This article fell in our laps completely by surprise.
The News originally planned a feature article on New Haven’s Chinese restaurants and their experiences during the pandemic. As a co-byliner and a native speaker of Mandarin, I reached out to Taste of China, the most iconic Chinese restaurant of New Haven, and scheduled a call with the owner.
“Just call me Aunty Hu,” Ms. Hu Ping, the owner, responded to me in Mandarin.
“Yes, absolutely,” she answered when I asked her for an interview, “Come to my place tomorrow for lunch, and I’ll tell you everything. Aunty Hu is a woman with a lot of stories.”
We met up the next day after peak lunch hour. Waiting for me were a plate of bok choy and a pot of Mala Xiang Guo (Szechuan-style spicy stir-fry), two cannot-be-more-authentic Chinese dishes. In our native language of Mandarin, we talked over the food and hot tea about her life before coming to the States, her life before Taste of China, and how she popularized authentic Chinese food in New Haven. The interview lasted over three hours.
Ms. Chen, who connected the News with Ms. Hu and has known her for over twenty years, commented, “[Ms. Hu’s] story is, truly, a tale of how Chinese American immigrants thrive, thousands of miles away from home.”
Below is Ms. Hu’s story, written in the first-person, from Ms. Hu’s perspective. The story is constructed from her life stories she shared during the interview.
I was born in 1965 and grew up in Nanjing. During my childhood and teenage years, China was still slowly recovering from the impact of the Cultural Revolution, but I was fortunate enough to not be heavily affected. My parents were well-educated, and they brought me books, Chinese and Western literature. The books opened up a new world for me. The Chinese literature I read felt tragic; the books contained an insurmountable despair. The Western books felt much brighter—even in a Shakespearean tragedy, I could feel a hint of hope at the end. I became curious about the “outside world.” I wanted to see it with my own eyes.
When I graduated from college, study abroad opportunities finally began to materialize . As a design major, I wanted to study in Paris, but my visa didn’t go through. I ended up in a graduate program in Singapore.
It didn’t take me too long to realize that I might’ve not been prepared enough. My English wasn’t good, and I couldn’t understand the lectures. My school soon realized the same problem, and they put me in an ESL program. And that was where I met Jonathan.
Originally from America, Jonathan was my ESL instructor. We were around the same age, both around the age of looking for someone, and we gradually got to know each other. He was truly a sweet dude, and he cared for so many small things about me. Eventually, we fell in love with each other. I didn’t use my time properly to perfect my English.
We met each other in ’95. My time in Singapore soon came to an end. We both wanted to continue our relationship, but I was from China, he from America. Where should we go next?
We decided to go to China, him following me. It wasn’t an easy decision. Back then, China as a country still wasn’t too used to being open, and it was quite some news in my social circle for me to bring back an American boyfriend. It wasn’t an easy time for him, but we had a plan.
When I was in Singapore, I noticed how fast language schools appeared one after another. There were so many East Asian students pouring into these few narrow alleys, where language schools clustered, and foreign students learned English before getting their coveted Singaporean university degree. China was rapidly integrating into the rest of the world, and people would love to study abroad. Well, I was a Chinese student who’d studied abroad, and Jonathan was American. Where else could you find a better couple to open a language school?
Unfortunately, Jonathan couldn’t get a permit to work in China, so no language schools. The same question popped up again. Where should we go next?
My parents weren’t optimistic about our romance at all, but they couldn’t stop someone like me, who, in their words, was “completely blinded by love.” I decided to follow Jonathan and go to America.
We came to Connecticut in ’97. The first few months were really, really tough. I was like an infant. I barely knew how to speak English. I couldn’t express myself. I had nothing besides Jonathan. I had to depend on him for everything.
Think about where I came from—I’d always been accomplished. I was smart enough to study abroad in Singapore. But in America, nobody acknowledged my diploma and my achievements. I was really depressed. My parents might’ve been right, that it would be hard for Jonathan and me to work out, and I’d have a hard time in America.
But why couldn’t I be right, too? Why couldn’t our relationship work out? He loved me so much, I couldn’t quit after just one month in America. I myself made the choice to date him and to follow him to America, and I needed to be responsible for my choice. Plus, if I quit, and he followed me to China, he’d have to struggle the same way I did. I couldn’t bear selfishly watching him struggle. I made up my mind to fight for a way to live.
The first task was to put down my pride and forget about my accomplishments in China. I was no longer the design student who wanted to study in Paris. I embraced that I was nobody, and I needed to start learning about America from point zero.
During the day, while Jonathan was at work, I spent all my time with my mother-in-law, and asked her to teach me English. We’d go to the library and start with books for little kids. I’d read them all and even memorize the text. Yes, I was learning through kids’ books, but I wanted to survive in America, as an independent person.
It paid off. I could communicate with people after a few months. But this wouldn’t be enough—I wanted to eventually live like everybody else. I realized that I wanted a job. Not even for the money—through a job, I’d be able to get to know America.
I wrote up a resume and sent it to everywhere that was hiring. And I wasn’t hired by anyone. It was understandable—why would somebody hire someone who couldn’t even speak fluent English? My mother-in-law told me straightforwardly that I wouldn’t be hired by anyone.
She said I couldn’t do it. That was my wake-up call. I had always been accomplished before coming to America. Why couldn’t I be accomplished here too?
I continued to send more resumes. And, bold as I was, I began to tell the employers that I didn’t want them to pay me. I told them I came fresh off the boat, and I just wanted the experience.
My efforts paid off—a clothing store in the Clinton Outlet decided to hire me. The manager also happened to be an immigrant. She came from France to Canada, then to America. She also had to learn English from scratch. Maybe she felt for me.
It was an unpaid position for 10-15 hours a week. I had to do everything, from unloading the heavy boxes and unboxing the clothes, to hanging them up at the right spot and selling clothes. I learned the basic operations of the fashion business, and my English steadily improved.
Two months after I started working, my manager found out something that shocked everyone: since I came to work at the store, I’d sold more clothes than everyone else. I was the number one salesperson, despite working part-time and speaking broken English.
When I reflected upon what happened, I realized that my design background helped me. When I picked, say, a shirt for my customer, I’d also pick a pair of pants that matched well with the shirt. Then I’d pick a matching jacket, with my knowledge and instinct from design. When other people sold one piece of clothes, I could sell four or five. I was putting my heart into my work. I wanted my customers to look good and be happy.
Two years quickly flew by. I’d sold many more shirts, I felt comfortable in the fashion industry—I realized it was time to look for something else. Two years ago, I wanted a job despite knowing little English, and I became the best at my position. Why couldn’t I do something even more ambitious? I wanted to start my own business. I came to America for a good life, and I needed to put in work and never settle for mediocrity.
My manager was not happy when she heard about my intention to leave. “Hu Ping,” she said, “I think you have great potential in the fashion industry.” She offered me a higher position in her store in Greenwich, CT, where the revenue was much higher than the store in Clinton. It was a tempting offer, and I appreciated everything she’d done for me, but I ultimately said no. The stake of this position felt too high. She gave me the position, and I’d forever feel obligated to her. I didn’t want this heavy chip on my shoulder to burden me. I wanted to do my own things.
My initial plan was to open a Chinese-style tea parlor, as there was nothing like that within ten miles around where I lived. Until Jonathan and I went out for dinner one day. We went to a Chinese restaurant in Clinton called Chuan Yuan (literal translation: Szechuan Garden), or Taste of China in English. It was probably the dirtiest and worst decorated restaurant you could find in America, but the food tasted very authentic. They had a lot of Chinese regulars, but no local Americans ate there.
The owner brought us the food and began to chat with us. Over their delicious Hui Guo Rou (stir-fried sliced pork belly), I learned that they were selling their business. “For how much?” I asked. Forty grand, they said.
We finished our food and went home, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the future of their restaurant. An epiphany suddenly struck me: this’d be a perfect opportunity for me.
I told Jonathan that I wanted to buy the restaurant. “Are you crazy?” he responded, “I’ve never even seen you cook before.”
I wasn’t fazed and laid out my reasons. First off, the food was so good, but there were no non-Chinese customers. And there were no authentic Chinese restaurants anywhere near where I lived. How could I fail? If I could redo the design and clean up the place, the market would be wide open for me. Plus, I’d observed that the most popular restaurants in America all included a bar. Guess who else knew how to bartend? Jonathan.
I proposed this extremely ambitious plan to Jonathan: He’d quit his current job and chip in forty grand for me. We’d maintain Chuan Yuan’s kitchen staff, completely revamp the design, and add a bar. We’d both work extra hard. Jonathan would also bartend, and I’d also serve food. A good restaurant could make a grand or two every night. We wouldn’t aim too high. Every evening, if the kitchen could make just three hundred, and if Jonathan’s bar could make another three hundred, we would earn the forty grand back in two months. Subtracting the fee for water, gas, and heating, we’d start to make a nice profit pretty soon.
I told him that I wanted to do it for myself. Again, for my entire life, I’d always tried to be extraordinary. I’d always challenged myself. I’d made it to America. I’d learned English from scratch. I’d become the number one salesperson in the clothing store with zero prior experience. Why couldn’t I excel in the restaurant industry?
Besides, when I thought about Chinese restaurants in America, I could only think of Chinese takeout places. Cheap, messy, inauthentic. I could definitely do better than that. I wanted Americans to know what I grew up eating. I wanted them to appreciate my culture. I was confident that I could do it.
Essentially, I asked Jonathan to go all-in with me. “Worst case scenario,” I said, “if this doesn’t work out, then go to China with me. If you don’t want to go, I’ll go myself.”
Jonathan went all-in with me. He supported me for this most important decision. He’s always supported me for everything. I’d never felt more grateful for another person.
The owner of Chuan Yuan was stunned. They never thought someone would be dumb enough to pay forty grand for a crumbling restaurant. “Let her buy our place,” the owner said, “we’ll see how long she’ll last. She simply doesn’t look like someone in the restaurant business.”
But did I need to look a certain way to fit in the restaurant business? Like someone wearing a dirty apron, with cooking smoke all over her hair? Nobody would want to eat my food if I’d looked that messy.
It was Year 2000. Jonathan and I paid the forty grand and decided to keep the names Chuan Yuan and Taste of China. We thoroughly cleaned the place, redid the interior décor, and told the local newspaper that ToC changed owners. The old Chinese regulars came and realized that the food was equally good as before. The Americans read the newspaper, showed up in front of our completely revamped place, saw a ton of Chinese people inside, and thought to themselves, “Hmm, this place must be pretty authentic.” They walked in, we served them food and booze, and they were seriously impressed. Whenever I served a table, I talked to the customers and explained dishes on the menu they had never tried. If they weren’t sure if they’d like it, I’d even allow them to sample the dishes for free. It was okay if I couldn’t earn the maximum revenue—I sold the entire genre of authentic Chinese food to the local Americans. Like our Chinese customers, they too loved our food and became our regulars.
The former owner of our place was wrong. Jonathan and I made ToC the most iconic Chinese restaurant in Clinton, or even along the coastline of Connecticut. We had regulars coming from as far as Yale, a thirty-minute car ride from us. Whenever there was a conference at Yale that had Chinese guests, they’d happily drive for thirty minutes in order to taste our authentic Chinese cuisine.
I don’t want to make the grand claim that I was spreading Chinese culture, but my food definitely left an impression on my customers from everywhere. When I started the business, I was looking for something much more than money. I’m confident to say I achieved what I wanted.
In 2003, three years after I took over ToC, the owner of the building decided to sell his property. I sat down with him and struck up a deal. This time, I paid six hundred grand.
I haven’t talked much about my family life—I’d been focusing on my restaurant until I felt I’d fully established ToC in Clinton. In 2005, when I was forty, Jonathan and I welcomed our son, also our only child. Until he was six, I spent most of my time at home with him, while Jonathan took good care of our restaurant. Things were going smoothly.
Our regulars from Yale continued to come, some of whom frequently asked us if we were planning on opening a branch at Yale. Not a bad idea, I thought, but it was important to spend time with my son.
Until he turned six, when he started going to school. Time to be around dad, I thought. He needed to know how to fit in with his peers; he needed to play in sports games on weekends. Dad needed to drive him to games and cheer for him.
Jonathan and I finally switched our roles. He took over my responsibility as a caretaker, and I went back to manage the restaurant, and, more importantly, to prepare for opening a second restaurant in New Haven.
I began looking around in New Haven in 2012, both for a suitable place and to understand the Chinese restaurant scene. After all, New Haven was a small city, and if there was already another restaurant similar to us, my entering in New Haven would harm both of our businesses. I walked around, talked to other restaurant owners, and found no direct competitions.
The next step was to find a place for my restaurant. I connected with a real-estate owner from Miami, who owned the building across from New Haven Green. Before I opened The New Haven ToC, the place was a sandwich shop he owned, with a full kitchen, undecorated walls, naked concrete columns, and not many customers. I showed the owner my restaurant in Clinton. He came back, closed the sandwich shop, and signed a ten-year lease with me, with another five-year option. Just as I did in Clinton twelve years ago, I thoroughly cleaned the place, redid the interior décor, and opened New Haven Taste of China late 2012. It immediately became popular and has been widely loved by New Haven’s community. I even met President Salovey a few times. I heard him say “If you want authentic Chinese food in New Haven, come to Taste of China.” It made me really happy.
Another time, a professional designer came to eat at my place and was immediately impressed by my interior décor. When he learned that I did all the design myself, he said, “Wow, Hu Ping! You should put ‘Hu Ping designed’ on every wall of your restaurant!”
I’m bringing this up once again—my design background has helped me. When you visit a typical Chinese-owned Chinese restaurant in, let’s say, New York, you see a lot of imperial and religious elements like dragons and deities in their interior décor. These elements indeed reflect the Chinese tradition, but the customers won’t feel comfortable sitting in an environment like a temple or a royal palace! They’ll feel intimidated by the grandiosity and feel uncomfortable.
But when my customers visit ToC, they’ll see elements of Chinese paintings and calligraphy. They’ll see wooden decorations. The concrete posts are colored in dark red and resemble classical Chinese architecture. The design is Chinese and classy, but also quiet. My customers won’t be distracted by the chaotic environment and can therefore focus on the food. My interior décor is good because I think for the customers. I think about what they feel. I want them to be happy. I’ve been doing that from the beginning: when I explained my menu to customers, when I allowed them to taste unfamiliar dishes for free, and, before I opened ToC Clinton, when I picked matching clothes for my customers.
The New Haven Taste of China wasn’t the end of the story. In recent years, I’ve opened in New Haven Steamed, a dim sum restaurant, and Chuan Du (literal translation: Szechuan capital) Hot Pot, as well as two more Steamed restaurants across Connecticut. Unfortunately, because of COVID, I had to shut down Chuan Du and all three Steamed restaurants. I look forward to reopening them after the pandemic ends.
But I did not close either of my Taste of China restaurants. I never planned to close them, and I never will. I worked so hard to establish these two places. Now, they’re the flagship Chinese restaurants in Clinton and New Haven. They’ve been integral parts of the local communities. People liked our food. Yale’s Chinese students and faculty find the taste of home. Without them, I would’ve never achieved what I have today.
When the pandemic struck, most restaurants shut down, and my places were losing 70% of our revenue. But people needed food. They must be able to find an open restaurant that would cook them lunch. The Chinese students in town needed Chinese food. They were thousands of miles away from home, all alone, in a foreign land.
We’ve always depended on the community. Now they need us.
My door will always remain open.
Tony Hao | firstname.lastname@example.org