In 1978, Wun Yin Wu opened Peking Duck House, a Mott Street fixture that represents the best of New York City.
The youngest of four brothers, Wun Yin Wu was born on the outskirts of Shanghai in 1948, as his family struggled under communism. His father, who worked on a naval ship, managed to secure the family visas to escape to Hong Kong when Wu was 9, leaving behind his grandmother and extended family. It was in Hong Kong that Wu told his mother he wanted to drop out of school. Fluent in Shanghainese and Mandarin, Wu was too far behind in Cantonese to keep up with his peers, and teachers would beat him for his mistakes.
“I told her, 'I don’t want to go to school. I don’t like it. Somebody will kill me,' Wu recalls, hitting the air with his hand. With his mother's blessing, Wu dropped out of junior high and found an apprenticeship to learn Mandarin cooking at one of Hong Kong's most important Chinese restaurants. There, he fell in love. Working 365 days a year to learn the intricacies of Mandarin technique, he began to see his future more clearly.
Wu is the chef-owner of Peking Duck House, a New York City institution that’s been a fixture on Chinatown's Mott Street for 40 years, with a second location in Midtown. At age 70, Wu has no plans to retire and laughs at the suggestion; he still works four days a week in the kitchen. He says he loves cooking so much that he could never imagine stopping.
During a recent lunch of pine nut chicken with Wu and his son-in-law Victor, the chef slips away from the dining room and returns moments later dressed in his chef whites, beaming and holding a large knife. He begins to hack up a crisp, glistening, scalding-hot Peking duck with the grace and precision of a classical dancer, holding a white cloth napkin in one hand to position the hot duck as the other hand slivers off golden strips of skin and meat, arranging the treasures on a plate. Together, we eat the duck, tender and crispy, wrapped in steamed pancakes with spring onions and sweet bean sauce.
Wu has every reason to be smiling. He meditates twice a day—an hour in the morning, an hour at night—and teaches meditation classes on the weekends in the basement of a Chinatown temple. He watches football every Monday. He follows the NBA with great enthusiasm. He is surrounded by family—his wife, three daughters, two of whom live nearby, and five grandchildren are the joys of his life. And he loves making duck.
It was in Hong Kong that Wu first prepared Peking duck and eventually mastered Chinese technique. At just 16 years old, Wu was fully immersed in the grueling, vacation-free world of kitchens, but he never doubted the work or his passion for it. After four years in Hong Kong, his three brothers, mother, and father moved to the United States. While Wu heard of an opportunity to open a restaurant in Mallorca, Spain, he traveled there next bringing along his best friend from Hong Kong Hill Song, who, decades later, is still cooking by his side at Peking Duck House.
When he eventually moved to New York from Spain to reunite with his family in 1970, 21-year-old Wu had just $500 in his pocket and spoke no English. By way of skill alone, he finagled jobs at some of New York’s most prestigious Chinese kitchens, including Shun Lee Palace and Shun Lee West. He met his wife on a blind date, and less than six months later, they married.
"Her family is very famous in Hong Kong, and she married me? A nothing!" says Wu, laughing. "I was just cooking." When Wu was 30, he and his best friend, Song, opened Peking Duck House in Chinatown. His wife took care of their three daughters as he managed the restaurant and developed other (now-closed) concepts throughout the city, including Great Shanghai on Division Street. Peking Duck House was a family effort. Wu's mother did the bookeeping, and his brothers, mother, and father are all partners in the business. "Our family is very supportive," Wu says. "We are very close."
40 years later, on Sunday, October 21, 2018, Wu, Song, family, and friends gathered at 236 East 53rd Street to celebrate the restaurant's legacy. There was cake, and duck, and his daughter Judy's five-month-old baby boy, who, somehow, didn't cry the whole afternoon. "He's a very, very good baby," Wu says. "Good parents, good children."
In September, Wu traveled with his two living brothers to visit his grandmother's grave outside of Shanghai. While he returns to Shanghai every year for at least two weeks, this is the first time he visited her grave in years. His last memory of his grandmother is from the day he left Shanghai for Hong Kong. She hugged him and said, "This is probably the last time you'll see me." She was right. Wu tears up remembering her.
I ask him if he misses his hometown, and he says he considers China and America to be his home countries, equally.
"China and the United States are both my house – same thing," Wu says. "The American dream is in New York City."
Peking Duck House, 28 Mott St. 212-227-1810.
Peking Duck House (Midtown), 236 E 53rd St. 212-759-8260.