Celebrity Chef Angie Mar Says Her Family’s Restaurant Business Wasn’t a Choice
Angie Mar’s aunt Ruby Chow’s eponymous restaurant once employed a young Bruce Lee and was beloved by Frank Sinatra and Sidney Poitier. But getting into the restaurant industry in the first place wasn’t by choice. “It was brought about by the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Mar says.
Mar’s grandparents emigrated from China in the early 1900s to the US to pursue the American dream, but because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—one example of a long history of xenophobic legislation against Asians in America—they “couldn’t own a business if it wasn’t a restaurant or laundromat”, Mar says. But Chow refused to be kept down, capitalising on her Chinese heritage and cuisine and making them chic. Mar followed in her aunt’s footsteps, becoming a chef and restauranteur in New York City. Ruby Chow’s was the first Chinese restaurant in the Seattle area that was outside of Chinatown, and saw customers dressing up for the Chinese dining experience, which, according to Mar, was rare in the late Forties and Fifties.
Aside from her business, Chow was actively involved in the fight against the racists laws that limited her community, working with politician Warren Magnuson, who repealed the Chinese Exclusionary Act in 1943. She would continue the fight to level the playing ground for the Asian American and Pacific Island community throughout her life.
“I grew up in a family of very strong women. I was very much raised to believe that I deserve to be here,” Mar says.
Sadly, the recent wave of anti-Asian hate since the start of the pandemic regularly reminds Mar that her aunt’s fight is ongoing. “I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been told that it’s my fault that this whole thing [Covid-19] has happened, that I spread the virus,” she says, adding that her restaurant has received numerous calls telling her to “go back to China”.
She says that the stories of violence against Asians has caused a lot of stress and fear, for her and her friends and colleagues, yet they didn’t feel they had any external support. “I think that everybody was very scared. There was a point when we were trying to come up with a plan to close at six o’clock, because of all of the violence against our community. It just wasn’t safe.
“The [law enforcement] system is not designed to protect us, unfortunately—but we can take care of our own.”
The mutual support among restauranteurs and within the community reassure Mar that no matter how tough times get, standing up for themselves and for equality is a worthwhile battle.
“If there is one industry that pulls together and rallies around our brothers and sisters, it’s the restaurant industry. It is very small, especially in New York, a very tight-knit community,” she says. “There are some amazing groups out there that have been really helping to give back to the community.”
So, buoyed by their support and her aunt’s spirit, Mar refuses to be oppressed. “New York will always be my home,” she says, “and I try to contribute to it every day with my creativity and action.”