For China Max, a Devastating Fire Was Just the Climax of a 2020 Nightmare - Voice of San Diego

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For China Max, a Devastating Fire Was Just the Climax of a 2020 Nightmare

China Max in Kearny Mesa was already struggling before a devastating fire hit in early April. But despite speculation, the San Diego Fire Department says there’s no reason to suspect arson.

The China Max restaurant in Kearny Mesa was damaged in a fire on April 6, 2020. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Do you remember going to lunch with people?

It wasn’t my favorite way to have a conversation but I certainly did a lot of it. You learn not to get sandwiches. They’re remarkably messy. The planning usually takes four emails, minimum. To make it easy, I deferred to what other people want to eat because I love everything – and why not make that person happy? But if they didn’t care either and wanted to try something, I would take them to China Max in Kearny Mesa.

I loved it so much. My friend, the writer and financial wizard Rich Toscano, took me there for the first time at least 15 years ago. I had never tasted dim sum before.

This week, I asked Rich what he liked about it so much.

“It tastes really good,” he said.

I pressed him to elaborate.

“Like, after I ate there, I’d feel euphoric and I would think about it for the rest of the day.”

That’s how I felt too. The fried crispy squid was my favorite. We would share several plates.

I had so many interesting conversations there with co-workers, other people in media, politicians. Some days, things would be hard and I would look at my calendar and see China Max. I would smile.

Then lunches stopped.

As the quarantine became life, I became conscious of these places that were part of my landscape – amenities I took for granted. As I worried about my family, my own business, I thought about them too. Could they hold on? We produced a video of what some businesses like that were dealing with. It’s very moving.

Twitter became equal parts gloomy, disturbing. I desire information constantly, and Twitter is by far the rawest, most intense source of it. But mainlining horror like that for days on end at the beginning of the pandemic and shutdown was not healthy behavior. I kept it going though, and then, with April just a week old, I saw a tweet about a “restaurant” in “Kearny Mesa” burning. I recognized it immediately.

And through that hellfeed I got to watch China Max burn.

It felt cruel and excessive. But then it got worse when people speculated that it was arson – whimsically, as though insurance fraud is not a major crime you shouldn’t accuse people of lightly. Or maybe it was a hate crime fueled by bigotry. It was a very bad night. I vowed to follow up with the owners when I had a chance, and I did this week.

The owners are Cindy and Bowan Wo. I talked to Cindy Wo.

Her family immigrated to New York from Hong Kong in the 1970s. After their son finished college, they came to San Diego attracted, in part, by the sun. They worked in restaurants the entire time. In 2003, they opened China Max after eight months of construction and preparation.

They served Hong Kong-style Cantonese seafood. Wo said it’s “not spicy, not sweet. It’s cooked to bring out the freshness of the seafood.”

Things went well. The food at China Max was consistent because the same people made it every year. The main chef joined Wo at the very start. The dim sum chefs started shortly after. They ran the kitchens until this year.

This terrible year. The trouble started right away. The Chinese New Year is more of a weeklong celebration than just a day, and it is when China Max brings in a big portion of its profits. The restaurant had 20-30 celebrations planned for Jan. 22-28. But that is right when the new coronavirus started spreading in China. Authorities imposed a severe lockdown on the city of Wuhan and other cities in the province of Hubei on Jan. 23.

Everyone canceled their Chinese New Year plans at China Max. In coming weeks, the restaurant faced what many did: Customers didn’t want to go to Asian restaurants despite public pleas. By mid-March, “there was basically nothing,” Wo told me. She said they kept the kitchen operating for some take-out.

Then, April 6, they closed at 7 p.m. At home, Wo received a phone call from the shopping center. The restaurant was on fire.

“When I saw it burning. I am so sad. We worked so many years. You can imagine how I feel,” she said.

The fire started in the soffit of the building outside of the restaurant, according to San Diego Fire Department investigators. They’re still working to determine the exact cause.

“There is no reason to suspect that this was an arson fire,” wrote Fire Department spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz, in an email. There is surveillance video of the fire starting.

Wo is waiting for a determination from insurance providers. “I’m worried about my employees. I don’t know how long until I can give them back their jobs. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if we can rebuild,” she said.

And that is where thousands of business owners stand in San Diego. So many of the places we took for granted, so many of the people we loved to see and the cafes, bars and eateries that made our home unique are gone. Many of them will not come back.

Right now, they are not allowed to re-open for people to gather. What makes it even weirder is that, even when they do, we are not sure when people will do lunches again. When will they share dim sum plates again?

But everything was once nothing. Wo knows what it’s like to have nothing and build something.

What we must hope is that people like her will be willing to try again soon.

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