The Chinese restaurant as the gateway to the “American Dream”
My family owned a Chinese restaurant in Plymouth, Michigan for more than 35 years. It was their livelihood and played a large part in our lives.
The Pagoda Inn was my parent’s third restaurant, having opened moderately successful ones (and ultimately leaving/selling them off) in Jackson and Riverview (they would open another in Bellville in the mid-1990s). The Pagoda Inn opened in November of 1981 — the first Chinese restaurant in Plymouth. Even in the bad economy, people were lining up the first day they opened and was continually busy for the next two decades or so..
The key to the success just wasn’t the almond chicken, pepper steak, egg foo young, General chicken but the food was coupled with my parents’ hard work and loooong hours. Their work ethic put my siblings and I through college, put us in our cars, food in our mouths and a roof over our head. The restaurant provided us the education and opportunity that my parents could have never even dreamed of back in China.
I was inspired to write something about Pagoda Inn when I was sorting through my belongings in preparation for a move. In a pile of old photos and newspaper clippings, I came across a 1993 advertorial featuring our restaurant in their annual guide to Plymouth establishments. I remember my mom telling me that the sales person loved our “American Dream” angle – where my parents came from Hong Kong knowing very little English, $200 in their pocket and was able to build a rather successful business from it.
If you work hard enough, dreams do come true.
Maria Leung’s road to owning her own restaurant has been paved with countless hours of work: “Back in the 1970s, it was a dream of mine to come to America, but when I arrived, reality collided with my dream. Things weren’t as easy as I thought they’d be; I came with only $200 in my pocket and things were hard.”
Maria tells of ten and 11-hour days waiting tables, working 60 hours a week saving money for her second dream-a restaurant or her own.
Her second dream–owning her own restaurant–came true in 1973 when, with the help of a relative, she and her husband, Ming, purchased a restaurant in downtown Jackson.
Ironically, this was also to be her most difficult time: “Our oldest son was about 10 months and we had to put a playpen in the kitchen of our restaurant. My husband did the cooking while I continued waitressing. When we closed the restaurant, we had to do both the laundry and the dishes; this made a 15-hour day for us. It was hard, but we had our restaurant.”
A few years later, Maria again worked as a waitress when she and Ming, along with Ming’s brother, purchased their second restaurant located downriver. This time the hours and the days were easier.
In 1982, the Leungs opened the Pagoda Inn on An Arbor Road at Sheldon. Now, after more than 20 years in the restaurant business, Maria is content: “We enjoy the community and the people here,” she said.
I’m sure our story was cute to the locals, but I found that it wasn’t unique to the Chinese-American experience; for the most part, many of my Chinese friends/cousins that also lived in Michigan, came from families that owned Chinese restaurants. They all started out with very little and through a lot of sweat and watching every penny, were able to create successful restaurants.
That village-mentality where every cent counts almost stopped the story from being printed. I remember my mom was unsure of whether to spend the money on the ad wondering whether it was a good use of the business’ money. Even back then, with her frugal mindset, she knew that even if it wasn’t going to be a winning investment financially that it would hold personal value.
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