Henry Chung, namesake of Henry's Hunan chain of restaurants, died last weekend in the Richmond District at age 99. Chung's empire of restaurants helped popularize regional Chinese cuisine marked by heavy use of garlic and chile peppers. The Chronicle's obituary for Chung lays out his fascinating life, as does an ABC7 tribute segment to him.
Henry's Hunan opened in 1974 on Kearny, later moving to a larger, current space on Sansome. Popularity grew after a 1976 New Yorker article by Tony Hiss praised Chung's food. Setting the scene in "Frisco," Hiss claimed to have "discovered the best Chinese restaurant in the world." He ate there while on a vacation, on Thanksgiving day, and enjoyed his meal with a Coke to cut the spice from the food. At the time, Hiss noted, Patty Hearst was "back home on Nob Hill" BART was "functioning smoothly," and the Oakland Raiders had the best record in the NFL.
Henry Chung had already lived a long life by the time he started in the restaurant business with his wife Diana in his 50s. Born in 1918, in Liling, Hunan, Chung was married at the age of 8 to a 12-year-old bride, as was the custom in the village where he grew up. He had three children by the time he graduated high school. Locally recognized for his intelligence, his village sent him to university in Nanjing. How his first marriage dissolved isn't known, and he lost touch with his children. He then married Diana, another Hunanese university student. She died in 2003.
Chung entered diplomatic service for the Nationalist government of China, and he and Diana and their first two children decamped to the US, to Houston, in 1948. When they were called back by the Nationalist government, which fled to Taiwan, the Chungs stayed put.
After opening a variety of businesses in Houston and San Francisco, ice cream shops, diners, etc, Henry and Diana began to cook food from their home province. The New Yorker coverage was a huge boon to the business. "It changed our lives. We went from a restaurant that was moderately successful to being so busy that we had lines that went around the corner," Chung's son Howard tells ABC7. "We had street performers that would come and perform in front of the lines."
According to the Chronicle, Henry and Diana Chung returned to China in 1982 after diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China were stabilized. From the paper:
They found that, during the Cultural Revolution, [Chung's first three children and their progeny] had been severely punished for Mr. Chung’s escape. The couple began bringing Mr. Chung’s children and their extended families to the United States. Buying more buildings and opening restaurants inside them gave the new arrivals employment. The number of Henry’s Hunan locations swelled to six, each one managed and staffed by a different branch of the family.
MacKenzie Fegan, Henry Chung's granddaughter and the family biographer according to the Chronicle, remembers that Chung told her to "Live a good life, eat good food, wear good clothes and don’t be sloppy." He'll be remembered with a memorial celebration, details of which have not yet been released.