July 11, 2003
A pickup truck pulled up to the curb outside 1541 N. Wells—or as close to the curb as it could get. It was January 1967, and 29 hours of blizzard had buried the city under 23 inches of snow. A tall, lean man two decades removed from the Guangzhou region of China unfolded himself from the cab of the truck and surveyed the condition of his new restaurant, a pizza joint called the Firehouse, which he'd soon rechristen the Golden Dragon. The snowfall had not caved in the roof. It had, however, entombed the doorway, a situation that Papa Yum, as he would come to be known up and down Wells Street, viewed with the detachment of an auditor. Luckily, he'd brought a few of his seven children with him.
At the time, Terry Yum was 13 years old. Eventually he would succeed Papa Yum as proprietor of the Golden Dragon. He recalls, "When my father pulled up to the restaurant, all you could see was snow, and the top of the light post, and the very tip-top of the buildings." Papa Yum hustled his brood from the truck—"Everybody out!"—then withdrew from its confines a brace of shovels. "That's your new restaurant!" he said to his kids, passing each of them a spade. "Now dig it out!"
Terry Yum is now 49, and his portrait hangs inside the Old Town Ale House, among the innumerable pictures of bar regulars that decorate the walls there. It is a fair likeness of the actual man. Despite his Cantonese ancestry, Terry Yum in the picture wears a Fu Manchu mustache. Rose-tinted glasses shade his eyes. His face is as round and contoured as the hills of Guilin, and he is smiling with a wary satisfaction, as if he had just won a bet at your expense. Terry has looked like this since he was a teenager, and so inculcated among the locals has his glasses-mustache aspect become that if he were to shave and get contacts no one would recognize him. "My God, that face has seen it all," says Bruce Elliott, an Ale House regular himself, and the artist who painted Yum's portrait. "The last thing I want to do is buy into some stereotype, but his face is kind of inscrutable. He's been around, you can tell."
Late last year, when Terry paid a visit to 1617 N. Wells, the most recent of the Golden Dragon's three locations, he felt a little out of place. He no longer had anything to do with the business. After owning and running it since the mid-1970s, he had a few months earlier ceded control to his son, Chris, who'd made a few changes. Gone were the photographs of friends and patrons, a hall of fame of regulars not unlike Bruce Elliott's Ale House gallery, that had cluttered the walls under Terry's management. So thick were the pictures that in aggregate they appeared to be wallpaper. Only four decorative items remained from the old days: two Buddha figurines and two circular signs depicting a dragon in relief. They looked to have been cast in bronze, and to bear a corresponding heft, but in fact they were made of fiberglass. The Yums had acquired the signs at bargain prices sometime in the 1980s, from an entrepreneur who'd ordered 30 of them. They would have embellished the exteriors of a chain of Chinese restaurants, but the enterprise failed, and the Yums obtained two nicely emblematic signs in place of a serious rival.
Other elements of the new restaurant made Terry uneasy as well. To help him manage the place, Chris had brought in his mother, Terry's ex-wife, Lugene, and Terry doesn't always feel comfortable sharing a room with her. But the reason for his greatest unease was probably that Terry had been on the wagon for about a year. Since he'd quit drinking, he'd studiously avoided his old Old Town haunts; he hadn't even been to the Ale House to see Elliot's portrait. And he hadn't been back to his family's own restaurant.
Instead he'd been working on his kung fu, taking classes in laser technology, and thinking about what to do next. He rarely answered his phone, choosing to screen his calls through an answering machine; his son was about the only person able to summon him from his new barless routine.
Terry's father, Tom Yum, was born in a remote village in southern China and emigrated in 1940, as the Japanese invasion was reaching its peak and internal political discord was burgeoning. In China he did not travel incognito with ease--he stood a majestic six-foot-two, and his hands were large enough to palm basketballs. His black hair, without a trace of gray, had early in life retreated far back on his head, revealing a smooth russet crown free of creases. He had two abiding passions--gambling and the drinking of scotch, preferably J&B, of which he came to consume a fifth each day. Mah-jongg was his favorite game, although he also did well with dice, poker, and, years later, the Arlington trifecta.
At about the time Chiang Kai-shek was consolidating his forces against those of both the Japanese and the Communists, Papa Yum, for reasons that have died with him, made a hasty exit; perhaps he had lost his shirt to the general in a vicious round of mah-jongg. He had not yet acquired the identity of Yum; his real name was Kong Nam Dye. (To this day, "Dye" persists in the Yum family, assigned as a middle name to all of Tom Yum's descendants.) Then 19, he had saved enough money to buy the identification papers of an heir to a wealthy local family, surname Yum, who had official clearance to leave the country. False papers in hand, Yum left for the United States, where his aliases multiplied, for reasons easy enough to guess given his penchant for games of chance. "He had four different names," Terry says. "And when he died we found six different safety deposit boxes." Much of the time he went by Tom Yum, but you wouldn't have been insulting had you instead addressed him as Charlie Yum or Chuck Ho Yum or Tony Yum or Papa Dragon--"or," Terry says, "just Papa for short."
Papa arrived in Chicago around 1944, after spending a few years in New York. His departure from the east coast was perhaps motivated by practical reasons: "I have a funny feeling it had something to do with gambling debts," Terry says. The elder Yum traveled around a bit, then settled briefly in Canton, Ohio, where he found a job as a waiter at a restaurant owned by the parents of a Chinese-American girl named Minnie. About three years his senior, she came from San Francisco, and she made an impression on him. After working there two weeks, Tom Yum proposed.
Gambling debts may have forced him from New York, but it was gambling credits that kept him in Chicago. A few years after arriving in town, he went on a spree of drinking and mah-jongg playing. Stakes accumulated as fast as butts in the ashtrays. The debauch lasted three days, until Papa called "Pung!" and slapped down his tiles with the verve of a victor. He had won a share in a laundry business. "They wrote it up right there, right at the place," Terry says. "They just put their signatures on a piece of paper, no lawyers or anything. It was like the old west, you know?"
Papa bought out his two partners, then cut costs by employing his offspring. "We'd go through 1,200 shirts a day and 600 pairs of pants," Terry says. "My father had all seven of us on the ironing boards. I was the cuff-and-collar boy. One of my sisters did the arms, another sister did the front. My other brothers and sisters did the folding and packing. Seven kids--you got the whole team right there." But the business eventually became unprofitable ("perm-press shirts were born," Terry explains), and around 1961 Papa sold it.
From 1962 until 1967, Papa owned a restaurant at Cermak and Wentworth called Mee Hong and a small take-out place, a four-man operation, at Western and Devon. He sold those to buy the Firehouse. In April 1968 he reopened it with a Cantonese menu, naming it after a good-luck symbol he'd seen at establishments on and around New York's Mott Street. (He did not borrow it from the Chicago fortune-cookie manufacturer of the same name, which didn't exist until 1979. But more than a few Yellow Pages users over the years have called up the restaurant to order, say, 5,000 cookies with "Marry me" written on their ribbons.) Most of the menial duties at the restaurant Papa left to his wife and children--except for the squiring of customers and the drumming up of business, at which he was a master. "My father was very outgoing," Terry says. "He had a lot of friends--everyone on the street."
On nights when the restaurant's tables remained lonesome for diners, Papa would announce to the family, "I'll get some business in here." Barhopping his way down Wells, he would buy the fellows at each stop a round of drinks. "I'll get these," he'd say, "and you get the next." He would then initiate conversation that culminated inevitably in queries as to the state of the party's appetite. "Hearty" was almost always the answer. Yum would nod knowingly, like a hotel concierge, and tell everyone that he knew of a good restaurant nearby. When he made his reentry at the Dragon some time later, Terry says, "he'd have 20, 25 people with him. They used to call him the Pied Piper of Wells." With no other Chinese restaurants in the immediate area, "the place took off like a bat out of hell. We had people waiting for hours to get a table."
Old Town then was a community in flux. Fifteen years earlier, just after the Second World War, the colonials had begun arriving in spurts. They were young urbanite couples with jobs based on graduate degrees, flush with cash and serious ideas about how to renovate the neighborhood--a rookery of Queen Anne and balloon-frame row houses that had long since fallen into decay. By the early 60s merchants and restaurateurs and tavern keepers spilled down Wells, and on weekends as many as 250,000 people showed up in the neighborhood. One merchant told the Chicago Tribune Magazine in June 1964, "We'll either retire early or rich." The area became by far the biggest tourist draw in Chicago, and local scribes made comparisons that might today sound magniloquent: Old Town was Chicago's West Village, its French Quarter, its Montmartre.
In 1968, the Yums' second year there, the Democrats held their infamous national convention in Chicago. Long-term neighborhood residents have concluded that once all hell broke loose, your typical Old Town client got spooked by all the tear gas and window breaking and was content thereafter to confine her commerce to the shopping malls of Schaumburg. As sales plummeted and retailers went out of business, Wells Street became home to a boomlet of strip joints and porn bookstores and trinket shops.
For some businesses on Wells, they proved good customers. "Basically what made the restaurant go was the crowd, all the different mixtures of people," Terry says. "Everybody bumped elbows. You could have a millionaire standing here and a guy who owns a strip joint next to him, and a circuit court judge next to him. From guys in cashmere coats to guys with their feet wrapped in newspapers." This is a common construction when people describe the old Dragon's customer base. "From judges to policemen to politicians, all the way down to celebrities, or up, however you want to look at it," says Zanies owner Rick Uchwat. Terry enjoys listing his former patrons by profession: strippers, pimps, transvestites, cabdrivers, precinct commanders, undercover cops, restaurant workers, Second City personnel.
The Dragon opened at 11 in the morning, and some nights it didn't close. Most of the time, however, the Yums maintained a reasonable last call--around 7 AM. Terry's nostalgia for the period makes it seem as if civilization had reached its apex. "If anyone needed a ride home, you could find a ride, and you could trust 'em. If you were shit out of money you could always find someone to spot you a few bucks. Bums would come in during the winter and we'd feed 'em. The old restaurant was like the United Nations. When you walked in there, race, color, creed, it didn't matter," he says, unconsciously echoing the words of famous Chicago alderman Paddy Bauler. (Bauler represented the 43rd Ward, which encompasses Old Town, for just over three decades starting in 1933. "The 43rd Ward, I always say when I make a speech, is like the United Nations," he once remarked.)
The Golden Dragon occupied three floors at 1541 N.Wells--there was a bar in the basement, a dining room on the ground floor, and another bar upstairs. The dining room was dimly lit, with dropped ceilings and red vinyl booths that stretched aft along both sides of the room. A small bar lined the rear wall, on which hung a Tsingtao beer sign. Behind a thin coat of lipstick-red paint, the outlines of flames were visible, a vestige of the Dragon's days as the Firehouse.
For a few years in the early 70s, Terry says, the Dragon was as much after-hours sportsmen's emporium as restaurant. On the second floor were a pool table, two poker tables, two mah-jongg tables, another for craps, and another upon which a roulette wheel spun. The illegality of the facility was not an issue. "Cops used to go up and play," Terry says. If their radios squawked, one cop would say to the other, "You gonna take that call?" And the second would reply, "Nah, you take it. I got a good hand." After their shifts, Terry and his brothers would stretch out on the felt for some shut-eye. "The craps tables were longer, so you wanted to get one of those," Terry says. Near the entrance the Yums built a sort of bamboo hut, roofed with tile shingles that were meant to evoke a pagoda. To increase the Asiatic effect they considered installing a fountain. "But we decided everyone would throw their cigarettes butts in there," Terry says. "Or take all the money out of it."
Although she didn't work at the restaurant until 1982, Donna, his oldest sister, disputes Terry's account of an underground casino. "I don't think my father ran that kind of business," she says. "Maybe my brother is talking too much."
She will confirm that in 1971 Papa Yum had a chance to purchase the building. Terry says the landlord offered a price of $75,000. In 20 years it would be worth at least 12 times that, and to this day the Yums speak of Papa's decision not to accept in tones normally reserved for an embarrassing family incident. But Papa didn't want to ruin a good thing: he had already negotiated a 20-year lease that locked in rent at just $1,200 a month.
Kin Sun Yuen, better known to his friends as Cookie, retired from the kitchen in 1999, after a stroke that year numbed his entire left side. Cookie, who is 64, speaks an English not so much broken as suffering from a misunderstanding of the instructions for assembly. He is small and slim as a spatula, and under his chef's smocks he often wore T-shirts sized for women, the only ones that fit him.
In 1966 he immigrated from Hong Kong, where he had worked as a tailor--"I sewed the coat, I sewed the pant"--but in Chicago he found a job as a chef in Chinatown, where his innocence of the English language would not impede his professional advancement. "I can't speak English, what else can I do but work in kitchen, right? I knew people who cooked, so I went to the restaurant."
Three months into his new career, Cookie found a job at Jimmy Wong's, the first Chinese restaurant in Chicago to make the transition from mom-and-pop to big business. He stayed for about four years, eventually becoming Wong's "key man," says Terry. In 1970 word got around to Papa Yum about the expertise of Wong's key man, and Yum went on to make his most significant hire.
Papa must have held Cookie's cooking in high regard, for he lured him to the Golden Dragon with the promise of an increase in salary. Cookie worked the day shift and created most of the recipes on the Dragon's menu. "Tom was just like brother," Cookie says. "He was so generous to me. He raised me, and with bonus he surprised me. Salary and bonus and Christmas bonus. I can't think of working for another place." Early in his tenure, however, he had an experience that might have made another man question his commitment. At the start of his shift one day, he found a small handgun lying on a table in the dressing room. It was about the size of his palm. "I thought it was a toy," he continues. "I pulled...what call? The trigger? Then I saw fire. I don't know what happened. It hit the wall and I thought it might bounce back. Then I don't feel anything."
The gun belonged to one of the Golden Dragon's waiters. Indeed, in the 70s many of the restaurant's staff armed themselves against threats posed by the surrounding street life. For walks home on cold winter nights, one waitress kept a jury-rigged knife--the blade of a halved pair of scissors--inside her mitten. Another holstered a .25 automatic to her inner thigh. But Cookie was unharmed by the accidental small-arms fire. After nearly shooting himself, he went back to the kitchen and stayed for the next 29 years.
Longtime Dragon regulars will tell you that atmosphere alone did not compel them to dine at the Dragon. Among other dishes, Cookie was known for his egg rolls. Their shells had the perfect amount of peanut-butter flavor and a texture that justified use of the melt-in-mouth cliche. To produce the appropriate crunch, the cabbage stuffing was expertly blanched, a process that demanded precise timing. Terry often received requests for long-distance orders from customers who had moved away--to California, New York, Miami. Mostly these people craved Cookie's egg rolls, but Terry would oblige any demand within reason, with a grumble. Other Dragon favorites included soft-shell crab, rainbow wonton (filled with stir-fried vegetables, chicken, lobster, and ham), and Hong Kong steak. The steak, usually a T-bone or sirloin, was sliced latitudinally into thin cutlets so that it resembled a large filleted fish. Ordered rare, it approached carpaccio.
Terry's friends would sometimes kid him, referring to the Dragon's dishes as "roadkill," and in its heyday the restaurant also served American food such as hamburgers and corned beef and cabbage to balance out some of Cookie's more exotic fare. But if the Yums' restaurant diverged from certain customers' notions of comfort food, they would have been wise to steer clear of a few establishments in Chinatown, little known to outsiders, where Papa had taken his family for traditional old-country meals in Terry's youth.
"Chinatown was wide-open back then," Terry recalls. "The food was outrageous. They had a meal--it was cat, dog, and snake. It was $85 an order." The curiosities didn't end there. "Live monkey, that was the weirdest thing, boy. They had a special table for that. It slid open, and the monkey head popped up through a hole, and then the table closed on 'em like a guillotine." Strapped into the monkeys' mouths were bamboo sticks, but despite this precaution, Terry remembers, the dining room echoed with simian shrieks. When he describes this dish today, he sounds detached. "It was all right. A little salty is all--warm and salty. The hot sauce helped."
Papa allowed only his sons to join him for meals this lavish and this illicit. Terry's brothers, all older, felt a need to distinguish themselves from gourmands of lesser stomach--"They were like, 'Bring it on!'" Terry, perhaps ten years old at the time, was less enthusiastic. Still, "he paid for it, you better eat it--otherwise you're walking home," says Terry now. "We were going for a man's meal."
Before he quit drinking, Terry spent a little time at a bar called the Dram Shop, on Broadway near Wellington. Not too long ago he stopped by, ordered a Diet Coke, and withdrew from his backpack a ream of photographs from the old days. Mostly the shots pictured old regulars posing inside the Golden Dragon. Shuffling through them, he stopped and said, "Oh, shit. This guy owes me 100 bucks!" In another, Jackie Chan is standing in the restaurant, smiling. "He's in better shape than I am," Terry said. "I can only do, like, eight of his moves."
Eventually he came to pictures of his mother and father. In one, Papa Yum is pinching a cigarette between his lips and squinting at the camera in an expression of mirth. "This is Dad in his form." Another photo showed Minnie. She is plump, matronly, and--though a full foot and two inches shorter than her husband--looks able to channel enough energy to move a turbine.
At the Dragon, Minnie regularly put in 14-hour days. To increase her efficiency, she slept in a yard chair at the restaurant. When the hours of the Dragon stretched well past dawn, Minnie would walk into the barroom and force her patrons to call it a night--but instead of turning the lights up when last call arrived, she extinguished them. Grumbling men would descend the stairs, groping in the darkness. If they expressed a disinclination to leave, Minnie would literally sweep them out of the room--a broom was her favorite tool of extraction. "She'd get behind 'em on the steps and beat 'em over the head as they moved down the stairs, like cattle," Terry says. One customer, over the course of a long career at the Dragon, saw that his hair had begun to recede. Drinking one night at the bar he looked mournfully at Terry and pointed to his pate: "Your mom did this to me!"
Mama Yum did not shrink from confrontation. The street was home to several bars catering to drag queens, including one called Finocchio's, where the featured attraction was a troupe of female impersonators. After work its members would often stop by the Dragon, increasing the carnival ambience already in place. "When you get 150 people in there anything's bound to happen," says Terry. "Transvestites were the worst, though. The man side would come out of 'em." When they squared off for a fistfight--most often against one another--Minnie stood fast. "Cut that out," she would say. "We don't need that in here!" Or: "You boys take that outside! If anyone's gonna do the fighting in here, it's me!" Lugene, Terry's ex-wife, says, "I never saw anybody ever face up to her, and I never saw her back down. Not once, not ever."
Minnie Yum, who now lives in a retirement home in Skokie, finally stopped working in 1991. Fifty years in restaurants had ruined her knees.
Terry married Lugene DelVeccio--born of Sicilian stock in Youngstown, Ohio--in 1972, when he was 17 and she was 16. Papa Yum's various aliases, however, nearly halted the proceedings. To prove that the young couple had their parents' consent, the court required both sets of parents to present their IDs. But apparently Papa's papers had been mislaid.
"Are you the father of that man over there?" the judge asked him.
"Yes," said Papa Yum.
"What's your name?"
Papa decided to answer with a question. "Which one? Tom Yum?"
"My mother almost fainted," Terry says. Papa then began to list his other names, none to the satisfaction of the courts. But then he had an idea. "My brother knows who I am," he told the judge, referring to a Golden Dragon regular who happened to preside over a courtroom upstairs. The first judge placed a call. After some murmured conversation, she hung up the phone. "Well," she said. "I don't know what to call you, but my colleague vouches for you, and that's good enough for me." It was lucky too for the bride and groom, who were feeling a sense of urgency: 20 days after they were married, Lugene gave birth to Chris.
More than most of the Yum offspring, Terry had been nurtured in the family business. By the time the Dragon opened, most of his older siblings were pursuing careers outside the service industry, but Terry came of age at the restaurant. "It was in my blood," he says. "Starting when I was four or five years old, I worked 12 hours a day for six days a week." Only on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day did Papa close down the Dragon. Even his wedding day afforded Terry only a brief respite. The Yums held the reception at the family eatery. Unwilling to lose out on a night's worth of business, Papa--according to Lugene--charged his son for the room. Terry says his father didn't charge him. But at 5:30 in the evening, after the reception had concluded and the last guests had said good night, he took off his tux and went to work, wiping tables and washing dishes.
Terry says it was never his intention to stay in the family business: "Shit, I wanted to be a cop." When he was 21 he signed up to take the Chicago Police Academy entrance exam. A few days before the test, Papa approached Terry and said some visitors, a captain and a lieutenant from the force, had arrived at the restaurant to see him. The cops told Terry they'd noticed his name on a list of academy candidates. "Then they both looked at each other and said, 'You'll never make it.' I stared at 'em for a second. I said, 'Why? I'm not stupid. I've got more street smarts than most cops.' But they said I had one thing I couldn't have as a cop. I'd give people the benefit of the doubt. I'd be too nice. Which was true."
Whatever the validity of this appraisal, the officers had come to the Golden Dragon at the behest of Papa Yum, who was concerned for the health of his son walking a bullet-strewn CPD beat. "Even after the conversation, my dad was nervous that I'd still go ahead with it. He was hovering around while we talked, like a guy in a waiting room, waiting for his wife to have a kid. I've never seen him so worried in my life."
When Papa Yum died in August 1979, everyone knew it was coming. Several months earlier, surgeons had removed the wracked bits of his liver. After the operation, his doctors told him he would survive, but only if he gave up the drink. He did not. His family pleaded, his friends counseled. "He was on the verge of recovering, but then he just fucked it up," Terry says. "He pretty much committed suicide."
The day of the funeral, a parade of cars snaked out from the city to a cemetery in Stickney. Over winding roads the cars made their way through the graveyard in slow turns, and so long was the train that eventually the head crossed over the tail in a great automotive figure eight. Terry's brother directed traffic at the gridlocked scene. "My father wanted a big funeral," Terry concludes, "and he got one."
As new manager of the Golden Dragon--along with Tim, his fourth-oldest brother--Terry received an education not only in work ethic but in the general vagaries of the big-city restaurant trade. Eight times, for instance, the Dragon was the scene of an attempted holdup--once by a crew dressed identically in opaque sunglasses, black fedoras, and black trench coats. Terry, bartending at the time, thwarted their plans with a pump-action shotgun he'd set onto the speed rails.
Mostly, though, these vagaries involved relatively harmless customer eccentricity. One day in the early 70s, Mike Royko arrived at the Dragon around four in the morning, escorting three women, all strippers, says Terry. Royko ordered for the table--mai tais and Hong Kong steaks all around--and the conviviality of the group soon devolved into contretemps, the columnist's voice rising above the general thrum in the dining room. The dispute involved one of the strippers, who was only 18. Royko had begun a piece of oratory meant to convince the young lady that this was her lucky night, but the girl was resisting his persuasions. Alarmed nonetheless, the two older women initiated a strategy of misdirection, attempting to woo Royko without success. Terry recalls, "He told 'em, 'I been with you already. You're old news.'" The guardians soon turned serious, beseeching Royko to cut it out and let the poor girl alone.
When Terry delivered the steaks, Royko apparently decided it was time to make his retreat. He stood up, asked Terry for the check, and paid it. "I remember every word he said," Terry says. "He says to me, 'I paid for this food.' Then he looks at me--he looks right at me, right?--and he says, 'But girls, dinner's on you!'" Hong Kong steaks, when well prepared, arrive at the table searing hot, and when Royko grasped the plates and flipped their contents onto the laps of the ladies, the restaurant erupted with shouts and screeches and an abundance of profanity. Terry's response was instinctual. A former high school wrestler and Golden Gloves boxer, he took Royko by the neck and the seat of the pants, and drove him like Chaplin out onto the street.
The next week a column appeared in the Daily News. "He wrote some bad stuff about us," Terry says. "He said he'd been thrown outta better places."
As it had been for Papa Yum, the Golden Dragon's customer base became for Terry his after-shift drinking corps d'elite. Despite the fact that his father had succumbed to cirrhosis, for Terry, the invincibility of youth overcame any qualms about his own mortality. Plus, going out with his customers was good for business. He quickly became a regular at the taverns on the street. "I could walk into the Ale House and not spend a dime the whole night," Terry says. Other nights he'd spot a round or more for everyone at the bar. He developed a taste for tequila. "That was the hardest booze to handle, and I drank it."
At one point, Terry says, his sister Donna, whom he describes as a "holy roller" (she is a social worker and regular churchgoer), attempted to rid the Dragon of its bar and TV. (Donna denies ever doing this.) Terry stepped in, circulating a petition among his customers. Should Donna make good on her threat, it warned, the signatories would boycott the restaurant. "I got 250 signatures," Terry says, "and that's in one day." Donna must have recognized the loss of a flock when she saw one. The booze and the television remained, and so did the corps.
Their ranks included actors from Second City--Candy, Aykroyd, Murray, Radner, Belushi--who frequented the Dragon to unwind after their performances and often to develop new material. "I miss those guys," Terry says. A photograph from the late 1980s shows Chris Farley and Terry Yum standing beside the bar in the basement of 1541. Farley left for New York with $60 on his tab.
During the headiest days of Old Town's nighlife popularity, in the late 60s and early 70s, Terry hardly ever had a drink at the Dragon, but with regulars and the crews of other restaurants he'd close the bars and strip clubs of Wells--the Crystal Pistol, the Key Club, the Midas Touch--then head for 24-hour saloons on Rush and in Cicero. He didn't return home until his children were preparing for school. After dropping them off, he'd go back home to sleep. Not until the next morning would he see them again, at the same hour, in the same state of mind. His home life consisted of sleeping, eating, maybe fiddling with his car. In 1979 he and Lugene were divorced.
In 1991 the Golden Dragon's days at 1541 N. Wells met their end as well when the O'Brien family, longtime holders of commercial real estate on Wells and proprietors of the well-known restaurant there, outbid the Yums for the building and increased the rent. Terry eventually found a space just down the street, at 1339 N. Wells, but the move precipitated the departure of both Mama Yum and Donna, who returned to her old job at the Illinois Department of Public Aid. At his new digs, Terry was alone and free to construct his "wall of shame," an elaborate collage of photographs of customers, a decorative feature forbidden by Donna at the previous location. The new place was far more brightly lit than 1541, but other than that little changed. The old regulars returned, and Terry's drinking regimen persisted.
The restaurant remained at 1339 until a familiar scenario forced the Yums out two summers ago: once again Terry had an opportunity to purchase his building, but he says he couldn't come up with the money fast enough. The new owner raised the Dragon's rent from $6,000 to nearly $9,000 a month. On August 1, 2001, the restaurant closed again.
Terry succeeded in finding another new location, at 1617 N. Wells, which had previously housed Undiamo, a short-lived Italian restaurant, and before that the sushi bar Kamehachi, now located just down the street. The new place required substantial renovation, most of which was done by Chris. But for weeks at a time no work got done. Terry slept a lot, he went to the bars, he came around to the Dragon on an indifferent schedule. His son, beginning to doubt whether the restaurant would ever reopen, got a job as a bartender at Ben Pao. Finally, in August 2002, despite the fact that it was not yet fully operational, Terry opened the restaurant for takeout only. But he'd already had enough. A few months earlier, he gotten Chris to agree to take over the business he'd once helped dig out of a blizzard.
Terry's retirement from the Dragon was motivated by his wish to retire from the drinking life. "It was too easy, after closing up the restaurant, to walk to the bars and then walk home. Being there over 30 years on the street, you get to be well-known. You get to know everybody and their families and their friends, and it gets hard not to hang out." By the end of a normal day he would have consumed a case of beer and a fifth and a half of tequila. He'd begun to suffer from brain fog and powerful cramps in his legs. "I had to drink a good 12 ounces just to stop the shakes, and that's for breakfast. When I saw my dad going through what he did, I said to myself, 'I'm not gonna go through that.' And then what happened? The same goddamn thing."
On June 15, 2002, at 1:30 in the morning, sitting at home in front of the television, he went cold turkey. From a highball glass he drained six ounces of Cuervo Gold, the last of a bottle. He washed it down with a swig of Gatorade, said to himself, "That's it," and went to bed. "It was surprisingly easy, considering how I was living," he says. In addition to going dry he also resumed his "arts," as he calls them. "Kung fu," Terry says. "The animal arts. All the forms are based on animals. The praying mantis, for instance. Well, that's an insect. But there's the panther, the crane, the monkey. I do it every day by myself at the house. Forms, you go over your forms." This has kept him in shape to a degree that allows him to maintain a sense of paternal superiority. "I still say I can kick my son's ass with one hand behind my back," he says.
These days he lives near Sheridan and Belmont, spending most of his time in his apartment or working construction jobs. He'd like to start another restaurant, possibly combined with a food manufacturing facility. "I've got tons of inventions," Terry says nonchalantly. "From mechanical stuff to foods I haven't seen on the market yet."
He has also fortified his lodgings against potential havoc of a global, post-9/11 sort. His stores include several electrical generators, four 20-gallon containers of freshwater, cases of vacuum-dried meats and vegetables, and a modest arsenal of licensed small arms. "I'm a survivalist," Terry says.
Chris Yum, 31, looks more like his mother than his father. His complexion is pure Palermo. Lurking in his eyes is a look that holds his grandfather's aptitude for mischief, while his trim physique would seem to show his grandmother's aptitude for hard work. Except for a few years in the early 1990s selling time-shares for his mother's second husband, Chris has worked continuously at the Golden Dragon since he was a small boy, shelling pea pods in his grandfather's kitchen, taking delivery shifts each Monday while in high school, and working in every conceivable capacity--waiter, bartender, fry cook, busboy, handyman--for his father.
At 1617 N. Wells, Chris planned to open a patio out back once he obtained a liquor license. With new seating and a well-stocked bar, he would have kept the Dragon open till 2 AM. He predicted a 17-hour day for himself, but he wasn't concerned that the restaurant trade would become the detriment to his health it had been for his father and grandfather before him. Chris is no teetotaler. "I just think I'm a stronger person," he says. "I get a lot of support from my wife. I don't think my father asked for much from his wife, and I know my grandfather didn't."
Chris is not comfortable discussing Terry's retirement. He says merely that his father was "too tired to do it anymore." When Terry first asked him to take over, Chris was ambivalent. He told his father he had to think about it. "I didn't know if I wanted to work for myself. Working for someone else is fun--you've got no worries, no headaches, no responsibilities. But working for yourself is another story." He can't quite say what convinced him in the end. "I don't know, man, I don't know," he says. "I did it to keep the name going. I felt that since it was started by one family, I needed to keep it in the family."
Whatever his initial reluctance, he took to his new role with gusto. Start-up costs for the new restaurant totaled about $130,000, Chris says, and he needed to bring in a partner. He found one in Gerald Ranalli, principal of the local pizza chain, who had been ordering from the Dragon for years. Over the course of about nine months, Ranalli put up $35,000, according to Chris. (Ranalli would not confirm any numbers.) Terry held an interest in the Dragon as well--he poured some $50,000 of his savings into its renovation--but vowed to remain a silent partner. Privately, however, he admitted that the new Dragon did not quite suit his tastes. "I'd have pictures hanging up," he said. "All over the place."
But his opinion was no longer policy. "Times change, and you've got to change with them," Chris said last year. "The neighborhood, it's all yuppies now, and I don't know too many restaurants anymore that are still old school old school."
Decorating the new place, Chris took a minimalist approach. Three faux windows of rice paper and balsa wood adorned one wall, reminiscent of the partitions in a Japanese teahouse, and along the opposite wall ran a compact bar topped with gray tiles. A ceiling-high potted palm lent the room a vaguely equatorial feel. The restaurant had a capacity of about 50 diners, a number it rarely drew. Chris attributed this shortcoming to a minor public-relations problem--he had yet to adequately spread the word that the Dragon was again open for business--and, more important, to the lack of a liquor license.
Onetime Dragon regulars reacted in mixed fashion to the scene at 1617. Many came for a meal and never returned. "A lot of the draw for the older customers was Terry," says Lugene. "But I think it was the atmosphere of the old place, too. It was relaxed there in a way it could never be relaxed here. They used to play videos while people were dining. That's definitely not the atmosphere I want here, watching Bruce Lee beat the crap out of people while you're trying to eat."
Chris did establish some continuity with the past. He rehired his father's old deliveryman, Frankie, who had brought Golden Dragon meals to the hungry people of Chicago for going on a decade. Also, though Cookie had retired, Chris brought back three chefs from the old place. "They're from Canton, and they know their shit."
And for a brief stint before her divorce, Lugene had worked as a barkeep on the second floor of 1541. "Other than my own family, I've known the Yums longer than anyone," she says. "Thirty-three years."
"I've often thought that anybody in this business has to be a thespian," she says. "They're thwarted thespians, really. To do this business for any lengthy period of time, it takes a bent mind. Because I have to tell you something about the public: they're assholes. But with Terry and Chris, they just take things in stride. It's like water off a duck. They have a tendency to see the good in people, even sometimes when I think it's erroneous. People really like Christopher, too, and in that way he has the same ability that his grandfather and father did, an ability to interact with others."
Nevertheless, on April 13, 2003, a Sunday, the Golden Dragon closed its doors for the third time--this time most likely for good. Under Chris's stewardship, the restaurant lasted nine months. A minor ceremony took place. Chris and Lugene were there, as well as a few regulars and friends. Terry did not show up. Those present raised their drinks to the family, the food, the fine company, the end. Then they locked up and went next door to Corcoran's. Today curious pedestrians can peer through the window and see chairs up on tables, a rolled-up rug, and one of the faux-bronze dragon reliefs.
To those involved, the reasons for the failure are simple. The place ran out of money. When Gerald Ranalli suggested that Chris fire his kitchen staff, Chris decided to fire himself instead. "What, I'm going to run the place and cook?" he says. A liquor license never materialized; Ranalli says the Yums "kind of goofed up" the application; Chris blames City Hall. "I'm sure if we put more money into it and held out a little longer we could have gotten the license," Chris says. "But you never know. It could've been six months, it could've been a year." There was never enough for proper advertising; there was not even enough money for a proper sign. If a hungry pedestrian were walking past the Dragon, Chris explains, "you wouldn't know if it was a restaurant or a gift store or what." And perhaps most damaging of all, the Dragon's hiatus between its second and third buildings lasted a bit too long, making rot of the restaurant trade's fourth-favorite rule of thumb behind location (cubed): consistency.
Chris Yum now works part-time as a waiter at La Creperie. "I think I'm gonna take a long break from restaurants--from running restaurants, at least," he says. "A buddy of mine is opening a place in Highwood, and he asked me to come out there and manage it. But I said no." He and his father have discussed the Dragon's end only sporadically, "a few conversations here and there. There's not much you can talk about. We put a lot into it, but that's it. I feel pretty bad about it. I'm over it now, but it wasn't easy. We put a lot of work into that place. All that hard work for nothing," he says, and laughs. Later he adds, "Managing a restaurant, owning a restaurant, it's not for me. Too much stress, too much heartache."
Ranalli says he has no hard feelings. Of more interest to him at the moment are his plans for the space, where by this coming September he hopes to cut the ribbon on something called Vito Goldberg's Italo-Judaic Deli Bistro. "I'm working on a logo right now," he said a few weeks ago. "I'm thinking of a fedora on one side and a yarmulke on the other, with an Italian flag and an Israeli flag somewhere in there." He continued, "I like the new idea a little better. There's so many Chinese places in town, but where can you get a good corned beef sandwich?"