How a tiny Calif. town rallied to save its Chinese restaurant

Jenny Wu is trying to give me a lot of stuff for free. She’s the owner of The Red Pearl, a beloved Chinese restaurant in downtown Boulder Creek, the gateway to what’s left of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Wu lost her house in the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fires and temporarily shuttered her restaurant due to the fires and pandemic, and recently her business was robbed. But here she is, shoving extra egg rolls in with my order, and dashing across the restaurant to the refrigerator, insisting I take a soda, or how about two? No charge.

It’s not just me she does this for. Wu simply loves to feed people, to give more than she gets. She’s been running her restaurant like this, treating everyone who comes in like family, for the last 16 years. And her unconditional love for Boulder Creek has, in these difficult times, proven mutual. In Wu’s time of need, the 5,000-person mountain town has come to her rescue, and it’s a story that’ll warm the iciest of hearts.

The story begins with Wu’s journey to Boulder Creek, but finding out about her history is a bit of a challenge. She’s modest, intensely private and prefers not to speak about her own life. But over the course of a few visits to Boulder Creek and conversations on Facebook, she opened up.

Wu was raised in China’s Sichuan province, she tells me, where much of her large family still lives. One uncle lives in Los Angeles, though, and after Wu finished college at Yibin University, she traveled to California with a dream of opening a restaurant here. To learn the business she worked in Chinese restaurants in LA and Santa Cruz, and eventually she and a friend, a chef named Ren He, became business partners.

Boulder Creek's beloved Chinese restaurant, The Red Pearl.

Boulder Creek’s beloved Chinese restaurant, The Red Pearl.

Ashley Harrell

When He and Wu learned that the town of Boulder Creek had no Chinese restaurant in 2006, they opened The Red Pearl in a space downtown on Central Avenue. Although many residents were thrilled to have a Chinese place in the town, a strange thing began to happen: negative posts about the restaurant started popping up on a local news forum and phony orders started coming in.

A resident named Chuck Winser did some sleuthing, and eventually connected the posts with a competing Chinese restaurant in Felton, a few towns over. The owner was organizing a campaign to hold on to its customers in Boulder Creek, says Winser, and “once the owner got identified and called out, the harassment ended.”

Wu was grateful and awarded Winser a generous gift certificate. To express her gratitude to the town, she also started including extra items in customers’ orders at no charge. They appreciated the gesture, and they also liked not having to drive 15 minutes to Felton for Chinese meals. Whenever customers showed up at The Red Pearl, Wu always greeted them personally with her sweet smile.

Jenny Wu and Bruce Baker in front of The Red Pearl.

Jenny Wu and Bruce Baker in front of The Red Pearl.

Courtesy of Bruce Baker

Longtime resident and local tree feller Bruce Baker enjoyed picking up his food at The Red Pearl, he says, because Wu always remembered his name and seemed to be giving him special treatment. Then he realized, “she treats everybody special. She remembers everybody’s name,” he says. “I noticed that many folks were coming in just to say hi to Jenny.”

Baker also noticed that if someone wanted to eat but didn’t have money, Wu fed them anyway. When regular customers got sick, Wu brought them free food and vitamins. On holidays, anyone who showed up for a meal got it for free.

Flash forward to early 2020. Wu was visiting family in Sichuan province when word of the pandemic first surfaced. She was forced to quarantine for two weeks in China, and nearly got stuck there, she says, because China Southern Airlines canceled her flight home. The restaurant had to close, and Wu was so worried she could barely sleep. She called the airline each day and waited for hours on hold while trying to rebook herself, and finally made it back to California.

What remained of Jenny Wu's home after the fires came through.

What remained of Jenny Wu’s home after the fires came through.

Shmuel Thaler

The restaurant was unable to open for several weeks, Wu says. Then in August, fire tore through the Santa Cruz Mountains, devastating the area and burning Wu’s house to the ground. She lost all of her belongings, including family photos, jewelry and jade from her parents and other artifacts she brought from China. She lost a recipe book from her grandmother, and an erhu, a two-stringed ancient instrument that she played.

The restaurant closed again for a month and a half while Wu regrouped. She had to deal with insurance and find new lodgings, but she didn’t have to do it alone. When members of the community learned what had happened, they sprang into action to help Wu.

“Jenny has lost her home in the Santa Cruz mountains due to the fire,” customer Meggan Stringent wrote for a GoFundMe campaign. “Now is our chance to show her our appreciation and help her rebuild … We love you, Jenny.”

That campaign raised $16,470. A second one brought in $2,235. Customers who preferred to make a donation in person showed up to the restaurant and handed Wu hundreds of dollars in cash. Charlie Brown, the owner of a local moving and hauling company, helped Wu find a new house and filled it with complimentary furniture. Another customer, Valerie White, helped take care of Wu’s dog Ginger and her cats Mao and Mi.

“It warmed my heart,” Wu says of the efforts.

When she was ready, Wu held a pre-opening of The Red Pearl, which essentially involved feeding everyone for a week, for free. Soon after things started to return to normal, though, a change purse with an estimated $1,000 disappeared. And again, the community rallied.

Interior of The Red Pearl in Boulder Creek.

Interior of The Red Pearl in Boulder Creek.

Ashley Harrell

“Not only has Jenny continued to keep us fed with her delicious food after she lost her home and everything in the CZU fire this past summer, she was just robbed of $1000 in cash,” customer Mark Maslowski wrote in a new GoFundMe campaign. “I’m calling on all of those in [San Lorenzo Valley] to pitch in and donate a little something to help.”

The campaign raised $6,890, and the “love story” about Wu and Boulder Creek got picked up by NBC Bay Area.

In the months since, business has boomed at The Red Pearl, with customers going out of their way to patronize it as often as possible. They certainly enjoy the Singapore rice noodles, the apricot almond chicken and the vegan egg rolls (which recently won an award from a local newspaper), but the truth is they come for Wu, and they stay for her.

“Jenny exudes kindness, compassion and goes out of her way to make others happy,” says customer Dawn Smith. “Her food is amazing, and Boulder Creek would just not be the same without Jenny Wu and the Red Pearl.”