Three notable restaurants in Honolulu before World War II were Sun Yun Wo and Wo Fat in Chinatown and Lau Yee Chai in Waikiki.
Sun Yun Wo was reportedly started in 1892 by Hee Cho. A two-story restaurant, it was one of the most popular places. Customers ordered plates of dim sum or other dishes as they talked and conducted business.
The second restaurant, Wo Fat, prided itself on being the oldest Chinese restaurant in Hawai‘i. It opened in 1882 and was rebuilt twice after fires burned down Chinatown in 1886 and 1900.
A Chinatown fixture by the 1920s, it was famous for its noodles and Chinese dishes. In 1937 the wooden structure was torn down and a three-story building that still stands today took its place. (CHSA)
Lau Yee Chai (that translates to ‘House of Abundance’) was built in 1929 by Chong Pang Yat, and its elaborate, classical Chinese architecture stood out in the Waikiki landscape, effectively attracting mainland tourists to its door.
The original landmark restaurant featured a moon gate entryway, fishpond filled with carp, waterfalls, and a rock garden. (Smithsonian APA) Lau Yee Chai was the first Chinese restaurant in Honolulu to use elaborate Chinese architecture and decorations to attract customers.
It featured expensive paintings and scrolls, fancy lacquered screens, waterfalls and ponds with carp, and attractive plants. Its advertisements claimed that Lau Yee Chai was “the most beautiful Chinese restaurant in the world.”
Tourists viewed it as a scenic landmark, while local Chinese found its spacious and luxuriant interior suitable for large parties and celebrations. (Ng, CHSA) Lau Yee Chai was a place for locals to dine at on special occasions.
Chong was quite a businessman and marketed the restaurant widely by promoting himself with Creole pidgin slogans such as “Me, PY Chong!” on radio and newspapers. (Smithsonian APA)
Chong also opened a Waikiki steakhouse – House of PY Chong. During WWII, soldiers were housed in Waikiki. Chong set up his steak house where the Ilikai Hotel now stands – broiling steaks into the wee hours.
“We designed, supplied and set up a steak house located where the Ilikai Hotel now stands. PY was a great host. Trailer Mercer of the Star-Bulletin’s advertising department prepared a lot of his ads, all featuring ‘Me PY Chong Number One China Cook!’ PY was a friend of all and had his steak house broiling steaks in his charcoal broiler into the wee hours.”
“At one time he had trouble getting meat so located several small calfs that he had grazing behind the steak house. When the Board of Health heard the report, he was instructed to have them removed.”
“PY and I loaded them in our flatbed truck with the side gates up for the trip to Woodlawn where he owned property. With PY sitting along side me early on a Sunday morning with the cows mooing, we cruised the quiet residential Manoa area en route to Woodlawn Meadows.” (Lind)
William (Bill) KH Mau took over the original Lau Yee Chai restaurant in 1948. Back in the 40s and 50s Lau Yee Chai, at the corner of Kalākaua and Kūhiō Avenues, was one of the premier restaurants and nightspots in Waikiki. (ExPat)
In 1972, Mau was the owner and operator of a car lot along Kapiʻolani Boulevard known as Aloha Motors, which for a time was the largest General Motors dealership in Hawaii. In 1987, Mau sold the property to Japanese investors. Today, it is the site of the Hawai‘i Convention Center. (StarAdv)
The Lau Yee Chai restaurant was razed by Mau and he developed the Ambassador Hotel on the site. Mau later developed the Waikiki Shopping Plaza and the Waikiki Business Plaza.
Lau Yee Chai reopened in 1978 on the 5th floor of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza; “Every floor in the building has 15-foot ceilings,” Mau said. “But only the fifth floor has 20-foot ceilings.” (HnlAdv)
But its décor was no longer as impressive and it lost its dominating presence on the Chinese culinary scene. (Ng) Lau Yee Chai closed.