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In October, 1975 a brand-new Polynesian/Chinese restaurant opened in Arcadia, California at the site of the old Lindy Chevrolet dealership. It opened among much fanfare and press and was from all accounts a showplace with beautiful architecture and interior design.
Named the "South Pacific", the restaurant epitomized that odd marriage between Asian and Poly-Pop that these hybrid restaurants from the later period of Tiki culture shared. Two huge tiki gods flanked the entrance to the parking lot in a lush Polynesian setting while enormous Foo Dog statues guarded the doors to the restaurant itself. The interior was described as spacious, with two dining rooms - one distinctly Polynesian and one Chinese, that could seat 300 people, as well as a cocktail lounge, "with a blend of South Seas island and Chinese art that is delightful." Decor included a rickshaw, giant aquarium, and rich silk tapestries. Both Cantonese and Polynesian cuisine were featured, and of course, exotic tropical cocktails.
But unlike the majority of its fellows, this restaurant didn't start Chinese and later add Polynesian food and decor when they became popular in the 60s. This restaurant was built from the start as a "Chinese-Polynesian" restaurant - probably the last step in the evolution of Tiki restaurants, and possibly one step too far, as the culture had reached and passed its peak by 1975.
The owner was as likely as anyone to make a success of it though.
Harry Wong Ho was the brother of Eleanor Mah, co-owner of the already-successful tiki restaurant, Minnie's of Modesto, where he worked for a time after training at the Port Arthur Restaurant in New York's Chinatown. He also ran his own import/export company, dealing in jade and rare antiquities. The Chinese dining room was filled with his collection of antiques, and it looks like he probably had access to his family's famous stock of velvet paintings from the Minnie's warehouse too, as the Polynesian banquet room and cocktail lounge were decorated with many velvets of "Polynesia girls by famous artists Leeteg and Jean Nordin."
And female beauty was important to this restaurant, since a major portion of its clientele were businessmen. Harry Wong hired a dozen pretty "China Dolls" from Taiwan, Guam, Korea, Hong Kong and Viet Nam to be his waitressess. "Service is impeccable and a bevy of beautiful Oriental girls pamper each table," stated one review.
For some reason, though, the original concept didn't last long. The newspapers give sparse evidence and don't explain the real causes. In July 1976, there was a new manager, Eddie Chang, and a new menu was introduced, featuring both Mandarin and Cantonese food but no Polynesian dishes. 2-for-1 cocktails in the "exotic Polynesian bar" were still promoted though.
In 1977, Harry Wong Ho was back at the helm, but the restaurant had been renamed "New China Queens" and was strictly Mandarin Chinese in cuisine, though again, exotic cocktails were still on the menu. Maybe "tiki" was out and "Mandarin" was in. In any case, the South Pacific had lasted just over a year.
Today the restaurant is part of a chain of Garden Cafe Chinese restaurants and does not appear to have any Polynesian decor left. It would be interesting to find out how long the tikis and Leetegs stayed with the restaurant and what eventually happened to them.
Due to the short life of the restaurant, menus and other ephemera are probably going to be hard to find. You can see one of the waitresses holding a custom South Pacific menu in the picture below.
All we really have to go on at the moment are the newspaper articles and possibly some recollections from the Mah family who still run Minnie's in Modesto. Maybe abstractiki can track down some facts there from his sources.
Another nice find on the Sabu time machine. Amazing this place only lasted a year, I guess it's true what they say: Timing is everything, and 1975 was a bad year to be going into the Tiki business.
The blend of Poly Pop and Chinese reminds of the Albert Gee's Poly-Asian in Houston.
Hope Abstractiki can track down some more info from the family over at Minnie's. He's pretty good at that kind of stuff.
Very nice article, Sabu. Indeed one becomes very curious about the story behind this.
Nice discovery Sabu and interesting twist in that Minnie's connection. I'll give the Mah brothers a call and see what I can find out!
Good Luck, abstract! I hope you discover something.
I talked briefly with Peter Mah today and he confirmed that Harry Wong Ho was indeed his uncle. Peter said that Harry recently past away and that his mother Eleanor and him were very close. Peter remembers that his uncle did have a restaurant and he will talk to his mother to get more information. We will talk again next week.
Very cool, abstract. I bet you find out some interesting things. Thanks for checking into this.
Well after this last post I talked to Peter Mah again several times about making contact with Harry's surviving family but it never came about.
I had made a framed 8.5x11 inch poster to give to the Mah brothers and another for the Wong family in anticipation of our meeting and interview. I used the ad images Sabu posted. I held on to them for over a year and then Trad'r Bill called me up the other day and asked if I wanted to meet at Minnie's since he was in the area. We met at Minnnie's had a great lunch and talked to the Mah brothers. I gave them the posters and told them the pictures were discovered by one of the top urban Tiki archaeologists in the country. They were both very happy and appreciative of the poster and the work Sabu did. Stuart said he remembered a rickshaw out side the place and that they would give one of the posters to the Wong family. Hopefully this will lead to them contacting me or posting some of their memories here.
The Mah brothers gave us each two complimentary tropical drinks called the "Jerk" They taste great and were invented by Stewart I believe.
Here is the poster I made for them.
A rare menu from the South Pacific seen on ebay.
They carried all of the classic Tiki mugs.
Thanks for keeping the tikiinvestigation going DC! This is a great and rare artifact, I only wish I had the original. I will print this out in to a poster and give it to the family next time I'm down there with sleuthing credit to you, one of the top urban tiki archaeologists in the world.
I was at Minnie's the other day during the Nor Cal Tiki Tour and gave Stuart Mah, the nephew of South Pacific owner Harry Wong Ho, these two framed prints of the menu. I told him one of Tiki Centrals top urban tiki archaeologists had discovered it. He was very appreciative and said he would show it to his brother and family.
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