Three generations cultivated ‘Tales of the Shanghai’
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Read part two, “Film, Fire, Flood and Burglary,” next Wednesday, Sept. 19.
It was a landmark and an Auburn institution that had been in the Yue family for over 100 years and looked like it hadn’t changed much during the century. And it hadn’t.
The bar stools at the long bar had served as perches for three generations of a grand mixture of patrons, ranging from business men in suits and ties, to laborers stopping by for a beer after work, to tourists looking for gold-rush color, to leather-jacketed bikers and anybody in between.
There were drinks in the front, poker tables in the rear, and “good eatin’ on the side.” And in the back there was room for a small dance floor and a bandstand where local groups such as Charlie and the Night Cats, The Torpedos, or the Mick Martin Band would play on weekends.
The heyday of the Shanghai was from the late ’70s, when Richard Yue and his brother, Herb, managed the bar until 2005, when the doors were finally shut. But, of course, the story goes back much further than that — back to the turn of the century when Charlie Yue, who owned the Liberty Pool Hall, moved his operation next door and opened it up as the Shanghai bar and restaurant. The building, still standing and now in operation as the Auburn Ale House, was constructed from the remains of the old American Hotel, which goes back to the 1850s and which had been gutted by fire more than once. If you look closely at the side of the building, you can see the outline in brick where windows were formerly located.
The first years went well for the restaurant and bar, and Charlie brought his sons, Harry and Carl into the business. Unfortunately, Prohibition came along in 1918 and shut down the liquor part of the business. Well almost. According to Richard Yue, his uncle Harry kept a little side-line going, and Auburnites in the know could go to the back door of the restaurant and buy a bottle or two of bootlegged whiskey.
It was also during those years that Charlie became the authorized gold buyer for Wells Fargo in Auburn. Miners could come into the Shanghai and exchange nuggets or dust for cash. The security cage for the gold transactions was in the front window of what is now the Auburn Ale House. Between the restaurant, Harry’s little side-line, and the gold exchange, the Shanghai was able to survive both Prohibition and the Great Depression.
During those Depression years, the Yue’s became members of the Auburn Volunteer Fire Department and Harry was assistant fire chief for many years. Their involvement and the location of the Shanghai led to the bar being officially designated as Auburn Fire Station Number 1, perhaps the only bar in California to also be a fire station. It had its only plectron — a radio device that would signal with a certain sequence of beeps and then give the location of the fire. When that happened those patrons who were volunteers would dash for their cars and head for the fire. On a few occasions the sound of the plectron would just about clear out the place.
In the late 1970s, Carl and Harry turned the operation over to Carl’s sons, Richard and Herb. They kept up the traditions of the old Shanghai, but added more than a few twists with a wry sense of humor.
One time they ran an ad in the Auburn Journal offering a “boneless chicken dinner” for 25 cents. Shanghai regulars wisely ignored the offer, but some people did request the boneless chicken dinner and were served a hard-boiled egg.
One customer was not pleased with the offer, but the bartender eased the situation by offering him a drink on the house. The man drank his drink, put the egg in his pocket and walked out a happy man.
On the eve of Groundhog Day the Yues ran an ad showing a hog being stuffed into a hand cranked meat grinder and sausages coming out the other side. The breakfasts consisted of “ground hog, cackle berries and flapjacks.”
But Easter Sunday was special. That’s when the Yue brothers held the Bunny Barbeque. The entree was, of course, barbecued rabbit and the dessert was carrot cake. Most people saw the humor in the event, but others were less than happy and made their thoughts known with letters to the editor.
A weekly Shanghai ritual was the flag raising that took place every Sunday morning at 0600. Patrons stood outside, hands over their hearts, as the flag went up and then entered the bar either for coffee or some other beverage. Needless to say, Bloody Marys were popular. On at least one occasion a group that had closed the bar at 2 a.m. continued to party at someone’s house and returned at 6 a.m. for the flag raising and a drink or two.
Another regular event was the Shanghai’s annual golf tournament held a! a local golf course. As the foursomes moved from one hole to the next, the Happy Cart circulated through the course bringing liquid refreshment to the players, a few of whom should have let the cart pass by. The tournaments were held for several years at the same course until the golf course manager suggested that they find another venue after the pilot of the Happy Cart drove it into one of the ponds.
But history and antics aren’t the whole story of the Shanghai.