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Tane Chan's Wok Shop Stirred Up a Trend

Written by Tara Duggan, staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. This article appeared on the cover page of Sunday, July 28, 2013, San Francisco Chronicle. Two photos referred to but not appearing (by Russell Yip) are visible if you click this link.

If not for President Nixon's 1972 trip to China, there would be no Wok Shop. And without the Wok Shop, Chinatown wouldn't have a culinary ambassador named Tane Chan.

Chan founded her groundbreaking store just after Nixon's historic trip. Newspapers had published photos and menus of a multicourse banquet held in his honor in Beijing, showcasing food that was way more sophisticated than what could be found in Chinatown's standard chop suey houses.

The banquet represented Chinese cooking at its best. And Americans wanted to try it.

"Everyone was coming into Chinatown asking for woks," recalled Chan, an Albuquerque transplant who owned a gift shop on Grant Avenue at the time. She would send them to the Chinese grocers, but most were defeated by the language barrier.

Sensing a niche, Chan opened an Asian cookware store and called it the Wok Shop. "It was a market that was literally untouched for Westerners," she said.

Chan's willingness to teach customers about woks - the key tool in Chinese cooking - has made her an international resource. With the largest wok selection outside of Hong Kong and China, she sells more than 200 of the curved pans each week at her flagship Grant Avenue store and through her website, which draws customers from as far away as Australia and Africa.

"Tane has done so much to popularize and promote the art of wok cooking and Chinese cuisine to mainstream America," said restaurateur and TV personality Martin Yan, who met Chan in the 1970s while leading tours of Chinatown.

YouTube Videos

Although her parents were Chinese immigrants, when Chan opened the store she barely spoke Chinese and knew nothing about woks, so she could relate to novices. She asked for advice around Chinatown and experimented with wok cooking at home until she was ready to pass her knowledge on to her customers, which she still does with classes and YouTube videos.

"For her it's really about promoting Chinese culinary culture and passing on the culinary traditions," said New York cookbook author Grace Young, who has featured Chan in her wok-focused book, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge."

Wok Shop owner Tane Chan (left) assists Parul Patel in choosing a wok. Chan sells more than 200 woks a week online and at her shop on Grant Avenue in Chinatown. Chan specializes in traditional steel woks, which sear food so well it feels like you're cooking with fire. In recent years, many home cooks, both here and in Asia, have converted to the lighter, nonstick "stir-fry pan," a Western version that is easier to maintain but doesn't conduct heat nearly as well and doesn't improve with age as steel woks do.

"For 2,000 years the wok has been the iron thread that's linked Chinese history," said Young, a native San Franciscan who also grew up in a wok-less Chinese American household. "No one seems to realize this old-fashioned tool is the original nonstick pan."

Despite being well past retirement age (she won't give her birth date), Chan works at the store every day. She'll go home for dinner, take a short nap and then return to her computer late at night.

Inside her jumbled shop with woks and paper lanterns hanging from every square foot of ceiling, Chan is constantly on the phone advising customers how to select and use woks, and she rarely forgets a name.

"I see by your number you're from the East Coast," she said to a caller on a recent workday. "Are you a friend of Bob's in Boston?" Yes, the caller replied, he was a friend of Bob's.

Wok Bonding

Since many customers are intimidated by seasoning woks - oiling and heating them to prevent rusting - she sometimes will do it for them. But she'd rather teach them to do it themselves for "important wok bonding time," as she puts it.

Tane Chan (second from left) with her parents (center) and eight siblings in 1960. Her parents owned a general store and Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque, where she grew up. After 40 years in the business, she can size up customers right away.

"Men come in and walk right to that 'pow' wok," she said, pointing to a hefty model that must be held with one hand. "They pick it up and they say, 'This is great, this is awesome.' Women don't do that - they don't flex their muscles. It's a macho wok."

Chan's woks range from $9.95 for a 13-inch cast-iron from China to $150 for a large U.S.-made pan. Customers often think they need the more expensive models, even when she insists her $20 woks, many of which are made to her specifications by RW Metal Spinning Co. in Hayward, will last a lifetime.

Chan learned about customer service from her mother, Lin Ong, who ran a general store in Albuquerque while raising nine children. It was Lin's generous spirit and a good deed she did for a stranger that would one day play a key role in her daughter's success.

Lin Ong was a picture bride from Guangzhou, China, an educated woman who married Chan's father, Wing Ong, in 1928. Wing had come to Colorado as a young boy to join his father, a railroad laborer who soon after was killed in a dynamite explosion. Wing went to Albuquerque to live with people from his village in China, the closest thing he had to relatives.

Wing returned to China to bring Lin to the U.S. They landed on Angel Island, then spent one night in Chinatown before heading straight to Albuquerque.

It was a harsh transition. Lin had heard tales of the prosperity in the United States, but when she stepped off the train in the dusty Southwestern city, "She said, 'This is America? The land of opportunity and gold streets?' " Chan recalled.

There were few Chinese families in Albuquerque, and the Ongs lived in the mostly Latino Barelas neighborhood. Wing opened what would be a series of restaurants, and Lin ran her store.

"With the language barrier, whom could she speak to? There was nobody to share her experiences with. Nobody to get help from," Chan said.

Beans and Tortillas

They ate the local food: tortillas, rice and beans, and red and green chiles. Lin couldn't get Chinese ingredients, let alone a wok, so she used a frying pan to stir-fry regular green cabbage, instead of Chinese cabbage, with a little smoked bacon to stretch it for the whole family.

It was in the middle of the Depression, and Lin had to make her daughters' dresses from flour sacks. Still, she extended credit to her customers and each Christmas sent her children out with gifts for all the neighbors.

"She instilled in us even though we're having a hard life, some people had it even harder," Chan said.

When Chan was 14, her sister and brother-in-law took her along on a vacation to San Francisco. She fell in love with the city, and resolved to return for college by saving up the tips she earned at the family restaurant. By then her father owned New Chinatown Restaurant in Albuquerque, which became a city landmark that only recently closed.

After graduating high school in 1956, Chan made her way to San Francisco against her mother's will, enrolling in San Francisco State's teaching program and working at a gift store in Chinatown.

Learning About Her Culture

"I wanted to learn about my culture and to speak the language. I never succeeded in the language part" - she still speaks better Spanish than Cantonese - "but I learned so much about my Chinese culture."

While at the job, she discovered she was more drawn to business than teaching. "I liked dealing with people and the public, with tourists. I just liked that excitement," she said.

In 1968, she married Al Chan, and together they opened a gift shop. They didn't have much trouble finding a space for it, but when they were ready to open their larger cookware store in 1972, they worried about getting a good location. Neither was a local, and Chinatown was mostly closed to outsiders.

When Chan inquired about renting 804 Grant Ave., the landlord, a member of the Louie family, asked where she was from and who her parents were. He was stunned by her answer.

"That's the name of the family that took care of somebody in our family," he said.

Many years before, an old man, also a Louie, had died alone while passing through Albuquerque. Because he was Chinese, the coroner called Chan's mother to see if she knew him. She contacted the Louie Fong & Fong Family Association in San Francisco, one of Chinatown's oldest fraternal organizations. No one there was a close relative, but they asked Lin to make sure he got a decent burial. She took care of the arrangements and sent his effects - the few dollars in his pocket - back to the association.

"You have such good parents, you can have the store," the landlord told Chan.

"The community in Chinatown never forgot my mother's kind act," she said.

Chan didn't know the story and called her mother, who reminded her of the grave that Chan and her siblings brought flowers to each Memorial Day.

"That's the old gentleman who's buried there," said Lin.

Teaching the World

The Wok Shop stayed in the same spot until 1988, when Chan moved it to its current location at 718 Grant Ave. She also opened additional locations in Stonestown Mall, Crocker Galleria and Ghirardelli Square, which she has since closed, replaced by her online business.

Chan has run the business alone since her husband died in 1994, although her brother, Randolph Ong, also helps out. Her daughter Lisa Chan, one of her three children and a Bay Area resident, said her father mostly shuttled the kids to school and soccer practice while her mother worked and still got home in time to make dinner each night.

What has always driven Chan is teaching the world about woks. And because Chinatown is such a big tourist destination, she's had a chance to reach a wide audience over the past 40 years. And no one can leave the store without a better understanding of Chinese cooking, says Martin Yan.

"Normally you go to a department store like Macy's, and everything is packed up in boxes," he said. "She has woks hanging from the ceiling just like the roast ducks hanging in the Chinese delis. You go over there and you feel like you are going back in time."

The Wok Shop, 718 Grant Ave. (between Clay and Sacramento streets), San Francisco, (415) 989-3797. www.wokshop.com.

Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: tduggan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @taraduggan