Smile Politely

The Pied Piper of Chinese chefs

If you live in the Champaign-Urbana area, you probably know about the Chinese restaurant Golden Harbor, no matter whether you are Chinese or American. Today, I will tell you some interesting stories behind this restaurant. I will also introduce some dishes that you might not have had before, because you might be scared of their infinite variety of choices on the wall.

Photo by Eric Ponder

The story of Mr. Wu:

Mr. Wu in the kitchen (photo by Eric Ponder)

Usually, in the book of Chinese martial arts, a person with the most powerful Kung Fu is always the most mysterious one, and he must be shaped into an unreachable image by rumors in Jianghu. However, when you get close to this person, you might wash off all your previous imaginations and surprisingly find that he is such an amiable person and the same as everybody. I think this is my real experience before I learned the story of Mr. Wu. I made lots of hypotheses of Mr. Wu: I thought he was shy, silent, and demure. However, he caught me off guard.

Mr. Wu was an apprentice of a restaurant in Taiwan where he honed his cooking skills before he operated his own restaurant in Kaohsiung. He was very low-key in Taiwan, but he was not an introverted person. He loved communicating with people, playing guitar, singing English songs, and learning English in adult evening school in his spare time. Mr. Wu enjoyed cooking and relished his life with family: his beautiful wife and his adorable five-year-old daughter Tina.

However, as a young man, Mr. Wu also had an adventurous heart. In early 1983, encouraged by his friends, Mr. Wu decided to follow his heart to feel the real America. After that, he flew alone to Boston. From then on, he started his journey in America.


The story of Ms. Wu:

Ms. Wu with Golden Harbor’s Chinese menu on the wall (photo by Chris Davies)

When you go to Golden Harbor, Ms. Wu might be the first person you see. She talks with her customers, makes friends with them, and helps them make their choice of food. She welcomes her customers with her smiles all the time. In my eyes, Ms. Wu is energetic and extroverted.

However, she was a very shy person and afraid of living outside Taiwan before she came to the United States. When Ms. Wu learned Mr. Wu’s plan of going abroad, she was concerned about their future. She barely spoke English and had no idea where their life was going. After deep consideration, Ms. Wu supported her husband, and they started their new adventure in America at the end of 1983; nevertheless, before that happened, she preferred to stay with her extended family and run their restaurant in their hometown.


The story of Tina:

Tina and her mom, Ms. Wu (photo by Chris Davies)

Tina is the oldest daughter of Mr. and Ms. Wu. When she was still in kindergarten, she loved seeing airplanes in the sky. After her dad left for America, Tina took more time outside to wait for his sudden appearance. One day, when Tina was watching for airplanes in the backyard, she received good news that she was going to the United States to get together with her dad.


The story of the family:

Mr. and Ms. Wu in the 1980s in America

In 1983, the whole family started their life in the United States. After several years’ busy life in Boston and the birth of their younger daughter, they moved to the Midwest. Ms. Wu said they hoped to provide a relaxed atmosphere for their kids to grow up.

When Tina finished her high school, she found her entrepreneurship inspiration to run her own business. Supported by her parents, they reached a consensus to open a family restaurant.

Afterwards, they began to do preparations for their restaurant. Firstly, they must lease a restaurant. They looked into advertisements in local newspapers in the Midwest and paid several deposits, but they were not completely satisfied to make the final choice. Until one day, on their way back from Michigan, they passed through Champaign to have lunch in McDonald’s and Tina was attracted by one restaurant-for-sale advertisement in the News-Gazette. After contacting the owner and having a quick look, they bought it in one day. Ms. Wu believed this was Karma.

At the end of 1996, experienced almost a half year long decorating, the restaurant (Mandarin Wok) launched at the winter break, when most of the students went back home to celebrate Christmas and New Year. Ms. Wu laughed and said that they only sold $30 worth of dishes on the opening day.

However, one month later, the restaurant soon became the most popular Chinese restaurant in town, because of the visit of one Chinese couple. Ms. Wu said she changed the entire brand new Americanized Chinese food menus into traditional Chinese food menus under the advice of this Chinese couple. In a very short time, Mandarin Wok became the first choice for having Chinese food among Chinese people in Champaign-Urbana area. Because of its high popularity, customers had to make reservations in advance. Sometimes, they even had to book seats a few days early.

As the only chef of Mandarin Wok, Mr. Wu had a heavy work load every day. In 2004, due to health considerations, they sold their restaurant Mandarin Wok and bought a small one (Cravings) instead. However, only one year later, they moved out of Champaign to operate another smaller restaurant, The Wok, in Mahomet. Their family restaurant relied on word of mouth, and their hospitality and service earned a huge number of fans from Champaign to Mahomet.


The story of me:

I think The Wok was the first Chinese restaurant’s name I heard from my friends in Champaign in 2009. My friends gave me some tips about the numerous Chinese restaurants in Champaign area and arrived at a conclusion that The Wok was their favorite. I tried to have food there, but I missed. In 2010, after I heard the news of the reopening of Golden Harbor in Champaign, and that it was not far from campus, I couldn’t wait to try it and had very high hopes for it.

The new restaurant didn’t disappoint me. I also became a fan of Golden Harbor. However, to be honest, I think I always have trouble deciding what to order just like other customers, although I love the food there. The infinite variety Chinese menu on the wall, the irregular menu updating, and the textbook-like English menu makes it difficult for me to select dishes all the time. When I read reviews on Yelp, I burst out laughing and found lots of interesting methods of ordering food in Golden Harbor.

After dozens of tries, I can tell you some food I love now. If you know something special, please also share with me.

English Menu (photo by Eric Ponder)

#3000 Pork Belly Buns: This is my favorite food, and I order it every time. It’s also the authentic Taiwanese food.

#809 Crispy Tofu: It might be the most popular food in the restaurant. You can see recommendations online all the time.

#501–#509 Whole Fish (Turbot): Well-made fish that is very soft, tender, and fresh. This is the best fish dish I ever had in town.

#605 Clams with Squash: My American friends love this dish, but they never tried this Chinese vegetable before.

#582 Golden Garlic Soft-shell Crab: Seafood again! I love seafood.

#309 Taiwanese Stir Fry: Very authentic Taiwanese food in Taiwan’s night markets. You can never have this flavor in other Chinese restaurants in town.

#208, #223: Three Cup Chicken / Three Cup Chicken (Boneless)


Still the story of the family:

Currently, Ms. Wu said she had already got used to life in America, but she would fly back to Taiwan because of the delicious food in Taiwan’s night markets.

Tina uses her smile to warm up her customers and she will keep working on her own business.

One day, Mr. Wu will retire, but I hope this day will never happen.




Golden Harbor

505 South Neil Street, Champaign
(217) 398-8988


  • Tue.–Sat. 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
  • Tue.–Sat. 4:30 p.m.–9 p.m.
  • Sun. 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m
  • Sun. 4:30 p.m.–8:30 p.m.

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