From Chico to Nan Ao, China
How Fred Morgan ended up in a small Chinese village
If you lived in Chico during the 1970s and ’80s, you probably remember Fred Morgan, the author of the accompanying article. He was a memorable character, an irrepressible bon vivant, raconteur and chef who co-owned one of the most popular restaurants in town, Freducinni’s Jazz & Pasta.
Morgan not only owned the restaurant, he presided over it. He saw eating well as one of life’s fundamental delights, and he did everything he could to make dining at Freducinni’s as enjoyable as possible, constantly cruising the dining room to make sure everyone was happy.
His four-hour, five-course winery dinners were legendary. I remember one at which, when we guests were as jolly as three glasses of wine and a corresponding number of delicious dishes can make ordinary mortals feel, Morgan suddenly appeared from the kitchen, in chef’s cap and jacket, holding a board on which rested, adorned with colorful flowers, the largest baked salmon we’d ever seen. “The pièce de résistance!” he exulted, swooping among the tables to show everyone his gorgeous fish.
Before the restaurant he’d been in the catering business, owned a leather-goods store downtown, helped form the Downtown Chico Business Association, sold insurance for a couple of years, and served on the Chico Planning Commission.
He and Denise Tomlinson opened Freducinni’s—“a dream come true for me,” he writes in a recent e-mail message—in 1981. He credits Tomlinson for being “the rock and organizer of the business,” while he was “having so much fun developing my culinary and bullshitting skills.” He also lauds the four Kloberdanz brothers, Frank, Jim, Rick and Mark, who for years formed his exceptional dining-room floor team.
He says his proudest achievement there “was throwing what little profits we had into billboard and print ads … that made the simple statement: ABOLISH APARTHEID. … It did cost us some conservative customers, but what the hell….”
When Naomi Tutu, daughter of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Desmond Tutu, came to town, she of course ate at Fred’s place, and afterwards they went out dancing at Cabo’s, a live-music venue just down the street.
That all stopped when Morgan had a devastating heart attack in the restaurant kitchen. Forced to leave the business, with his marriage unraveled, he moved to Ashland, Ore., and then Mendocino. He eventually went to work for the school district, where he transformed the cafeteria menus dramatically, replacing the traditional processed foods with fresh and healthful dishes.
He traveled to Asia in 1995 and landed a job at Ningbo University in the spring of ’96, teaching English to grad students. Ningbo is a city of more than 2 million people about 100 miles south of Shanghai, across Hangzhou Bay. “I was only planning to stay a year, but was having so much fun I never left!” he writes.
He was the first foreigner hired by a private Chinese company that was building five new campuses around Ningbo. He stayed with the firm for seven years, and did a daily television series in which he became the “broke and famous Morganyeye,” or Grandpa Morgan.
He ended up marrying one of his grad students, Xianglin, the widow of a Chinese Air Force officer. “She is a magnificent woman and I don’t deserve her,” he writes, “but I keep her amused and she still puts up with my blustery ass.”
In 2002, he and Xianglin bought a house in a small village, Nan Ao, in the coastal mountains bordering the East China Sea, about an hour from Ningbo. There he works part-time coaching Chinese English teachers to supplement his Social Security income and volunteers at the local high school.
Now 68, he has children and grandchildren (17 of them!)—mostly in Michigan, where he grew up. He visits them each summer, but “every time I go back to the States I get reverse culture shock after a couple of months and have to get back here [to Nan Ao].
“The place still fascinates me and surprises me daily with little events that mystify my cultural sensitivities,” he writes. “The people are so friendly to most foreigners, and I keep smiling and joking, and that’s given me a long ride here. I’ll probably never leave.”