The Secret of Ming's

by Ralph J. Chin


The emails are still coming in concerning my story on Newark Memories about my family’s restaurant in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey called Ming’s. I must admit, I never expected this kind of response and it’s very gratifying to have other people confirm what you always knew in your heart. Ming’s was a great restaurant and it gave many people a place to entertain family and friends while enjoying a good meal. It’s part of their past as well as mine. I recently Google mapped the Ming’s location at the corner of Lyons Avenue and Clinton Place. It’s with great sadness that I report to you that Ming’s is no longer there. The building still stands but it has been subdivided into many smaller stores and is unrecognizable to even the most ardent fan of this type of memorabilia. So now, forevermore, all we have left is our memories of this place in a different time.

Did you ever wonder why the food was so great? Like so many other successful ventures in the business world there were always reasons for success. Yes, we had good management, some excellent waiters and a talented kitchen staff. Everybody worked hard and my family, of course, had a hand in all phases of the restaurant. But when it comes down to the very essence of a restaurant, it was the quality of the food that determined whether or not you were a success.

I’ve had many discussions with my Dad and family members about why the food was so good. We all seem to agree that it was the cooking team of my Grandmother, Hoy Chin, and “Buckie” Wong, her companion until he died at age 98. Grandma insisted that the food must taste good regardless of the traditional way of cooking it and Buckie made sure that it did! So then, it was a mixture of their cooking philosophies, recipes and methods that dominated the Ming’s food style. Buckie, as the elders would call him, was the real secret behind a lot of the dishes especially his way of marinating and cooking the spareribs. To say the least, his spareribs live on in my memory as one the most delicious meats that I have ever tasted in my life. I’ve been to many other Chinese restaurants in hope of but never tasting a sparerib that even comes close to what Buckie made on a daily basis. I only wish that I had learned his method of cooking them. Not for the monetary rewards that it would surely entail but just for the pure pleasure of tasting his way of cooking once again. Who knows? Maybe it was the Newark water that had a part in the flavor!

When my sister and I were young, we knew Buckie as a friend of my Grandmother’s. He taught us how to count in Cantonese and say certain things that were mandatory for Chinese youngsters to learn! One of those things was how to say “Happy New Year” in Chinese (Gung Hee Fat Toy) so that when the elders of the family came to visit on Chinese New Year, the results of that education was a little red envelope decorated with gold Chinese writing which contained anywhere from a dollar to twenty dollars in American money! My Grandmother and Buckie would always give me $20 each and that was big money back then for a little kid! My parents would always allow me to keep it and spend it any way I wished. Was I a lucky kid? You betcha!

Buckie was a patient, understanding person but he wouldn't hesitate to scold us when we did something wrong. He spoke English quite well and we didn't have any trouble understanding him when he yelled at us! His real Chinese name was hard to pronounce and even harder to spell for all of the kids in the family. My parents insisted that we say it correctly! We were not allowed to call him Buckie like the adults did because it was a sign of disrespect. I remember the time that I slipped and called him Bucky in front of my Dad. Uh, Oh my Dad was instantly livid and about to come after me to give me a spanking but Buckie quickly calmed him down by saying “No, no it’s all right” and laughing. But Dad glared at me and I greeted him again but this time ever so properly. So, for many days I struggled with the pronunciation of Buc Len Gung. I was never taught how to write his name in English because there was no one to teach me! Some of my cousins would take a short cut and call him Gung, which I know he disliked but didn't say anything.

As the time went by, I finally became old enough to work in the restaurant. I was assigned various duties from washing dishes, cooking the spare ribs, the egg rolls and packing the “to go” orders. When I didn’t want to work because I didn’t feel well, I would be yelled at but on the way out I was given money for a day’s work anyway by Buckie. I didn’t expect that and I was sure to say thank you to him. He was always good to me. One day I proceed to royally botch up a spare rib order and with the customer’s complaint, I got yelled at by my Uncle but Grandma came to my rescue then and told him to back off!! I was then shown how to properly size the spareribs so that the customers didn’t feel that they got cheated! I’ll give you one guess as to who that person was!

I became sort of a celebrity at Maple Avenue Elementary school because all the teachers knew that my family was associated with Ming’s. My teachers would stop and ask me questions about the restaurant that I couldn’t possibly answer. Some would even hint that I could get them a free meal! I didn’t respond to this attention very well and after a while, there would be no more questions. My classmates were much better at treating me like a normal person that I was and it was fine with me.

Years later, when I was well into my own life and running all over Downtown and North Newark in pursuit of my own dreams, I hadn’t worked in the restaurant or seen Buckie in a very long time. But when he decided to buy a new car, he gave me his old car without saying a word. Sure, it was a banged up old bucket but it still ran well and got me where I needed to be. He did so many things in his own quiet way and thanking him more than once always embarrassed him. During this period of growing up I saw Buckie and Grandma cook some fantastic Chinese fish dishes to delight of all the family. These dishes were never seen in the restaurant because they were too “Chinese” for the American tastes back then. But now, with the establishment of the Food TV channel, I would think that the general public is more open and ready for something like that! But alas, they are both gone. What irony is this?

They both worked very hard for many years at the restaurant. Grandchildren came and went and still they made Ming’s the place to go. Then one day, their age finally caught up with them and they realized that they were tired of the daily restaurant grind. They decided to sell the restaurant and retire to a little town on the west coast of Florida called Brooksville. They both liked the warm, year round weather. In addition, they had friends nearby who also spoke Cantonese. I visited them in Brooksville after my contract was up in Hawaii and stayed in an adjacent trailer home until I moved to Orlando. While I was there, Buckie once more amazed me. He had a huge tomato garden that stood over six feet tall! It had tomatoes the size of an oversized softball!!! When I asked him how he got them so big, he smiled. He then showed me a large box of Miracle Gro and said he fed the plants once a day with it. I remarked to him that you were only supposed to use the Miracle Gro once a month and he just laughed at me, waving his hand as if he was swatting away a fly. The proof of his logic was the large delicious tomatoes that he grew in the Florida soil. Not quite as sweet as the Beefsteak tomatoes of New Jersey but better than most of the home grown tomatoes in Florida!

Despite decades of smoking cigarettes Buckie died in his sleep of old age. He was 98 years old. Just another amazing fact of his life that was so full of talent, dignity and compassion. May he rest in peace and be forever remembered for all the great things he did that touched not only my life but everyone that he knew.

I proudly dub thee Sir Buckie Wong, a Knight of the Ming’s Restaurant Dynasty!


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