Madame Sylvia Wu, wife of King Yan Wu, is the epitome of elegance--stunning in bright yellow China silk, fingering a large jade cross hanging on a gold chain, immaculately groomed, radiating the enviable beauty that comes from twinkly eyes, soft skin, wide cheekbones, proper posture and acceptance of adversity.
It's 1:30 p.m. She's at the entrance to Madame Wu's Garden restaurant in Santa Monica. The parking lot is not packed. Yet she became the first woman in 70 years to be named Los Angeles' restaurateur of the year in 1985.
Last month she served her famed Peking Duck to some of London's top hoteliers--Paolo Zago of The Connaught, Herbert Striessnig of The Savoy, Michael Bentley of Claridge's.
And tonight she will be named Woman of the Year for her philanthropy and community leadership at a premiere gala in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton by the Sportsmen's Club of the City of Hope. The four-day extravaganza will open with the gala tonight for 4,000 people and continue with luncheons and fashion shows on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
When she opened her intimate restaurant with $9,000 in 1959, the \o7 creme de la creme\f7 flocked to her--Cary Grant, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, Grace Kelly. Then she bought a city block, changed location, and built this 12,000-square-foot restaurant. Now, "this is too big," she says.
"Thirty years ago, I was ahead of my time. But people like to go to different places." Her payroll is $35,000 a month and she's losing money, despite big banquets. "No, it doesn't bother me--because now is like an intermediate time." She expects to develop her block into a three-story commercial building for shops and offices, with a 5,000-square-foot Madame Wu's. "It will be different. It's like fashion--you have to change." She'll still serve Peking Duck.
Madame Wu (Sylvia Cheng) was born in Kuikiang, China. When the Japanese invaded China, she fled to Hong Kong, where she met Mme. Sun Yat-sen, first lady of China and wife of the founder of the Republic of China (and a sister of Mme. Chiang Kai-shek). Mme. Sun was raising funds for Chinese relief and Sylvia Cheng helped, in the process meeting King Yan Wu.
Her husband's grandfather was Wu T'ing Fang, a co-founder of the Chinese Republic with Sun Yat-sen; he also served as minister to the United States in 1896 and in 1907; in the 1920s his son (King's father), Dr. C.C. Wu, was ambassador to the U.S.
King then got a postgraduate degree from MIT; Sylvia came to the United States in 1944 to attend Columbia Teachers College. They re-met and were married. "I was a housewife in New York for 12 years. We had three children. Those were very happy days." When Hughes Aircraft hired her husband, an aerospace engineer, they moved here. Against her husband's wishes, Sylvia Wu opened a restaurant in 1959.
Today, Madame Wu travels annually with her attorney sons--Patrick, a graduate of UCLA Law School, and George, a graduate of the University of Chicago's law school--making up for what she views as a lack of time spent in such pleasure with her daughter, Loretta Wu Wong, who died of breast cancer in the 1970s.
Philanthropically, the Wus have endowed a scholarship foundation at Marymount High School in Loretta's name, are Music Center Patrons ($50,000) and donate restaurant dinners often for charity.
"I am very happy," she said. "I am learning. During the period when my daughter died, I was very unhappy. Now I have learned to accept things, and I am very peaceful. Peace comes from within. Now, nothing upsets me. I think that everything is God's will."