“The Customer Is Always Right”
AS TOLD BY WEI TUNG CHIN
My husband used to tell me to have nothing to do with “those religious people who ring doorbells.” So when Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door, I would say we weren’t interested. But he also told me that “the customer is always right,” so when a Witness came to our restaurant the Red Dragon and wanted to tell me about her religion, I felt that I had to listen.
MY HUSBAND, Tong Y., owned the Red Dragon, a Chinese restaurant on St. Clair Avenue, in Cleveland, Ohio. There, after we were married, he taught me the motto, “The customer is always right.”
T.Y. had come to America to attend New York University. After graduating in 1927, he went to work at a restaurant in the Times Square section of New York. He observed people eating at drugstore counters, where cooking facilities were limited. So he had the idea of selling them hot chow mein.
Soon, the small restaurant he opened in Greenwich Village was doing a booming business. In 1932 he moved his operation to Cleveland, Ohio, and opened the Red Dragon, which would seat 200. A Cleveland newspaper reported in September 1932: “Invading the Great Lakes region after concentrating on the appetites of millions throughout the east, Tong Y. Chin has brought to Cleveland his first midwestern outpost of the fresh chow mein industry which he has developed in five years to a million-dollar-a-year business.”
Before explaining how T.Y. and I met, let me tell about my growing up in China, which did much to shape my life.
A Background of Poverty
My early memories are of watching Mother leave our small village in mainland China to forage for food. My parents were so poor that they had to give up some of their children for adoption. One day, when I was only about two or three years old, Father returned home with a certain look in his eyes. I thought, ‘Something bad for me.’
Shortly afterward, Mother took me by the hand, and we walked along a narrow, muddy path between paddies, being careful not to fall into the water on either side. We stopped at a home where Mother talked to a smiling girl, then at another home where the young girl looked grim and unsmiling. I do not remember seeing these girls before. They were my older sisters. As they bade me farewell, I sensed that we would never see one another again.
As we walked, my mother talked steadily, telling me things about herself, my father, and my brothers and sisters. I can still see Mother’s kind, sad eyes. When we arrived at our destination, something seemed wrong. The house appeared dismal and sad. This was my new home. I did not want to take a nap, but my mother and my adoptive parents made me. Soon I fell asleep, and when I awoke, Mother was gone. I never saw her again.
A Sad Childhood
Although there was now enough food to eat, there was little love, and my heart was full of tears. I would wake up crying every morning. I missed Mother and my older brother, who had remained with her. I often contemplated suicide. When I was old enough, I longed to attend school, but my adoptive parents kept me at home to work.
When I was nine, we moved far away to Shanghai. “Now you are old enough to do shopping and cooking,” I was told. So these duties were added to my daily chores. Each day my adoptive parents would give me enough money to buy food for three meals. On the way to the marketplace, I would pass beggars and feel sorry for them because they were hungry. So I managed to give them a coin or two and still have enough to buy the food I needed.
How I wanted to go to school and learn! “In six months we will register you,” my adoptive parents promised. When the time passed, I was told: “Six months from now.” In time, I realized that I would never be sent to school. My heart was broken. I came to hate everyone in the house. Often, I would lock myself in the bathroom and pray. Even though we believed in many gods, somehow I knew that there was a main God, more powerful than all the others. So to him I prayed: “Why is there so much pain and sorrow?” This was my prayer for many years.
Marriage Changes My Life
Arranged marriages were common in China in those days. One of T.Y.’s university friends who had returned to China wrote him: “Thou art past the age of 30 and still unmarried.” Then he spoke of me and added: “She is 18 years old; in face she is lovely, in character no less. . . . I would take serious thought, Tong Y. Chin.” His friend included a photograph.
T.Y. wrote my adoptive parents: “I have seen the photograph of your honorable daughter. I would marry her, if, after we meet and are together, we find that love blossoms in our hearts.” T.Y. came to Shanghai, and we met. Although I thought he was too mature for me, I decided that marriage would at least enable me to move out of the house. So we were married in 1935 and immediately sailed for America. That is how I came to Cleveland.
Severe Problems Despite Wealth
To begin with, there were communication problems with my husband. He spoke one Chinese dialect, Cantonese, and I spoke another, Shanghaiese. It was like we were speaking two different languages. I also had to learn the English language and new customs. And my new job? I was to be a charming, gracious restaurant hostess, always seeking to please the patrons. Yes, I was to remember, “The customer is always right.”
I worked 16 or more long, hard hours a day with my husband, and much of the time I was pregnant. Our first daughter, Gloria, was born in 1936. Thereafter, I bore six children within nine years—three boys and three more girls, one of whom died when only a year old.
In the meantime, T.Y. had come to operate many restaurants and nightclubs. Some entertainers who started their careers performing in these, such as Keye Luke, Jack Soo, and Kaye Ballard, became well-known celebrities. Also, our Chinese food products were widely marketed and became famous.
By the mid-1930’s, T.Y. was known as the chow mein king. He was also president of the Chinese Merchants Association and a lecturer on China. I became involved in numerous charity, social, civic, and community affairs. Appearing in public and marching in parades became a part of my life. Our pictures and names were a common sight in Cleveland newspapers; everything we did or said seemed to be reported—from business ventures to vacations and even my shoe size!
In 1941, when the Japanese air force bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States went to war with Japan. Because we were Oriental, we experienced prejudice. Even before the war, we received written death threats when we were building our large house in a nice neighborhood. But it was completed, and we raised our children in it.
So, I had a lovely, spacious home, a respected husband and family, yes, even beautiful clothing and jewelry. Yet, happiness continued to elude me. Why? For one thing, we had little family life. Although I managed to rise each morning to see the children off to school, we were usually working when they went to bed. A housekeeper took care of their daily needs.
We were Buddhist, yet the gods of our religion offered me no solace. T.Y., accompanied by our oldest son, would go through the house lighting candles and placing food in front of idols, for the gods to eat. But they never ate the food, so the children would later enjoy eating it themselves.
Eventually, suffering from exhaustion and seeing no way out, I reasoned that my family would be better off without me. I had a complete breakdown and tried to take my life. Thankfully, I was rushed to a hospital, and I recovered.
An Answer to My Prayers
Some time later, in 1950, a lady with beautiful white hair entered the restaurant with her husband. As I welcomed them and saw to their comfort, she spoke to me about God. I wasn’t interested. Jehovah’s Witnesses had visited the house and had tried to talk to me, but I always abruptly dismissed them. At the restaurant, however, the situation was different—“The customer is always right!”
The lady, Helen Winters, asked if I believed the Bible. “Which Bible?” I replied. “There are so many!” Each time she returned, I would think to myself, ‘Here comes that nuisance again!’ But she was kind and persistent. And what she said about a paradise earth where there would be no more pain or suffering really sounded good.—2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:3, 4.
On one of her visits, she left an invitation to the meetings at the Kingdom Hall and pointed out the short message on the reverse side that described the blessings of God’s Kingdom. I remember looking at it later and thinking, ‘If only this could be true!’ She offered to study the Bible with me at home, and eventually, I agreed.
Each week we gathered around our table for the study—Helen and I along with my six children, then ages 5 to 14. I often felt sorry for her because the children sometimes appeared to lose interest. In 1951 we began attending meetings at the Kingdom Hall. Before long, I realized that what I was learning was the answer to my prayers. So I decided that I really needed to learn to read English well, which was a difficult challenge for me.
Realizing Genuine Happiness
Soon I began to progress rapidly in knowledge and dedicated my life to Jehovah God. Then, on October 13, 1951, at a large convention in Washington, D.C., I was baptized along with my two oldest children, Gloria and Tom. For the first time, my life had taken on meaning. It was the beginning of my happiest years.
All my life I had been serving other humans, but now I was determined first of all to serve our Creator! I began sharing the Kingdom message with all who would listen. I also tried to impress on my children the necessity of attending Christian meetings and the importance of talking to others about the wonderful things in God’s Word.
In 1953 we began having the Congregation Book Study in our home. Nearly 45 years later, the study is still being held here. Throughout the years it has been a tremendous spiritual help to our family.
Keeping spiritually active and still maintaining our restaurant business was a real challenge. However, I was able to study the Bible with many. Some of these people accepted Bible truth and later became pioneers, as full-time ministers are called. During the 1950’s, our four younger children dedicated their lives to Jehovah and were baptized. T.Y. was not interested in the Bible, yet he would drive us to and from the meetings. We decided not to preach to him but just to talk among ourselves as we drove home about a point or two that we enjoyed from the meeting.
At the time, T.Y. made frequent business trips to cities throughout the United States. I telephoned the Watch Tower Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, and explained our situation. Grant Suiter, then secretary-treasurer of the Society, invited us to tour the facilities when we were in New York. T.Y. was very impressed, especially with the cleanliness of the kitchen, which was then set up to feed about 500.
During our visit we met Russell Kurzen, who later mailed T.Y. a Bible, which he read every night until he finished it. Later, at the international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York in 1958, my husband was baptized! To our surprise, our oldest son, who was by then serving as a member of the headquarters family, had a short part on the program.
Faithful Until His Death
T.Y. and I often participated together in the door-to-door ministry. When his eyesight began to fail, we engaged regularly in street witnessing. The Cleveland Press carried the headline “Conversion at Red Dragon” along with a picture of us offering the Watchtower and Awake! magazines to a passerby. The story related how we became Witnesses. Incidentally, the Red Dragon was given a name change, becoming Chin’s Restaurant.
Over the years, my husband and I entertained at our restaurant many Christian brothers and sisters from all over the world. We remembered well the advice of Brother Fred Franz, who served as president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. When he visited, he urged us: “Be faithful, and stick close to Jehovah’s organization.”
T.Y. suffered several strokes in the early 1970’s and died on August 20, 1975. A local newspaper published a lengthy obituary along with a picture of him offering The Watchtower in the ministry. Our last years together were the best ones. After over 60 years of operation, Chin’s Restaurant closed for the last time in April 1995. To some, it seemed like the end of an era.
Maintaining Spiritual Goals
At one time it was our desire that our three sons take over the family business. However, that desire changed; we wanted them to follow Jesus’ footsteps and become full-time ministers. We asked each of the children if he or she would like to pioneer in Hong Kong and help other Chinese people learn what we had learned. We offered them financial backing toward that end. Although none of them had learned to speak Chinese fluently, Winifred, Victoria, and Richard chose to move to Hong Kong.
Our daughter Winifred has pioneered there for over 34 years! Victoria married Marcus Gum, and they eventually returned to the United States. They have reared three children—Stephanie and Seraiah, who are in the full-time ministry in Cleveland, and Symeon, who is serving at Watchtower Farms, Wallkill, New York, with his wife, Morfydd. Victoria and Marcus now live nearby, where they help watch over me. He is the presiding overseer of the Coventry Congregation in Cleveland.
Our oldest daughter, Gloria, has been confined to a wheelchair since she was struck with polio in 1955. She and her husband, Ben, live in Escondido, California, where she continues to serve regularly in the preaching work. Tom has been a full-time minister for over 22 years. He and his wife, Esther, presently work at the Watchtower Educational Center, Patterson, New York. Richard and his wife, Amy, returned from Hong Kong to help care for T.Y. before his death. Now they also serve at Patterson. Our youngest, Walden, has spent more than 30 years in the full-time ministry. For the last 22 years, he and his wife, Mary Lou, have served congregations in the United States in the circuit and district work.
It is not that our children never gave us any problems. As a teenager, one ran away from home and was not heard from for three months. For a time another was more interested in sports than in spiritual things, skipping our weekly family Bible study to compete. He even received offers of athletic scholarships. When he decided to enter the full-time ministry instead of accepting one of these university scholarships, I felt as if a thousand-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders!
Grateful That I Listened
Even though my children are literally scattered around the world, it gives my heart a lift to know that they are faithfully serving Jehovah. I am 81 now, and arthritis and other ailments have slowed my pace, but my zeal for Jehovah has not slackened. I try to take care of myself so that none of my children might have to leave the full-time ministry to look after me.
I eagerly look to the future when God’s purposes will be fully realized and I will again see my dead loved ones, including my husband, my birth parents, and Helen Winters, who studied with us. (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15) How glad I am that I listened to that lovely white-haired lady over 46 years ago! Indeed, that customer was right!
[Picture on page 21]
When we were married
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Our family in 1961. From left to right: Victoria, Wei, Richard, Walden, Tom, T.Y., Winifred, and Gloria in front
[Picture on page 24]
Wei Chin today