At 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24, 1938, Bill Lee’s Bamboo Chopsticks celebrated its grand opening by giving away free sets of bamboo chopsticks.
With its state-of-the-art air-cooling system, new fixtures and leather-cushioned booths, Bamboo Chopsticks, located on 18th Street was sure to become a Bakersfield favorite. Little did William C. “Bill” Lee know his $600 investment would turn into both a family and community legacy.
Originally, Lee had absolutely no intention of getting into the restaurant business, although his father, Sing, had established himself as a restaurateur in Bakersfield. This was during a time when spittoons were still common place, and as the young son of a restaurant owner, Lee’s job was to clean up after those who lacked the proper aim into the spittoon.
Lee recalled to The Californian on Dec. 28, 1950, “he hated restaurants.” Instead, he started a career in the retail industry. But that all changed in 1928 when he left Bakersfield for Canton, China, to pursue his education. It was there that he took a real interest in cooking. He recalled in the July 5, 1967, Californian, “Cantonese chefs there were no Mickey Mouses; they took cooking as an art.”
When Lee returned to Bakersfield, he started a partnership in a Cantonese restaurant with a cousin from New York. Soon he took sole control of the restaurant, and thus began a family business that would span close to a century.
Cooking was more than just a job for Lee – it was also a passion. He recalled that he became interested in cooking because “he liked to eat” and this is what led to what he called “kitcheneering.”
Lee also recognized that there was a need for well- balanced Chinese food meals at a reasonable price. At that time, the only option was to order options a la carte. Not only was this costly, but most people were not sure how to put together a good meal.
But Lee had a solution to that.
He told the Dec. 28 Californian: “It is my aim to offer a combination dinner with a variety of Chinese foods at a low cost. We designate them by number to facilitate ordering.” And with that, Bill Lee’s Bamboo Chopsticks and its family style meals became a Bakersfield favorite.
Bamboo Chopsticks’ meals were not the only things that were family style. The business of running the restaurant was a family affair as well. The Lee family worked together to keep the business thriving. Together, Bill; his father, Sing; wife, Eleanor; cousin, Joe; and sons Russell and Sherman worked hard to keep the restaurant running like a well-oiled machine.
One thing that Lee understood were his customers. When the 1950s came along he realized that “the restaurant business was invaded by the television craze. People preferred to eat at home and enjoy their favorite TV programs.” And so he invented the home delivery “Flying Chopsticks” service.
By 1967, Bill Lee’s Bamboo Chopsticks had remodeled and expanded six times and included a fleet of five Flying Chopsticks.
William “Bill” Lee passed away in 1990 but his son Sherman kept the family legacy going until his own death in 2017. Now grandsons Brian and Brandon Lee uphold the legacy that was started on that late summer day in 1938.
For almost 81 years, Bill Lee’s Bamboo Chopsticks continues to be, as Californian contributing columnist Pete Tittl stated in 2013 in commemoration of the Bamboo Chopsticks diamond anniversary, “our mein squeeze.” ￼