William Chin, 89, a noted chef and owner of the Happy Garden Restaurant in Chinatown who later owned and worked at other establishments in Philadelphia, died Sunday, March 18, of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at his Port Richmond home.
Although born in Staten Island, N.Y., Mr. Chin lived in China with his family starting in 1929. He returned to the United States in the early 1960s, and established a series of restaurants while also raising a family and becoming a leader of Chinatown’s business district.
“He was a man dedicated to the welfare and well-being of his family, friends, and community,” his relatives said.
In 1967, Mr. Chin opened the Happy Garden Restaurant at 204 N. 10th St. in a former luncheonette. The eatery was often called the Pepsi Restaurant because its donated sign included the Pepsi logo. It was among the first in Chinatown to offer authentic Cantonese cuisine, his family said.
The Happy Garden had an open kitchen in which Mr. Chin and a second chef, Jimmy Chiu, cooked in woks over roaring gas jets behind the luncheon counter.
“No one in Philadelphia had ever seen such a spectacle,” his family said. “People literally lined up on Tenth Street to eat at the Happy Garden, which was featured in the restaurant dining guide at that time.”
One of the customers was Dan Jefferson, a freshman at Haverford College who later became a Chin family friend. Jefferson, from a rural town in Pennsylvania, had never tasted Chinese food. He and his college roommate decided to give the place a try.
“It was a clean and well-lit place, just like a Hemingway short story, with tables covered in tablecloths, and stools at a luncheon counter. The air was filled with delicious aromas. My roommate ordered, and the food was fabulous,” Jefferson said.
“At the end of the meal, William came out from behind the counter and spoke to us. After being assured that we liked the food, he then offered this philosophy: ‘Take your time. Talk to your friends. Eat. Drink. Enjoy life.’ ”
Mr. Chin’s signature dishes were Inside-Out Chicken Wings, in which a chicken wing was turned inside-out, stuffed with shrimp and scallions, and fried to make a crispy crust; Szechuan Beef, consisting of spicy shredded beef wrapped in aluminum-foil triangular packets; and chopped clams wrapped in lettuce leaves.
After the Pepsi Restaurant was successful and then changed hands, Mr. Chin bought a three-story building at 134 N. 10th Street. The second restaurant was also called Happy Garden. The first floor was a kitchen and restaurant, the second was for banquets, and the third was the Chins’ private residence, where Mr. Chin and his wife, Janne Chow, raised their children.
Mr. Chin changed the name of the restaurant to the Golden Inn, and then Chin’s Cuisine, before selling the business in the late 1980s.
In semiretirement, Mr. Chin bought a small Chinese restaurant in Roxborough called the Jade Court. It was run by Cary, his second son, a culinary-arts graduate of Drexel University. Mr. Chin went daily to the restaurant, and his customers followed him there.
When that restaurant was sold, Mr. Chin and his son opened the 39th Street Hong Kong Cafe in University City. That closed in 1996, but four years later, Mr. Chin and his son took over Joe’s Peking Duck House on Race Street in the heart of Chinatown.
Between 1967 and 2000, Philadelphia’s Chinatown had grown from six to 24 restaurants in a nine-block radius. Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysian restaurants lined Arch and Race Streets. While the business community had expanded, there was no corresponding growth in the number of parking spaces. Customers came out to find their cars ticketed or towed, the Inquirer reported on Oct. 17,1975.
“We’re taxpayers and we’re businessmen,” Mr. Chin told the Inquirer at the time. “We’ve got our business to protect and that means for our customers not to have problems. But people can’t even pull up for five or 10 minutes and have a friend get a take-out order without getting a ticket.”
In 2004, Mr. Chin and his son closed Joe’s Peking on Valentine’s Day with a grand farewell dinner. The restaurant was mobbed by diners who had been following Mr. Chin since the days of the Pepsi Restaurant. This was Mr. Chin’s last restaurant, his son John said.
“William Chin personified the American Dream. He was a creative and extraordinary chef, an astute businessman, a dedicated husband, father, and grandfather, and a pioneer of modern Philadelphia Chinatown,” said his son.
Mr. Chin enjoyed fishing, spending time with family, and staying active with the Gee How Oak Tin Association, a benevolent organization for immigrants to this area.
In addition to his sons, and his wife of 53 years, he is survived by daughters Dede and Florence Trinh; a sister; seven grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.
A viewing and eulogy will take place between 5 and 9 p.m. Monday, March 26, at Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church, 915 Vine St., Philadelphia, followed by a second viewing from 8 to 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 27, at the church. A Funeral Mass will start at 9 a.m. Interment is in Northwood Cemetery, Philadelphia.