Jimmy Wu found his fortune

Baltimore Glimpses

November 03, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

IF you look by category under "restaurants" in the consumer directory, you'll find that there are more Chinese eateries by far in Baltimore than "American" or "seafood," or even "Italian." But no matter how long the Chinese list gets -- new ones are constantly being added and dropped -- if you ask Baltimoreans with memories spanning 30 years, most will recall one that isn't in the yellow pages: Jimmy Wu's.

No, there isn't a Jimmy Wu's restaurant listed -- an never was. Wu was the amiable owner and one-man hospitality committee at his restaurant on Charles just below 25th called "The New China Inn." It might not have been the best Chinese restaurant among the many in Baltimore, but "it's the most popular," a Sun critic once wrote, and he was correct. Wrote the author of "The Damask Cloth" column in the upscale Roland Park-Guilford-Homeland magazine, Gardens, Houses and People, "I have dined in the best Chinese restaurants in San Francisco's and New York's Chinatowns, and I have not eaten better Chinese food than Jimmy serves."

James Lem Fong Wu came to Baltimore from Canton as a boy of 14. He struggled in immigrant poverty, but when he was in the eighth grade at School No. 1 (Fayette and Greene), his teacher took a liking to him and persuaded him to enroll at City College, then (as now) providing an education in the humanities. Though he only recently had learned the language, he did well in the heady academic atmosphere of City. He excelled academically and was editor of the yearbook. But when he graduated in 1933 in the depths of the Depression, there were no jobs -- certainly not for Chinese immigrants.

Young Wu finally got a job as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in the Park and Mulberry area. In 1941 he became a partner in "The New China Inn," a small restaurant at 406 Park Ave. In 1946 the restaurant moved to 2430 North Charles St.

In no time, Mr. Wu's tiny establishment took in row houses on either side. This created a rabbit's warren of rooms at various levels (the "Confucius Room," the "Ming Room"). Wu would stay there for 36 years, all the while providing much of the energy and marketing and advertising talent that would see the popularity of Chinese food in Baltimore soar and the number of restaurants serving it become larger than a four-column Chinese menu.

Wu's cuisine was Cantonese, though he was merchant enough to have an American menu, too. When in the 1970s the Szechuan style became popular, Wu resisted it. He quoted a Chinese saying: "Live in Soochow, where they have the most beautiful women, but dine in Canton, where they have the best food." It wasn't until 1982 that Wu began serving Szechuan items.

In March 1983, Wu announced because he had no sons or daughters to take over his restaurant, he had sold it to Paul Chao and would retain only a small interest. Interestingly, Mr. Chao was from Szechuan.

Wu died the next year. He was 73.

*

If you believe in fortune cookies, what about this one?

In 1941, young Jimmy Wu is dining alone in his tiny restaurant. It is well after midnight; all the diners have left. Wu finishes his meal and wearily opens his fortune cookie. It reads:

"You will have a long and successful life in Baltimore's Chinese restaurant business. And you will be thought of fondly for it."

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