The Chinese Restaurant: Memories from Childhood
Curiosity led to a new friend and a lifetime of influence
Boomer reader R.G. Begora recalls a chapter of his youth that began in Chicago in 1957, roaming the streets with a friend and discovering fun in watching food preparations at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Their curiosity led to meeting the owners and their son – and to positive influences in life down the road.
After moving to the Chicago area around 1957, my new friend Tommy and I would walk to the local outdoor mall to hang around and visit many of the stores. We never really got into trouble because our interests were similar and full of curiosity. One day we found ourselves in an alley behind a Chinese restaurant. I don’t remember why we started looking through the screen door to watch the flurry of activity as the cooks prepared the orders. This was strictly a takeout food service with no tables in the front. Tommy and I watched for an hour, and we became enthralled by the beehive of activity. We came back a few days later and again watched through the screen door. I don’t know if it was the cooking in woks or everyone talking to each other in a language we didn’t understand that caught our interest.
Mr. Yiang and his wife were owners of the store. They would always smile at us and never seemed to mind that we watched them through the screen door a few times a week. One day, while we were in our routine of watching the activity, it started to rain. Mr Yiang invited us in to step inside to stay dry. They had just finished making white rice in the woks (this was before rice steamers) and after they had removed the rice, there was a crust left in the wok. Using a spatula, Mr. Yiang broke off a piece of the crust, salted it, and gave us each a piece to eat. I remember it tasted very good. From then on, Mr. Yiang would always have us come inside to watch the busy activity.
Before getting any further into this story, I need to try to clarify the actuality that two 9-year-old kids found it interesting to stand and watch Chinese food preparation. To this day, I don’t know why we even found cooking food interesting. It wasn’t something that a 9-year-old kid would even consider appealing, but we did. We didn’t stop by every day. But back in the 1950s, we didn’t have video games or constant TV shows to watch, so we made up our days as we went along. Maybe we would stop by a few times a month. Mr. Yiang spoke very limited English with a heavy accent. All the workers there spoke only Chinese. Later I learned all the workers were extended family members. Once in a while we were allowed to go in the basement and watch the chopping and food preparation, getting ready for the day’s business.
A new friend and a movie matinee
One day Mr. Yiang said to us, “My son come from Hong Kong … he same age as you. You meet him when he come!” That statement had piqued our interest right away. A chance to meet a new friend and continue our excursions with a third boy seemed to be in our future. Months passed and there was no sign of our future friend. Mr. Yiang never mentioned it again and we started to think that no one would be coming from Hong Kong. We felt the whole situation a little odd but never thought much more about it and filed it back in our minds.
A while later we walked over to the restaurant on a Saturday afternoon and came around the corner and saw Mr. Yiang standing next to a boy who was approximately our age. When the boy saw us, his face lit up with a huge smile. He looked Asian and had a thick amount of black hair on his head.
Mr. Yiang proudly introduced us to his son, Murphy. I thought it was a strange name for someone who was Chinese, but we accepted the new arrival immediately. But we had a problem. Other than “hello,” Murphy didn’t speak one word of English. To further compound the situation, Mr. Yiang gave us money to take his son to the movies. We tried communicating with Murphy as best we could, but I was really concerned about having him sit through the movie not being able to speak English.
Saturday afternoon was for the kids at this movie theater. Adventure movies and westerns were usually on the bill, which was always paired with a second movie. I remember we used a lot of sign language and mouthing words so Murphy could understand. He understood a little, but not as much as we would have liked. We were concerned about how to interpret the movie for him. It turned out we had nothing to worry about because there was a full-length Three Stooges movie playing that day. I was amazed how Murphy roared with laughter watching the sight gags in the movie. He didn’t understand any of the words, but he sure did understand the visuals. It turned out to be a great day for all of us, including Murphy’s parents who I’m sure were happy to see their son make new friends the first few days in a new country.
Influences from the Chinese restaurant and beyond
Years passed and Murphy became a high school teacher in the area. He spoke perfect English and ended up living a few blocks from my house after I was married. Over the years, Murphy and I kept in touch from time to time, and he started a chain of Chinese restaurants in the area. My daughter even worked part time for him for a while. Mr. and Mrs. Yiang eventually sold their restaurant and opened a larger sit-down facility and they were quite successful.
Years passed and I called Mr. Yiang’s restaurant and asked them for a special room so my brothers and I could bring my parents in for their anniversary. As we entered the restaurant, Mrs. Yiang came over and gave me a huge hug and started to cry. I was an adult now with my own children. I came to realize how important we were in their lives. Unbeknownst to us, Tommy and I had become a conduit for Murphy and his new beginnings in the United States. I knew there was a connection there, but until that day I never realized how deep that connection was.
Over the years, I became a decent cook and especially enjoy cooking Chinese recipes. I learned from my early observations that food prep was the secret to making recipes come to life. To this day, I can place myself in the basement of Mr. Yiang’s restaurant watching the precise chopping techniques they used to prepare for the day. I enjoy cooking all types of dishes and I have become a decent cook overall. I can fondly look back on the days in the ’50s that two boys can walk through an outdoor mall without prejudices in our hearts and a willingness to accept people just as they are without reservation.
A few years ago, the three of us met for lunch at a restaurant in the Chicago area, probably for the last time. We all talked about our lives and our interests. It was a very nice meeting. One thing I will always remember from our lunch together is that we can never go back to our childhood. Murphy and Tommy don’t look the same, and we no longer have the same interests. We all got old. Our lives went in different directions. Murphy speaks perfect English and lost all his hair. He has the same smile, but the boy I first met behind the Chinese restaurant is no longer there. At least I have my memories to keep close to my heart. I will always remember how much we meant to Murphy’s mom and dad. In the back of my mind, I think that Mr. Yiang knew his son was coming to the U.S. and encouraged us to hang around. Maybe?
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