Shanghai bar survived burglaries, floods and bullets
Editor’s note: This is the last in a two-part series on an iconic Auburn business.
As colorful as its past was, the Shanghai never had the distinction of being robbed at gunpoint, as had its neighbor, The Happy Hour. However it did manage to be visited by burglars twice. One burglar got away, the other didn’t.
The successful burglary took place in the 1960s, and it started with a fire. The building next to the Shanghai was a second-hand store run by a man known to the neighborhood kids as “one-armed Bob.” One night Bob’s store caught fire, and the firefighters used the roof of the Shanghai as a vantage point to train their hoses on the burning building.
During the operation, a skylight on the roof of the Shanghai was broken. It was due to be repaired in a few days, but a burglar got there first. He opened the damaged area a bit more, dropped down into the bar, peeled the safe door layer by layer and stole a quart Mason jar full of gold nuggets. The crime was never solved.
The second burglary resulted in an arrest. One morning at 5, Richard Yue was coming in to open the bar. As he put the key to the front door lock, he heard the sound of sawing and a splintering of wood coming from inside.
Through the glass door he could see the strange sight of a saw working up and down from under the floorboards. A creek bed runs under the Shanghai and obviously someone was under the building trying to cut his way into the bar.
Richard immediately ran the short distance up Lincoln Way to his mother’s house, got a pistol, told his mother to call the police and ran back to the bar.
The would-be burglar was still sawing away when Richard, followed shortly by two policemen, appeared. Instead of waiting for the crook to come up into the bar, one officer broke in the door, rushed to the site and yelled, “Come up out of there!”
He was greeted first with silence and then the sound of someone scrambling over the rocks and gravel of the dry creek bed.
Chagrined, he asked, “What do we do now?” A quick decision was made to cover the three most likely entrances (now blockaded) from the creek bed, one by the Claude Chana statue, one up behind the Pizza Cellar, and one in back of the Gold Rush Plaza near Richard’s mother’s backyard.
As chance would have it, the luckless thief emerged from that culvert just as Richard reached it. Richard did the logical thing and fired three shots in the air, freezing the man in his tracks, and then waited for the police to arrive and make the arrest.
That covered-over creek and its sister rivulet that runs under the old post office and Cafe Delicias seems insignificant in summer, but it has been a problem to Old Town in wet winters.
There have been more than a few times when winter deluges have flooded Old Town.
The winter of 1986 was one of the worst. The water was deep enough to cause the city to cut off all electricity to Old Town. That night Old Town was blacked out and dead — except for the Shanghai. They had kerosene lamps, candles, a hand cranked cash register and a piano player who was willing to roll up his pant legs and play while the patrons perched on their bar stools
Eventually the waters receded, but the wooden floor boards of the Shanghai had become swollen and there were a few inches of water still standing in the bar. Richard Yue showed the situation to Willie Slade — the notoriously colorful barber of Newcastle and founder of the movement to “Save Ophir Prison.” Willie took one look at the water, said “I can fix that,” pulled a revolver from his pocket and blasted five holes in the floor. The water drained out rather quickly.
Over the years, the Shanghai had undergone very few changes other than those caused by floods, attempted burglaries or bullet holes in the floor, but in 1996 it got a momentary face lift.
In that year it went from a bar room to a movie set. The film “Phenomenon,” starring John Travolta and Robert Duval, came to Old Town. Signs on the business were changed, a repair shop was built in the middle of Washington Street, and the Shanghai became the Elkhorn Bar.
The front of the building was covered over and became the back of the Elkhorn, and the old back door became the front.
As the film was being shot, many people came down to Old Town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars and the glamour of Hollywood.
The Yues were luckier than most. They got to meet the stars and to sit offstage while the film was being shot.
When the film crew left, they restored the Shanghai to its old self — with benefits. They left some of the set decorations they had created, including new cabinetry, lamps and antique advertising signs that joined the heads of elk, buffalo, mountain goat, deer, stuffed raccoon and skunk that had graced the walls behind the bar.
And so it stood until 2005 when a disagreement over rent between Richard and Herb Yue, who owned the business, and Marvin Yue of San Jose, who owned the property, caused the demise of the Shanghai.
In 1991 the Shanghai had been selected as the business of the year.
When asked what led to that honor, Richard Yue deadpanned, “I guess that they just ran out of other places.”
That brought a smile to the face of Chamber of Commerce manager Bruce Cosgrove, who clarified that the main criteria for the award are that the business “contributes to the culture and environment of Auburn.”
Besides lending color to the atmosphere of Old Town, the Shanghai was notable for its support of community, its involvement with the Volunteer Fire Department, the celebration of Chinese New Year and bringing back the Fourth of July celebration.
It was truly an Auburn institution but the 100-year history of the Shanghai had run its course. Those of us who knew it in its prime will not forget it.