It is a typical Tuesday night at the Chen Chinese Restaurant.
Seated at a large table in the main dining room, Rochelle Lord and six relatives are eating boiled lobster with broccoli and Chinese-style chicken salad while chatting lightheartedly about everything from rock bands to real estate.
"We come here all the time," said Lord, 45, an interior designer. "We love the food and we enjoy the atmosphere."
Twenty feet away, the restaurant's owner is writhing on the floor. A normally dignified and demure Chinese woman in her 60s, she is clutching her stomach and belching loudly.
"We love the owner," Lord said. "Her energy is so sweet."
And indeed, energy is what the place is all about. For this seemingly ordinary Chinese restaurant on east Broadway in Long Beach is not so ordinary: It doubles as a New Age temple dedicated to enhancing human consciousness through the culinary and mystical arts.
Flyers on each of the glass-topped tables offer a partial explanation. "Master yourself by way of food and energy sessions--effortlessly and knowingly," the pink papers begin. "As your taste buds are heightened, your awareness also is heightened and your consciousness becomes more expansive. Chen Restaurant has become a magical temple. By dining at Chen Restaurant, people have experienced their life fulfillment."
As it is, the restaurant/temple is the fulfillment of owner Mae Chen, a Chinese-American born in Jacksonville, Fla., who has been in the grocery or restaurant business for most of her 63 years. Although she and her husband opened the establishment in 1986, she said, it did not become a temple until nearly a year ago after her husband's death at 73.
"Before, it was my husband's restaurant; after he left, I began to come into my own," said Chen, who, among other things, believes in reincarnation and the survival of the human spirit after death. "He gave me a sign to let me know that we'll always be together. He still helps me in the restaurant--I can see him on the other side very busy all the time."
Chen said that the restaurant/temple is not aligned with any organized religion, despite the fact that she is an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church. The establishment, culminating 24 years of personal spiritual study, is based on the idea that there is a universal life force with which one must connect in order to lead a happy and harmonious life.
"Everything about the restaurant is at a high vibration," Chen claimed. "The people who come in feel the harmony, so life supports them in whatever they want to do."
For those who need extra support, though, she offers monthly Sunday night "gatherings of collective consciousness" at $25 a plate and separate non-culinary "energy sessions" every Tuesday night for donations of $5 apiece. A poster displayed prominently above the cash register promises participants "love, happiness, health and success."
One result, she said, has been a significant increase in the success of the restaurant, with the Sunday gatherings attracting as many as 100 people and the energy sessions averaging six to 18 participants. They range from a UFO researcher tired of the "harsh, practical realities" of his work to a chamber of commerce account executive interested in increasing her sales.
It is at the Tuesday night sessions that Chen is most dramatic as she attempts to psychically remove unwanted energy in order to bring the group into what she describes as a state of "one mind."
"Be in the flow," she said recently, standing in the center of a circle of people sitting on straight-back chairs with their eyes tightly shut. "Be in tune with the vibrations so that you become more and more aware of the energy of the life force which is you."
In Adjacent Room
The gatherings, held in a banquet area adjacent to the main dining room, are within clear view of the restaurant's regular Tuesday night diners. But amid the rattling plates, bright Chinese artwork, low conversation and tinkling of the cash register, most of the customers seated in booths were too busy eating their moo shu beef or kung pao chicken to notice.
Chen, wearing a long silken Chinese dress, paused before each participant, mentally "feeling" the person's energy. "There's still quite a bit of congestion," she announced. "It's not as clear as it should be. I'm going to do a quick number with the universe so that we can hurry up and . . . be in the fourth dimension."
First she wiggled and danced as if doing the twist. Then, dropping to the floor, she swallowed huge gulps of air that she released in tremendous belches as she clutched her stomach and rolled moaning on the carpet.
'I Feel a Lot Better'
Most participants later rated the ceremony a success.
"I feel a lot better," said Lori McIntire, 22, who supervises a commercial photo lab in Hacienda Heights. "I came in very stressed."
Said Christopher Casey, a 38-year-old general contractor who has been attending these sessions for three months: "It's a lightness, a clarity, a healthiness. Things taste better and people are more enjoyable. It's changing my life in every way."
Not everyone, however, was convinced.
Nancy Bowman, widow of a retired Air Force colonel, said she had never before paid much attention to the unusual goings-on in the adjacent room despite having eaten at the restaurant regularly for nine months. Curious on this evening, though, she finished her meal and peeked silently into the banquet room.
After watching for several minutes, she had a reaction.
"I don't know what to think," she said, shaking her head. "I'm a Methodist."