PLANET TAKEOUT
7:02 pm
Mon December 10, 2012

Family Legacy Fuels Chinese Takeouts

More than 40 years ago, Sonny Pang was fairly new to this country. He’d been working in Chinese takeouts on Cape Cod for a few years, learning the business. When he noticed there were no takeouts in the Dudley Square area of Roxbury, he opened Peking House in a tiny storefront. Pang’s son Peter recalls those early, tiring days.

“Yeah, I used to fall asleep on the counter. Because I was working for him since I was about 11 years old,” he said.

He learned from his dad, taking orders and packing food on the weekends. The takeout has since moved to a larger space down the road. Father and son have reversed their roles: Peter now runs the place, Sonny works part-time.

“I have two older sisters and a younger brother in the family and none of them wants anything to do with it. I feel obligated because of the Chinese culture, I’m the oldest child. My parents were good chaperones when I was a child,” Peter said. “I look at this as a legacy. We put all of our siblings through college through this takeout.”

But this takeout didn’t just send kids to college — it launched them into the professional world. Sonny proudly tells me, “My oldest daughter, she’s a doctor, an ob/gyn. The other two kids work for the bank, in the investment department.” He never made them work at the takeout. So why did Peter?

“He liked it. What can I do?” Sonny said with a laugh. “I say, ‘You like it, you can carry on. If not, then I’ll sell the place.’”

The First Rung for Immigrants

Today, many new Chinese immigrants run takeouts because they require less capital than a sit-down restaurant — and they can be run by an extended family.

UMass Boston professor Paul Watanabe has studied both immigrant restaurant owners and their children. He’s seen all variations of the story — but there’s always one constant with the owners.

“Their single reason for working hard and doing this is that their aspirations are really to try to improve the life and well-being and opportunities for their children. It’s not their own aspirations they talk about, it’s the aspirations they have for their children,” he said.

The Pang family is living out one classic immigrant story of social mobility. The first generation works hard and makes sacrifices that the second generation repays through professional success.

Unorthodox Choices

But the definitions of success change with each new generation. What happens when second-generation immigrants choose to follow their own dreams instead of those of their parents?

“I come to this country in 1999, right after high school graduation in Canton, China,” said Nathan Long, 29. While he lived in Boston with relatives, his parents took jobs cooking in Chinese takeouts in Puerto Rico. The takeouts where his parents worked were half an hour apart.

Not only did the Longs barely see their son, they barely saw each other. “Most places over there provide housing. Downstairs, restaurant. Upstairs, the living place. So they only see each other once a week,” Nathan said.

Meanwhile, he was up in Boston, struggling to learn English and eventually getting an associate’s degree at Bunker Hill Community College. “I transferred to UMass Amherst, stayed on campus, got my bachelor’s and then I come back to Boston, started to work in the finance field. About a year. About a year and then I changed.”

Changed to follow his true calling: to work in restaurants.

Nathan's parents, who had toiled in restaurants to put him through college, were not happy with his choice. For them, a profession signified more than financial security or moving up in the world.

“In my parents’ generation, in their mindset, working in a restaurant is really really ... you don’t have education, you work in a restaurant. Who works in a restaurant now? Immigrants from China, can’t speak English,” Nathan explained. “In their mindset, right, they think, if you work in a restaurant, people will look down at you. People will look down at you.”

But he persisted. Two years ago he decided to start his own restaurant, an Asian fusion takeout in Mission Hill, called Wok n Talk.

Changing Hearts and Minds

Even though Nathan Long’s parents wished he’d stayed with his stable job in finance, they still lent him part of the $300,000 he needed to start his restaurant.

Professor Watanabe points to the difficulties of bridging both a cultural and a generation gap. “It’s a conversation, it’s a learning, to convince those parents that the definition of success may not be that one has to become a doctor or a lawyer or a very rich businessperson to be successful. Success has a lot more to do about the personal well-being and choices that their children make.”

And that choice had to come from Nathan himself. He said, “In the whole process, something changed in my mind. It’s not about how people look at you. I just want to do something I want to do. Because I don’t live in other people’s world. I live in my world.”

Onward and Upward

Back at Peking House, I spoke with Peter Pang about his own kids. They are in their 20s and have no plans to take over the family business. His daughter is a banker and his son is studying to be a history teacher.

So what will happen to Peking House when Peter retires?

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far yet. I don’t have any thought of it now because I’m enjoying being here so much,” he said. “My dad still works here 20 hours a week. He cooks, he goes right into the cooking line. He gets really involved. He immerses himself. He’s probably 74. If he doesn’t work, he just goes bananas. My mom says get him out of the house.”

So for now, even as the new generation climbs upward, the old maintains the foothold that started their journey.

Planet Takeout is a documentary project from WGBH, Zeega and Localore, a national production of the Association of Independents in Radio,with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Share your own takeout story and explore the world of Boston takeouts at our website.