When 17-year-old Barbara Wong arrived in Fall River, Mass., after World War II, she could hardly have known she would become the pillar of the city’s most treasured culinary tradition: the chow mein sandwich.
If you’re not from southeastern Massachusetts or Rhode Island, you probably never heard of the chow mein sandwich. It’s served on a hamburger bun with chow mein noodles and a brown gravy made with onions, celery and bean sprouts, maybe with shrimp or beef or pork. You can order it strained – without meat or vegetables – or unstrained.
During the ‘30s, the chow mein sandwich was a feature of American Chinese food. The sandwich was sold along the East Coast as far south as Brooklyn, N.Y., where you could buy it at Nathan’s Famous at Coney Island. They were a favorite of students and textile mill workers, who could sit down at a Chinese restaurant or an American lunch counter and get a cheap and filling sandwich for a nickel. A meatless version would be sold for Catholics on Fridays.
They were especially popular in Fall River, where one large Chinese restaurant sold close to two million of them during its 40 years in business, according to Imogene Lim, a food researcher at Malaspina University College.
The Chow Mein Sandwich
Barbara Wong came to Fall River to reunite with her father, who she only knew through letters. Five years after her arrival, Barbara met Albert Wong, the son of the owner of the Oriental Chow Mein Company. He brought her to the brick factory on Eighth Street in Fall River.
Albert’s father Frederick Wong had left Canton, China, in 1926 to study at Salem State University. He stopped in Fall River to visit an uncle who owned the Hong Kong Restaurant. Frederick decided he’d rather go into the restaurant business. He spent the next 10 years frying noodles in the back of the restaurant, saving to start his own business.
The Fall River textile mills employed a large immigrant population, mostly from Quebec, Ireland and England. Like most Chinese immigrant cooks, Frederick Wong tailored his food to the taste of the area’s population. After 10 years in the restaurant business, he knew what appealed to local tastes: chow mein, with its soft vegetables in a brown sauce that resembled Yankee cooking.
Oriental Chow Mein Co.
He opened the the Oriental Chow Mein Company in the brick building on Eighth Street in 1938. From there he made chow mein mix, crispy noodles and bean sprouts. At first he sold only to local restaurants. But just before World War II, he started to package the crunchy chow mein noodles and a packet of gravy in bright yellow boxes under the Hoo-Mee brand name. The timing was perfect: In 1942 chow mein was added to the U.S. Army cookbook.
The distinctive crunch and flavor of the Hoo-Mee chow mein noodles ensured the chow mein sandwich would remain a favorite in the Fall River area long after it faded elsewhere. So did the need for cheap and filling food in a city that never recovered from the Great Depression.
Fall River native Elise Johnson remembers the staple meal: chow mein sandwich, French fries and an orange soda. Popular chef Emeril Lagasse, who also grew up in Fall River, has expressed his love for the chow mein sandwich. They were a part of the Fall River school lunch menu well into the 1990s.
‘I thought it was great’
It was the early 1950s when Albert brought Barbara to see the family business. “I thought it was great,” she said.
Barbara married Albert in 1953. She also married into the family business. Albert took over from his father, churning out Hoo-Mee chow mein noodles until his death in the 1990s. Then Barbara joined the business with her brothers-in-law and became the gregarious, well-loved face of the Oriental Chow Mein Company, greeting customers with hugs.
It is the only company that makes chow mein noodles in the region. When a fire in 2009 destroyed the factory on Eighth Street, Barbara Wong was besieged by customers wanting to know if she would rebuild. She got so many calls she disconnected her business phone. The calls came to her house. People stopped her on the street wanting to know when the noodles would be back. Restaurants reported they were losing business because they had to buy their chow mein noodles from Boston and New York.
Six months later, the Oriental Chow Mein Company was back in business. The Fall River chow mein sandwich was restored to its former glory.
If you enjoyed this story, you may want to read about another New England culinary favorite: the chop suey sandwich of Salem, Mass. Click here for the article.
This story was updated in 2019.