instantly reminded me of what was happening in the neighborhood that surrounds the AACP bookstore.

In this book Naomi’s beloved neighborhood is going through a change as people move out and buildings come down in the push for progress.

Today (July 24, 2022) I bought my last meal from Wing Fat, the Chinese restaurant across the street from us.

As the characters in “Everything Naomi Loved” would often say “Things Change.”

They certainly do.

In all honesty, I didn’t care that much for Wing Fat. It was a small little corner restaurant with less than maybe six tables. I’m already beginning to forget how it looked inside. I think they removed some of the tables because they weren’t allowing people to sit and dine inside the restaurant during the pandemic.

Besides their barbecue pork, that they made in house, the food was nothing really to get excited about. I can’t remember when I first started to go to Wing Fat when I moved to San Mateo nearly 32 years ago, but my lasting impression was that the place looked like a dive – a place that was dumpy and had a menu that appeared to stay the same since its opening (note that a newspaper article about Wing Fat says that they’ve been at that location since 1962, but their menu says it was established in 1958).

Okay, if you’re one of the former owners of the establishment or a loving patron of Wing Fat, and are reading this article, I sincerely apologize for describing your place this way. But you must admit that it was not a three or two or even a one star restaurant. It was the type of place where you would go to get an inexpensive Chinese meal that was something like what your family might have made. It wasn’t the type of place you would go out of your way for.

But that’s exactly what I did tonight. I made sure I had one more order of their wonton soup. Now that I think of it, the wontons were kind of special to me. It kind of reminds me of the wontons we used to get from San Francisco Chinatown in the 60s when they would give you large peach cans filled with wontons to take home. For those of you that didn’t experience this (I don’t think the Styrofoam or plastic take out container was commonly used back then), this one place where my parents used to go to, used peach, tomato, or some other type of cans as take out containers. Believe it or not, those Chinatown wontons were pretty good and so was Wing Fat’s.

I probably didn’t go to Wing Fat that much until AACP moved across the street from it back in the autumn of 2004. I still didn’t go there that often these past 18 years. The last time was probably before the pandemic. However, AACP board members would usually have lunch after our monthly board meetings at some nearby restaurant. Wing Fat was one of those establishments. Additionally, I think we would sometime go there after we came back from selling books at some event. They were often open late.

Philip (Chin, our other editor) adds, “I remember the people that we used to eat with there, like Don (Sekimura, a dear fellow board member that is no longer with us). I can envision exactly how the tables were laid out just based on my memories associated with specific people.” Yes Philip, I remember them too. I can remember things like the brown rice that Don would always order with his meals and the conversations we would have.

Florence and Mas Hongo (the fearless leaders of AACP) probably went to Wing Fat more than any of us at AACP. When AACP was first established, it was located on the next block up (as you head towards El Camino Real). Plus, Florence and Mas are long time residents of San Mateo and probably went there long before AACP’s founding. I still can recall Mas and Florence exchanging pleasantries with the people that ran the place. They must have known them for awhile. Mas would usually order his favorite tomato beef chow mein from them.

As for the rest of the block, all of the tenants have been moving out too. There’s the Arco gas station where I would often go to get gas before and after book selling events. I would get my cars smog checked there too since it was so conveniently located from our store. They were operated by Asian Americans (another AAPI establishment being lost).

Then there was the house where someone taught piano lesson. I would often hear music coming out of the place and notice some students sitting on the front porch.

I’ll also remember the place that repaired and sold slot machines (Squires & Corrie Slot Machines) and had a pet parrot that sat in a cage by the front window. I heard they found a place in Stockton to move to. I’m really not sure how the owner made a living from that business, especially since they were probably a long ways from any gambling establishments and only repaired old machines.

There was the taco and burrito shop (Las Palomas Taqueria) next to Wing Fat. I didn’t frequent them much, but I’m sure I had some meals from them. Probably more recently than Wing Fat.

Then there was the infamous other bookstore (Jaybird) directly across from us. It was an adult bookstore. We would often jokingly tell new customers, that we met at events, not to get us confused with the other guys when they came to visit our store.

On the other side of the block there was a store that sold piñatas (La Piñata Market) which they hung in the front. The corner store near the piñatas store was a check cashing place (Check Experts). I think I may have paid some utility bills there in the past.

On the corner furthest away from Wing Fat was an auto tire shop (AMA Tires & Wheels) and between the tire shop and the gas station were some old houses that looked to have been there for maybe a hundred years.

I was just noticing these abandoned houses and how one of them looked like it had a peach tree in the front yard. The people that last lived at these houses looked like they left in a bit of a hurry, leaving old patio furniture and other items. Those houses and the piano teacher’s house were probably the saddest looking places on that block. People had lived their lives there once. It was their homes.

Excuse me for leaving out all the other restaurants, shops, and businesses on this block. I didn’t go to these places, but I’m sure they all had patrons that will miss them.

I’m going to sound like an old curmudgeon, set in his ways, and resistant to change, but all the development in San Mateo has made me sad. I guess if you live long enough, you’re going to see lots of change wherever you are.

Part of the beauty that drew me to move to San Mateo was that it had an old town feel. It had shops in a small downtown, a bowling alley not far from the Kmart; it had a Sears, a Montgomery Ward’s, an Emporium department store, an ice skating rink in a mall (since replaced with a strip mall with a Target), Bay Meadows Racetrack, Office Depot, Staples, Toy’s R Us, Talbot’s Toyland (the best independent toys, bicycle, and hobby shop in the county), Trag’s and Key supermarkets, Sees Candy, an AAA insurance office, Thrifty’s Drugstore (people use to buy ice cream there), B Street and Wollmer’s Music stores, Tower Records, Wisnom’s Hardware store (I know, it’s still a hardware store, but it’s not the same), Central Park Bookstore, Borders Bookstore, M is For Mystery bookstore, numerous other stores and restaurants that have come and gone, and plenty of free and long hours parking spots.

What has replaced these places? Lots and lots of new office buildings, condos, townhouses, apartments, and some retail businesses (much of them catering to more affluent patrons). I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I think the new developments have a cold and uninviting feel to them. So too is the plan for the block across the street from us. The place is so big that the city had to make an exception on the height limit for buildings in the area.

In “Everything Naomi Loved,” Naomi is encouraged to paint images on her wall of the people and places that have left her neighborhood to remind her of all the things that were being lost. This article is my mural of the things I loved about San Mateo.

Things Change.

Goodbye Wing Fat.



Since writing this article, I saw the smog check business owner as he was packing up. He said he was moving to a nearby location (412 E 2nd Ave), but was still sad to be moving after thirty years. He told me to check him out for an oil change and smog check some time. I think I’ll do that.

As I was taking another picture of Wing Fat, an African American youth came up to the restaurant and I had to tell him of its closure. He told me of how he had gone there all his life. We were both commiserating about the passing of Wing Fat.

(Please come back to this article for more photos that will be posted here.)