Courtesy: Laura Lanagan
Visionary restaurateur Sue Wong van Wiggeren (1926-2019) spearheaded the opening of Mattapoisett’s iconic Cathay Temple restaurant at the age of 25. Lovingly known as “Suzie Wong,” she was raised in the restaurant business and considered her mother Jade as a standard for success in culinary arts.
Visionary restaurateur Sue Wong van Wiggeren (1926-2019) spearheaded the opening of Mattapoisett’s iconic Cathay Temple restaurant at the age of 25. Lovingly known as “Suzie Wong,” she was raised in the restaurant business and became the matriarch of what she called the “Charlie Wong family empire.”
The daughter of Chinese immigrants Charlie Wong and Jade (Woo) Wong, Suzie was born in Fall River. The Wong family settled in New Bedford, where Charlie was the only Chinese World War I veteran in the New Bedford American Legion. Charlie operated a hand laundry business on Pleasant Street before purchasing a Chinese restaurant at 942 Purchase Street in 1926, naming it Charlie Wong’s. Jade, or Mama Wong, was considered the driving force behind the business. With the family living upstairs, Charlie Wong’s grew in popularity and became very well known for its chow mein sandwich, an affordable menu item introduced during the Depression. When not in school, the Wongs’ seven children all worked hard in the restaurant and contributed to building up the family business. Balancing school and work, Suzie graduated from New Bedford High School in 1944.
In 1951, the Wong family purchased property previously known as the New York Sea Grille on Route 6 in Mattapoisett and made plans for an authentic Cantonese restaurant that would be named Cathay Temple. With Charlie in declining health, Mama Wong and daughter Suzie took the lead on the project. In a 1999 Standard-Times interview, Suzie explained, “I was interested in running it, but Mama Wong was in charge.” Charles Holt, a family relative from Shanghai who was studying in Connecticut, designed the restaurant; Olsen & Appleby constructed the building, including its iconic turquoise stucco and trademark hip roof with a pagoda feel. Using a design from a Boston restaurant, contractors built a barbecue pit for marinating and cooking pork. Other interior features included grass wall-covering, recessed timbered ceiling, serpentine-shaped bar with vintage quilted padding, cream and black seating, geometric doors and other Chinese ornamentation throughout.
Cathay Temple opened for business on April 10, 1951. For 49 years, the iconic Route 6 structure remained a successful restaurant whose longevity was ensured by the hard work of family and staff. Suzie’s brother-in-law Philip Moy was Cathay Temple’s master chef, while her brothers Stephen and Dennis were managers. An efficient operation was developed that began with orders given by waitresses orally to kitchen staff. Black oolong Chinese tea, brewed from leaves, not bags, was served in individual teapots at each table. Hot, steamed towels followed appetizers before dinner. Long known for its Chinese fare, Cathay Temple also served American favorites, including steak and lobster. While seating 150 people for dine-in, it did a wide-ranging take-out business that reached as far as Nantucket.
Guided by Suzie’s attention to detail and outgoing nature, Cathay Temple became the quintessential hangout. Families celebrated milestones, friends met regularly for dinner and drinks, and a sense of community was nurtured. The iconic cocktail lounge became a popular piano bar, with live music that featured local musicians. Suzie made it a point to know her patrons, calling some her godsons and others her boyfriends. After serving as a gathering place for nearly five decades, with Suzie and her generation of family retiring, Cathay Temple closed on September 3, 2000.
Suzie passed away on August 10, 2019, survived by two daughters, Kathryn Hurlburt and Laura Lanagan, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Suzie was the wife of the late Richard H. van Wiggeren. She considered her late mother Jade as a standard for success in the restaurant business. Suzie stated, “Mama Wong was wise, attractive, well-dressed, and a wonderful person. She had total respect from the customers.” Like mother, like daughter …
Ann O’Leary, Emily Bourne Research Fellow with Laura Lanagan
- Apuzzo, Matt. “Cathay Temple Closes with Tears.” SouthCoast Today, 4 Sept. 2000, https://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/20000904/news/309049997.
- Brown, Bay. “Lament for a Landmark.” SouthCoast Today, 20 Aug. 2000, https://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/20000820/LIFE/308209953.
- “Sue van Wiggeren, 92.” SouthCoast Today, 30 Aug. 2019, https://www.southcoasttoday.com/obituaries/20190830/sue-van-wiggeren-92.
- Thomas, Joseph D., et al., editors. “Early Chinese Immigration.” A Picture History of New Bedford, Volume Two, 1925-1980. Spinner Publications, 2016, p. 137.
- Winokoor, Charles. “How the Wongs Ensured the Cathay Temple’s Longevity.” SouthCoast Today, 18 Apr. 1999, https://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/19990418/news/304189959.