5/31/14

The Mandarin Cafe of the 1930s in Bakersfield


Gilbert Gia, a local historian of Bakersfield, California, shared nostalgic reflections about the the Mandarin Cafe, a Chinese restaurant and night club owned by Earl and Alice Wong that flourished briefly from the mid to late 1930s as seen through the eyes of Carlye Nelson, a musician who performed in the 4 man band that played for dances nightly at the Mandarin.


"Earl Q. Wong, was born in China, married Alice Mar in 1919, and 
in the early 1920s the family came to Bakersfield. In 1923 the Wongs 
bought a residential lot near today’s downtown  Bakersfield in the 
Hudnut tract near 27th and O Streets."

"Earl Wong’s son Delbert (who would go on to be the first Chinese American
to graduate from Stanford Law School, and the first Chinese American to be 
appointed to the bench in the continental United States and later serve on the 
Superior Court) recalled that by 1926 his father was “just getting started in
his Lincoln Market.”  Explaining why or how his father got into the cafe business, 
Delbert noted that "I have a vague recollection that the reason my father went into
the night club business was that he had extended credit to the previous owner, who 
was a customer of the Lincoln Market, and my father had to take over the 
Mandarin when the customer was unable to pay."

"In 1934 Earl Wong bought the Lido Café from Joseph Cinelli and 
Angelo and Julia Pierucci, changed the name to the Mandarin Café,  and 
with his wife went into the nightclub business in 1935. 

According to one of the musicians, Carlye Nelson, who played at the 
Mandarin and later performed with the Glenn Miller Band later during WWII:

“We played seven nights a week from 9 PM 'til two, pl us a Friday 
afternoon show rehearsal. Our four-piece orchestra consisted of a 
trumpet (Laurie), piano (Mike Richmond), drums (Gifford), and me on the 
sax, and I doubled on the violin. Word of what to expect in music at 
the local clubs circulated among show performers, and we had an 
excellent reputation. We were also popular with the local dancing 
customers, and although the dance floor was small, it saw a lot of 
action. The floor was painted in a spider web motif, and in the center 
of it was a glass lens that had a spotlight under it.

“The mistress of ceremonies was a more-or-less permanent girl who 
had a taste for alcohol and who could sing as well as “M.C”. Besides 
her salary, the club gave her a discount on the drinks she consumed. 

“The mandarin was a good place to work. The bartenders and cooks 
were Chinese. The cooks--who lived in the basement--were pleasant but 
would tolerate no outsiders in their kitchen. At first Mrs. Wong would 
get coffee for us, but later they put the coffee urn where we could 
reach it ourselves without bothering the cooks. If we wanted to eat at 
the club, we could get it for half price. 

The Mandarin Café and Night Club closed in 1938 but reopened in 
1939 under new ownership as Club Cathay. In later years it was the 
Nanking Café. Today a parking structure stands where dancers once spun 
under a "cobweb" ceiling. Also gone today is a word that was at one 
time commonly understood.


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