Obituary - Shirley Fong-Torres - Class of 1964

Shirley Fong-Torres
Class of 1964


© Published on June 25, 2011

Shirley Fong-Torres

For Shirley Fong-Torres, Chinatown was more than chow mein and tchotchkes.

It was hidden alleyways, secret herb shops and fortune cookie factories. It was flower vendors, gourmet chefs and old friends. But most of all, it was dim sum.

Shirley Fong-Torres Ms. Fong-Torres took her passion for Chinatown's not-so-obvious treasures - especially its cuisine - and turned it into a popular tour business, serving as Chinatown's unofficial ambassador for 26 years.

Ms. Fong-Torres, owner of Wok Wiz tours and a regular TV guest, died June 18 in Daly City after a short battle with leukemia. She was 64.

"Shirley was the Julia Child of Chinese cuisine," said chef Martin Yan. "Like Julia, who introduced French food to Americans, Shirley devoted her entire life to educating the American public on Chinese culture and cuisines."

Ms. Fong-Torres' exposure to Chinese food started nearly at birth. She and her siblings worked six days a week in her father's restaurants in Hayward and Oakland's Chinatown, where the family lived.

Her father had moved to the Bay Area from China in the 1920s, using the Filipino-sounding name, Torres, to avoid anti-Chinese immigration laws, according to Ms. Fong-Torres' brother, Ben Fong-Torres of San Francisco. Years later he added his Chinese name, Fong, to the family's surname.

Although she never wanted to own a restaurant, Ms. Fong-Torres inherited her passion for Chinese cooking from her father.

"She always harkened to our father, who was an extraordinary talent in the kitchen," Ben Fong-Torres said. "She was always really devoted to the idea of family and heritage."

Ms. Fong-Torres graduated from Oakland High School and UC Berkeley and for several years taught junior high school in Texas. After returning to California, she worked as an operations manager in women's merchandising at Levi Strauss.

In the 1970s and early '80s, while still at Levi, she taught Chinese cooking classes and often brought her students to Chinatown to shop for ingredients.

The success of those ventures led her to start her own walking tour company in 1985. Shirley Fong-Torres

"She just loved the people of Chinatown," said Ben Fong-Torres, a journalist who sometimes writes for The Chronicle. "You could see the chemistry between her and the people there. She wanted tourists to get a sense of all that - the real Chinatown, beyond the facade."

The two-hour tour usually started at Portsmouth Square, wound through Chinatown's labyrinth of shops and landmarks and ended with a dim sum lunch.

At its peak, the company had 12 tour guides and served nearly 5,000 visitors a year.

The popularity of her tours led Ms. Fong-Torres to write four books combining Chinese history, recipes and travel, and regular appearances on television and radio.

"She was a firecracker," said Liam Mayclem, host of KPIX's "Eye on the Bay," on which Ms. Fong-Torres was a regular guest. "She had this playfulness, a sense of fun. She always, always, always had a smile on her face."

Sue Lee, director of the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, called Ms. Fong-Torres "bigger than life."

"Her enthusiasm was infectious," Lee said. "She really helped put Chinese cuisine on the map, showing people that it goes way beyond chop suey."

In addition to her brother, Ms. Fong-Torres is survived by her daughter, Tina Pavao of Belmont; her mother, Connie Fong-Torres of Oakland; a sister, Sarah Watkins of Mill Valley; brother, Burton Fong-Torres of Oakland; and two granddaughters.

Services are private.

Donations can be sent to the Community Youth Center, 1038 Post St., San Francisco 94109.

E-mail Carolyn Jones at carolynjones@sfchronicle.com.