Landmark Chinatown Restaurant to Hang Up Chopsticks

Times Staff Writer

General Lee’s restaurant, a Chinatown institution dating from 1878, is scheduled to close its doors next month, a victim of changing times in Chinatown and new interests by its third- and fourth-generation owners.

David Lee, 65, and his nephew, Curtis Lee, 37, said Thursday that the decision to give up the business was prompted largely by a drop in patronage among its mostly Anglo clientele.

The owners said they will turn instead to international trade and seek a niche as brokers for American retailers importing products from China and Hong Kong.


“We have to face reality,” David Lee said. “Pride and joy is a wonderful thing, but you cannot eat on it. You cannot keep on pouring money in just to save face. The competition is different from the old days. And I think the biggest problem is parking--that broke the camel’s back.

“It’s sad to see that we come to an end, but when you look at Perino’s, the Brown Derby. . . . They too have to go by the wayside. It hurts inside, but I still have the memories.”

By the 1940s, General Lee’s had become a well-known watering spot that often drew entertainers and prominent diners. David Lee was the Cantonese master chef while elder brother Walter was maitre d’.

“We used to have Gary Cooper . . . Helen Hayes, Robert Goulet. Frank Sinatra, he’s been here a couple times. Judy Garland used to come here all the time, and she brought her daughter, Liza Minnelli, when she was a kid. We used to cater to Spencer Tracy,” David Lee recalled.

Curtis Lee showed a pile of photos of customers that included Richard Chamberlain, Sandy Duncan, Carroll O’Connor and Elke Sommers, “an old friend of the family.” The famous--including Milton Berle--still come in, but it’s not like the old days, he said.

Lee Woo Hoy, David Lee’s grandfather, founded the family business under the name Man Jen Low--the House of 10,000 Treasures--in the old Chinatown that existed where Union Station now stands. When the area was razed to make way for the rail station, the restaurant moved to Chinatown’s main square between Hill Street and Broadway.


“When we moved here in 1938, there were four restaurants in Chinatown,” David Lee said. The whole family worked in the restaurant and, eventually, they were able to buy the property, he said. They changed the name to General Lee’s, “an easier-to-merchandise name,” David Lee said.

“People would make stories that it belonged to a warlord or something,” he added, guffawing.

Over the last 20 years, as immigrants from Asia have flowed into Southern California, Chinese restaurants have popped up in the suburbs, Americans have become acquainted with spicy regional Chinese cuisine not served at General Lee’s and Chinatown has been transformed into a community of newcomers.

“The normal person from the suburbs doesn’t need to come downtown to Chinatown for Chinese food,” Curtis Lee noted. “You can find Chinese restaurants as prevalent as you find gas stations.”

Some Chinatown restaurants are run by people from Taiwan or Hong Kong who care more about acquiring immigrant status by investing in the United States than they do about profits, David Lee said, while others are run by ethnic Chinese refugee families from Vietnam who eke out modest livings.

The effect is fierce price competition. It may make Chinatown a great place to get good food at relatively low prices, David Lee said, but an unattractive locale for college-educated, fourth-generation Chinese-Americans to run a restaurant.


“Maybe that was the business of yesteryear, but it’s not the business of today for us,” Curtis Lee said.

The family may sell the property or may remodel the present building and rent it, David Lee said.