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Destination Clearwater: Shadows of Chow Gai Kew

Memories are more about experience than place.

Who around here didn’t love Peking Palace?

I’m not talking about the latter-years Peking Palace of the late 90s. Rather, the 1980s and earlier vintage red Chinese restaurant with the big white blobby goldfish, speckled with gold and orange, who made O-faces at you while you waited in the lobby.

I first tasted their chow gai kew 31 years ago and, on a full stomach, I still salivate just thinking about digging into a plate of rice and chicken lolling about in brown sauce. But I didn’t just love the chicken; I loved the entire restaurant, from the framed newspaper articles by the entryway to the glimmering white pebbles lining the covered walkway and supporting a smooth stone Buddha standing as a “live and let live” sentinel by the front door.

All that remains today is a field of grass, a pothole-pocked parking lot, and a few vaguely bonsai-like trees.

I’m not certain what went wrong for Peking Palace, but something did. I saw the writing on the wall the day I went in expecting the traditional late-70s Chinese food experience and discovered they’d added Thai food to the menu. In a few short hops, my favorite restaurant became air and weeds and crumbling asphalt.

I park my car in the old parking lot. I’m trespassing on this stretch of vacant land, but there’s no one around to care. I stroll over the weeds that replaced the tables, chairs and fountains while the sound of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard traffic replaces the tinkle of eastern music I hear on the soundtrack in my brain.

Growing up along the coast of Florida, I am no stranger to change.

I often marvel at how easily I forget what came before the current building. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone: who here can tell me what stood where the now stands on Missouri Avenue? How about what preceded the across the street from ? How about what store used to occupy space where a Publix currently stands on Missouri and Lakeview?

See? Memories are more about experience than place. But still, this place, this barren lot littered with sandspurs, glass and faded potato chip bags, this place where Buddha sat on a bed of pebbles, this place where we fed countless visiting relatives and shared so many memories... this place still means something to me.

I walk the sandy grass lot, looking for some sign that everything didn’t get demolished, surrendered to sandspurs and pennywort, but there’s no sign that Peking Palace ever existed. Brown bumpy anoles scurry to the few remaining trees, bob their heads, and explode their orange throats at me as I pick my way back to the car, trying to picture Peking Palace’s fading red sepia image in my mind. I’ve lost the details; all I see now are a million tiny pebbles and the tin bowl of pastel mints by the register.

As the overgrown lot gives way to the crumbling asphalt, something catches my eye, a silvery hot white glint. I turn towards a pile of white, tiny pebbles. I bend down and pick one up, and I swear I can hear the tinkle of Chinese music.

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