At 83 years old, Tane Ong Chan has no intention of slowing down. The owner of The Wok Shop, a popular specialty store (one of the first of its kind) in San Francisco’s Chinatown that serves as a one-stop shop for everything from woks to cleavers and crockery, Chan has been going into her store almost every day since it opened in 1972. She started the business on her own and, for decades, it's been a culinary landmark.
Chan has a youthful energy—a vitality that recalls Betty White's—and her laugh is unapologetically boisterous. She’s a master punster, especially when it comes to the word “wok,” and although she's passionate about woks, she's seemingly just as excited to talk bamboo steamers and Mexican food. Below, we offer a look at Chan’s life through her own words, from her early days growing up in New Mexico to her first entrepreneurial ventures, her store’s turn-of-the-century online debut, and her ever-growing business.
As told to Yasmine Maggio
Back in New Mexico, where I grew up, we were the only Chinese family there at that time. My parents were both immigrants, and an Asian family couldn’t settle in a white neighborhood, so they settled in the barrio instead. My mother started a grocery store for the neighborhood and my father opened a short-order restaurant. We were happy; we didn't know that we were less fortunate. We had food on the table and clothes and shoes on our feet.
My mother learned to speak Spanish so she could run her grocery store. She supplied groceries that were convenient and pertinent to Hispanic culture, like flour to make tortillas, lard, and canned milk. Our neighbors were so willing to share their food and their culture, and we really acclimated to their wonderful chiles, chimichangas, refried beans, stuff like that. We were raised on that food, and to this day, I'm more addicted to that than very traditional Chinese foods.
I’m the sixth child of nine. When we were younger, we had to work in the grocery store, and then when we got to high school, we were old enough to work in the restaurant. My sisters and I were waitresses and my brothers worked in the kitchen.
I fell in love with San Francisco after a visit there in high school. I was absolutely fascinated by the Chinatown there because, being raised in Albuquerque, we weren’t exposed to any Asian culture. In 1957, against my mother’s wishes, I moved there for school. My family all stayed in Albuquerque; I’m the only one who left. I just felt that there was more to see, more to do, and more opportunity. I was dead set on learning more about my culture and even hopefully learning to speak a little bit of Cantonese. I just wanted more out of my life.
Chinatown at that time was open until 11 o’clock at night. It was teeming with people and always busy. I got a job there as a salesgirl at a gift store. I was studying education in school, but I didn’t like teaching. When an opportunity arose that there was a vacant storefront in Chinatown, I said, “I’m going to start my own little store.” I was about 26 or 27 years old. I talked to a landlord there, but I couldn't speak Chinese. My roots weren't in San Francisco Chinatown, so he said, “I don't even know you.” But then he asked my father’s name. When I told him—I’ll never forget—he slapped his forehead and said, “Oh my gosh, I know your family.” He said my parents did a very good deed for one of his relatives that came from China and was traveling to Texas to get a job. He fell ill in Albuquerque and my parents took care of him. Karma, right?
So I started a Chinaware store in 1969. At that time, President Nixon had gone to China and they wined and dined him like royalty. The Westerners were mesmerized by how a 10-course dinner, all different textures and flavors, could all be served piping hot. The Chinese revealed that they cook in a wok, and the Westerners were all very curious. So they came to Chinatown, but the only place you could find a wok was the Chinese grocery stores.
I put a few woks in my store, and that's how I got started. And before you know it, I started researching woks—remember, this wasn’t the age of Google—how to season them, and why a wok as opposed to a skillet. I couldn't impart how to cook with a wok if I didn't experience it. When another location opened up, I said, “I have to concentrate and have it really specialized.” And The Wok Shop—you know, like workshop—was born. I had a good feeling about it.
I'm just so happy whenever someone buys a wok, and I can never talk enough about a wok, the principles of it, and the advantages of cooking with one. They’re not supposed to be expensive; they should be affordable, and they get better with age and use. It would be very discouraging for beginners if woks were expensive—what if it doesn't "wok" out for them? Woks will become your go-to pan, not only for cooking Asian food or doing a lot of veggies, but scrambling your eggs, making your omelets, making your spaghetti sauce. I hope anyone who leaves the store leaves with a very positive experience about Asian cooking, how easy it is, how nutritious it is, how affordable it is, and the versatility of the wok.
I actually had eight stores at one time: five in Chinatown, one in the Crocker Galleria, one in Ghirardelli Square, and one in The Cannery. I was young, energetic, hard-working, and had all these dreams. But after a while, the rents got high, the hours were long, and I wanted to start a family. All of a sudden I was married, then pregnant, then pregnant again and again. My husband didn't get too involved with the business because he didn’t like selling, so I had to do it on my own. Now I just have the one store on Grant Avenue.
I have three kids, but I didn't encourage them to work with me because I knew that they might have different interests and I didn't want to force them. I always told them they have to follow their hearts, as long as they do something they're passionate about and they love. To this day, they haven’t sold woks. They’re happy doing what they’re doing, and we're all still speaking to each other!
It was my son who put me online in 1999. He said the wave of the future was to buy online. I kept what he said in the back of my mind and when I approached him, I said, “You know, it's payback time. I put you through school, so maybe you can help me get online.” He resisted at first, but sure enough, he agreed, so long as I was patient with him. It was hard work for both of us, but hard work pays off. The online business was a huge success when it first launched. We were so proud to say we were online, because a lot of stores weren’t online then. I’ve had the online store to fall back on throughout the pandemic; people were sheltering in place and they wanted to cook at home, so I saw an uptick in business.
Sometimes, I take woks home to season for my customers. Some of them get so discouraged, thinking it’s so hard, and I “wok” them through it but I can tell they won’t “wok” away with it. (Pardon the puns—I love the humor that I can impart with woking. It makes people relax.) Some are also students and can’t season it because they’ll set off the smoke alarm in their apartments. I want them to wok so badly so I say, “Give me a couple of days and I'll season one for you,” and they're always so happy.
I love meeting people from all “woks” of life. We get tourists from all over, but recently, Nancy Pelosi stopped by. She was in Chinatown with an entourage of her staff members to show that Chinatown was safe during the pandemic. The Wok Shop wasn’t included in the tour; it was accidental. I was standing outside when she walked by and she looked up at the store. I heard her say, “Just a minute! I want to see this store.” She walked in and I welcomed her. We hugged, and I was so touched that she wanted to stop and look at the store. Before you know it, she bought a wok and some bamboo steamers. (I also love when they try the bamboo steamers. It's just an incredible invention. Who would think that you would cook with bamboo? Who would think! The bamboo absorbs the condensation, so the food isn’t soggy. You can steam tamales, tortillas, hot dog buns, anything really.) I hope she's using it, and if she's not, at least she patronized me! Woks for all walks of life, okay?