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Taiwan’s Café Astoria inherits spirit of Russia

Former President Chiang Ching-kuo and his family were frequent visitors

The Café Astoria on Wuchang Street in Taipei 

The Café Astoria on Wuchang Street in Taipei  (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – The Café Astoria (明星咖啡館) on Taipei City’s Wuchang Street has inherited the spirit of Russia’s tsarist era, emphasizing authentic cuisine from the homeland since 1949.

As a gathering place for homesick Russians and for the literati, the restaurant and tearoom has generated many an interesting story. Situated across the road from the Taiwan Provincial City God Temple (台灣省城隍爺), its location might not be beneficial according to local notions of feng shui, but since most Russians are followers of the Orthodox Church, it does not matter all that much.

George Elsner, reputedly a descendant of the Russian imperial family, left his homeland during the decades of upheaval. When he arrived in Taiwan, he found it hard to get used to the local rice dishes and he was unable to find Russian-style bread.

As a result, he wanted to open a tearoom that could provide authentic Russian cuisine and confectionery. His dream came true after he met Archibald Chien (簡錦錐) and four Russians who had fled Shanghai after China fell under communist rule.

By the 1960s, the café had grown into a center for Russian expats but also for literary and cultural talent — becoming a symbol of Taipei nightlife. Co-founder and Chien’s daughter, Karen Chien (簡靜惠), recalls how the late President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) and his wife Faina Vakhreva would often bring their children to eat. The two families would become acquaintances for decades.

After her husband and her three sons passed away, Chiang’s widow would only rarely leave home. On one occasion, Chien visited and presented her with her favorite Russian walnut marshmallows. However, she put the sweets on the table and never ate them, Karen Chien recounts.

After her father found out the former First Lady could not eat the nuts because of dental problems, he adapted the recipe and left out the nuts.

In his old age, Elsner was stateless, causing him unending worry, but in order to allay his fears for the future, Chien told him the Astoria was still around, and he could still serve as a consultant. The conversation persuaded Elsner to stay in his second homeland of Taiwan.

Disputes with shareholders also clouded Elsner’s later years, but Chien took care of him as if he were his father. After the Russian died, he had the word “crown” engraved on his grave. Chien later met a German diner who helped him return Elsner’s remains to Russia.