Known for its wooden booths, antique furniture and old world ambience, Canton, also known as the Canton Tea Garden to many longtime Jersey City residents, was a throwback to when a dining out experience was a big deal. The restaurant was to have celebrated its 75th anniversary in September 2005.
But that experience is no more, as the front door has been locked for the last two months. The daughter of the former owner said last week that the company has gone into bankruptcy. It will not open again unless it gets new owners.The lowdown on Canton
In June, Hackensack-based immigration lawyer Shirley Pang notified the city's Alcoholic Beverage Control board that the restaurant was closing. Pang is also the daughter of the late owner of the Canton, Tommy Tang, and has been speaking on her family's behalf.
Pang told The Reporter last week that her father, a native of Mainland China who emigrated from Hong Kong either in the late 1950s or early 1960s, was an employee of Chinese restaurants in New Jersey for many years until he bought into the partnership that operated Canton, known as Canton Casino, Inc. In 1985, when he was brought in, he became the majority partner with three other individuals. "Once you worked in the restaurant business for many years like my father, the next step was to move into owning a restaurant as a means for providing an income for his family," said Pang.
Pang said that the restaurant was an all-encompassing endeavor for her father that he took pride in because of the devoted clientele. But in 2003, according to Pang, Tang's health started to fail him. In October of that year he passed away at the age of 64. After his passing, her mother Helen, along with the remaining partners, continued to operate the restaurant.
In June of this year, there was considerable leakage from the ceiling, Pang said.
"During the summer, there was the decision to close the restaurant in order to do renovations. That's why the sign was put on the door saying 'closed for renovation'," said Pang.
But according to Pang, her mother and the other partners then determined that the best decision was to sell the restaurant.
"Once word of mouth spread in the Chinese-American community, there were a number of people interested in the restaurant," said Pang, "until they would ask about available parking."
That impediment along with evaluating the location turned off those same interested buyers. By late August, arrangements were made to file for bankruptcy.
Pang could not offer many details on how the bankruptcy proceedings took place, only to say that it occurred in September and it was being handled by her mother and the partners.
Research of the filing found that it was done in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Newark on Sept. 28, and that a trustee, Nicholas Delzotti, was assigned to be a caretaker of the restaurant until all the assets are liquidated.
Delzotti, when reached by phone last week, said that the restaurant is locked until further notice. He also could not disclose how much the Canton management owed creditors. Remembering a glorious past
Canton was originally named the Hudson Royal. In 1932, Dan Fong and a partner, Dick Leung, took over the restaurant and renamed it in honor of their birthplace: Canton, China.
The Tea Garden moniker was added later to compete with another Journal Square restaurant, the Plaza Tea Gardens.
When Fong and Leung took over the management of Canton, they intended to create a place for dining and dancing that would mirror what existed in New York City. But after a dance floor was built, the two owners were advised that then-Mayor Frank Hague had enacted a law banning dancing in restaurants. So the dance floor existed only as part of the décor.
The restaurant, over the years, served generations who came for the experience of eating Chinese food prepared and served as if the customer was having dinner in a home on the Chinese mainland.
Many longtime Jersey City and Hudson County residents, on hearing that Canton closed, lamented the passing of an era when Journal Square was the center of night life across the river from New York City.
Joyce Laterra, a native of Union City, recalled that when she would go on dates with her future husband in the 1960s, "We would go to the Canton, which was the big restaurant in Journal Square."
Laterra added, "The ambience of the place you can't forget." She said she grew up listening to stories of her parents' courtship taking place during multiple visits to the Canton.
Pat O'Melia, host of the radio show Hudson County's Talking, grew up in Journal Square and spent many evenings dining and dating in the Canton.
"We lost an institution; we lost a place that gave Journal Square an identity," said O'Melia. "We saved the Loew's to make it into a cultural arts center, but now we have no place for the people coming to visit the Loew's to sit down and have a dinner."
O'Melia also suggested that the city's Economic Development Corporation put together a plan to purchase the restaurant or attract investors.
"I have spoken to Mayor [L. Harvey Smith] about the Canton. The city has to step forward. Journal Square took a dagger when the Canton closed," he said.
Meanwhile, families are still coming to the Canton only to see it shut down.
Last Saturday, the Bulger family of Elizabeth was spotted walking toward the door.
"This is so disappointing," said David Bulger, a Jersey City native who brought his mother and nieces. "I was just here a few months ago. I haven't found another place that measures up to this restaurant. They have the best chicken with mushrooms." Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.