By Haven Scott
As far as good Chinese food goes, there are many locals who stoutly claim there has been none as good as the China Garden Café since the restaurant’s closure in Cedar City’s historic downtown.
The restaurant, owned and operated by Peter and Anita
Yee, served Chinese and American food to customers for approximately four decades before closing their doors around the turn of the millennium.
Cedar City resident Ron Adams said he remembers going to the restaurant frequently with family members due to the quality of their food. Adams remembered the restaurant owners being quiet and friendly while running their restaurant and raising a family.
“Their mother worked there too,” Adams said. “They were great people and the food was so good. They had the best variety that I have ever seen. A lot of places have one or two good things on their menu, in my opinion. Not the China Garden, everything there was exceptional.”
According to a Salt Lake Tribune obituary, Sau Wan Yee emigrated from China in 1930. She spent many years in Cedar City helping her son at the restaurant before it closed. Sau Wan passed away in Salt Lake in 2008.
“While with them, she helped raise two of her grandsons,” the obituary said.
In the Facebook group “You know you are from Cedar City when,” several locals will tell you that what restaurants pass for Chinese food today does not compare to what the Yee’s served at their establishment.
“I will never get over not eating this food,” wrote Ericka Logan. “It is like a long-lost soulmate.”
But, while many locals fondly remember the egg foo young, everybody remembers the China Garden lady.
In a 1997 book by University of Connecticut professor Samuel F. Pickering, “The Blue Caterpillar and Other Essays,” the author describes a trip to Cedar City to give a presentation.
“Outside the State Bank of Southern Utah, a man greeted me. Along with advertising IRA’s, the bank wished the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams from Cedar High ‘Good Luck at State B-Ball,’” Pickering wrote. “Just down the street at Holmes Barber Shop two men got haircuts. Next door the Chinese [sic] Garden served ‘Chinese and American Food.’ Atop the sign over the door of the restaurant stood a metal Chinese girl, a red hibiscus in her hair and a dress clinging to her like the skin of a mermaid.”
Micah Player was 12-years old when his family moved to Cedar City from California. Riding shotgun in a U-Haul driven by his father, they got off Interstate 15 at the southern Cedar City exit.
“Two things stand out in my memory,” Player said. “A weird little zig-zag building with a cow on the roof (Top Spot) and a giant woman in a Mandarin dress waving over a Chinese restaurant. Suddenly, it hit me, things were going to be cool.”
After attending Cedar High and moving back to California, Player returned to Cedar City with a family of his own in time for Top Spot’s announcement of another local iconic restaurant closing their doors in 2015. He took his own 12-year-old son for one last burger.
Already knowing that the China Garden lady was in Las Vegas, Player went home to draw a locally Facebook famous picture of the Top Spot cow being comforted by the China Garden lady.
“It’s ok,” the mermaid-like lady is saying. “You can stay with me.” The cow is crying.
“Two childhood heroes, icons, one comforting the other at the edge of the great unknown,” Player said of the drawing. “And all of the feelings, you know, that go along with that.”
A Las Vegas museum for old electric signs is bringing back memories of the mermaid-like woman that adorned Main Street in Cedar City for so long, and the food that accompanies the memory.
Covering nearly two acres, The Neon Museum, 770 Las Vegas Blvd. North, in Las Vegas, was founded to preserve and display signs from casinos and businesses being replaced in the ever-changing Las Vegas landscape.
Now boasting more than 200 signs, the China Garden lady is the only non-Nevada sign in the museum, according to Maggie Zakri, public relations for the museum.
“Everyone loves her. People get wedding photos taken in front of her because they think she is beautiful, interesting and unique,” Zakri said.
The museum has signs from old hotels and casinos like Sahara, Riviera and Binion’s Horseshoe, Zakri noted, but none evoke responses from customers quite like the China Garden lady.
“One of our guests told us when he was young he had to have a surgery,” she said. “His family was tight on money, so his mother took on a job at the China Garden to earn enough money for the surgery. It makes him very happy every time he sees that sign.”
The museum acquired the China Garden lady from Salt Lake-based Young Electric Sign Company when the business was clearing out their “boneyard,” between 2001 and 2003, Zakri said. The museum was inspired in 1996 after the historic Sands Hotel was demolished and the sign could not be saved.
“This lit a fire under several groups to start saving the signs as they came down,” she said. “Although our mission is to collect, preserve, and study Las Vegas signs, we couldn’t turn away the China Garden lady sign with such a beautiful design. She also gives us the opportunity to talk about our mission.”
Tickets to get into the museum cost $19 during the day and $25 at night, or $15 for children, veterans and students with accompanying identification. Discounts are available for group tours. For more information, or to book a tour, visit neonmuseum.org or call (702) 387-6366.