Beijing restaurateur brings some California love to China’s dining scene

Alan Wong at his restaurant Hatsune Sushi in Beijing
Alan Wong at his Hatsune Sushi restaurant in Beijing in 2008. (Sacramento State/Craig Koscho)

In a city with 22 million people and thousands of dining options, Alan Wong has carved out a veritable culinary empire. This summer, his gastronomic domain will expand to the one of the happiest places on earth.

Wong (’00, Philosophy) owns and operates 12 upscale, California-style sushi restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai, and this June, he will open his 13th in the brand-new Shanghai Disneyland.

In the 15 years since he moved to China, the Sacramento native has established himself as a pioneer of the dining scene in the second-largest consumer market in the world. But his eatery in the extraordinarily exclusive Shanghai Disneyland – which opens June 16 – will be one of the crown jewels of his expansive portfolio.

Wong was the first to bring California-style sushi to Beijing, in 2001. His first venture, Hatsune Sushi, was a hit with international tourists and expatriates.

A dozen restaurants and more than 800 employees later, Wong says his philosophy education from Sacramento State still informs his business practices.

“I look at any given problem from various directions so I have a wider insight to find a solution,” Wong told Sac State Magazine in 2008. “Critical thinking, logic, and theories of metaphysics train you to be open-minded.”

That metaphysical thinking has certainly paid off, and by this summer, more diners than ever will be getting a taste of Sacramento more than 6,000 miles away.

Learn more about Alan Wong and check out his story at The Sacramento Bee.

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Thinking (and painting) outside the box

Sarah Billingsley with her painted SN&R newsstand
Sarah Billingsley shows off the Sacramento News & Review “art rack” she painted in 2007. (Jenni Murphy)

A colorful, floral-painted newspaper box is one of the first things to welcome students to campus near the bus stop on State University Drive. And while thousands walk past the box every day, few know the story behind it.

In 2007, as city officials discussed removing oft-vandalized sidewalk news boxes altogether, the Sacramento News & Review launched the SN&R Newsstand Art Project. Under the banner of “making news beautiful,” the local paper tapped dozens of artists to turn newsstands into “art racks” with the dual purpose of dissuading vandals and persuading the city to keep newsstands on Sacramento sidewalks.

One of the very first painters? Sacramento State’s own Sarah Billingsley (’13, M.A. Communications), a proud alumna and current marketing communications director for the College of Continuing Education. She worked at SN&R with husband, Michael, who conceived and launched the project, before they both came to Sacramento State, where they earned their master’s degrees.

“I took a big leap of faith and left my old career and came back to college,” Billingsley says, “and there was my art box that I drove by every day.”

For the design, Billingsley found inspiration in a poem about spring written by her father, who had passed away earlier that year. Her painting brought to life her father’s words, some of which were included in SN&R’s advertisement for the project:

“There is awareness of life now, and purpose. In the arms of Spring is perfection and joy.”

Billingsley’s box art helped kick off a project that would eventually lead to a wave of new public artworks to transform boring into beautiful. (The Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission’s Capitol Box Art Project is one of the most recent examples.) And while Billingsley may not self-identify as an artist, her art has endured for nearly a decade, a legacy that goes far beyond the campus.

Sacramento’s king of comedy embarks on 72-Hour Improv Marathon

Brian Crall at the Sacramento Comedy Spot
Brian Crall (’05, Theatre) founded the Sacramento Comedy Spot in 2005, creating in the process a dynamic, vibrant community that is the hub of Sacramento comedy. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

When Brian Crall (’05, Theatre) founded the Sacramento Comedy Spot in 2005, he says he practically had to pay people to take classes there. The fledgling theater and comedy school started as an outlet for Crall and his friends to ply their own unique brand of improv; today, it is the unrivaled epicenter of the Sacramento comedy community.

This weekend, the Sacramento Comedy Spot hosts 72-Hour Improv Marathon, an annual three-day celebration of the capital region comedy scene – one that owes its very existence to Crall.

“What’s funny is all I wanted to do was just create a space where we could experiment and do this kind of comedy that we wanted to do,” Crall says, “but the best side effect of that was that we ended up building this huge community of performers and talent, and we all lean on each other and have fun together.

“The most important part of the Comedy Spot is bringing together all these people that wouldn’t normally come together.”

Running March 11-13, the 72-Hour Improv Marathon will feature three days of shows, guest performances, and workshops, bringing in performers and spectators from around the country.

The event is a testament to how far Sacramento has come as a national destination for comedy, due so much in part to Crall and his commitment to growing the comedy community.

It wasn’t easy, Crall says.“It’s like trying to start your own market: You’re selling a product that’s never been sold in Sacramento before, so where do you find people that like this because it doesn’t even exist here?”

Brian Crall returns to Sac State as a guest speaker in Professor Michelle Felton's Voice + Movement I class.
As a guest speaker in Professor Michelle Felton’s Voice + Movement I class in 2015, Brian Crall is all smiles as students play catch with imaginary knives. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

When he first enrolled at Sacramento State, Crall was not planning to be one of the region’s premier entertainment pioneers. Initially a business major before taking time off to find his true passion, Crall re-enrolled in the Theatre Department, and everything fell into place.

He founded his first improv collective, the Free Hooch Comedy Troupe, with friends after college. Their success led to the founding of the Sacramento Comedy Spot, and in the 11 years since, the theater has become a community institution inseparable from midtown’s cultural identity.

“I’m not selling future comedians, but what I am selling is just being comfortable with yourself and gaining confidence,” Crall says. “Some of the best feedback has been from kids who are now adults that said that my class was the first time where they felt comfortable.

“People say we’re the cheapest therapy in town.”

Info and tickets for the 72-Hour Improv Marathon are available at www.sacimprovmarathon.com.

Visit www.csus.edu/made/crall.html for more of Brian’s story and an inside look at the Sacramento Comedy Spot.