A Chronicle of A Chinese Restaurant in Brooklyn

Making it in the Land of Opportunity

Lisa Lau
The Shadow
Published in
6 min readSep 17, 2022


Photo: Author’s family archive

I heard a gong-like bang that shook the floor. Abandoning my homework, I hopped off my chair and sped around the hallway into the kitchen. My uncle, glimmering in sweat, waved at me and said in Cantonese: mo see mo see (冇事,冇事) — It’s nothing! It’s nothing!

Apparently the cover of the wok had tipped over the counter and was doing a windmill on the kitchen floor. As if entranced by the spinning, everyone in the kitchen watched until it performed its final spin and flopped on the floor from exhaustion. My uncle picked it up and motioned that the show was over.

My aunt returned to scooping white rice into take-out boxes. My other uncle continued to hose down pots and kitchenware, splattering water onto the floor. I skipped back to the front of the restaurant and climbed onto the seat. Next to me was a stack of menus waiting for me to fold after I finished my homework.

In 1988, my parents joined the class of Chinese immigrants who opened a family restaurant in this land of opportunity. Despite not having extensive education, many first-generation immigrants, like my parents, were able to open a restaurant as a way to provide gainful employment for themselves and make a living for their families.

A few months before, my father asked me and my brother if we could think of a good name for a Chinese restaurant. We said — how about Today’s? My father took out a napkin and asked us to spell it for him.

Later that evening, my brother and I sprawled out on the linoleum floor of our tenement with a set of markers and wrote on a large piece of paper: Today’s Chinese Restaurant.

Our customized sign would become a banner used on our grand opening day.

Located on 218 5th avenue in Brooklyn, in an area that is now populated by young and hip professionals in Park Slope, the restaurant became an extended family space from our tight quarters of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

I was always excited to go to the restaurant after school and on the weekends. Breaking away from the humdrum of home, the restaurant was the site of where I evaded doing homework, where I watched cartoons on a handheld television, and where I fell in love —with my first sip of Mountain Dew.

Sitting alongside my mom, aunties, and cousins, I helped package fried noodle chips, unstring buckets of snow peas, and folded stacks of menus and flyers. I casually weaved in and out of the kitchen to help myself to a soda or to the hot and sour soup that simmered on the stove in an industrialized pot. With abundant food and activity all around, I was free of worldly concerns.

One day, while laggardly lounging at the tables in the front of the restaurant, I watched my uncle deal with a particularly irate customer complaining about his order.

As if becoming the boiling frog that did not suspect danger, I let the steam of my hot and sour soup gingerly melt my face while the temperature rose around me. As the voices became more belligerent, my dad motioned my uncle to take me to the back in the kitchen. I frantically scooped up my soup bowl.

For the first time, it occurred to me that this place of refuge was also a place that brought immense anxiety for the adults.

My young age at the time shielded me from the more grueling aspects of the business. My high school aged cousins, who had just arrived in the United States a few months after the restaurant opened, were swiftly put to work.

After school and on weekends, they delivered take-out orders in the neighborhood and walked door to door to stuff restaurant flyers in the mailboxes of each house in the neighborhood. Eventually, they would approach the daunting apartment complexes in the area to continue to spread the good word on the restaurant.

To be efficient, each cousin claimed a building on either side of the street. With their hearts racing from unseen, but real danger at the time, each person would enter the dimly lit buildings and place flyers into each apartment mailbox. The imposing heavy front door of the buildings that muted the loud city streets would have also muted any cries for help.

Like the lore of the big bad wolf, I heard stories of my cousins being mugged on their delivery routes. As if being initiated into a sorority, one cousin was sent to deliver an order to a customer who was known to give good tips in a large building complex. When she returned from the drop-off, everyone waited outside the restaurant in silent relief to celebrate her safe return.

In her pocket was $5 extra that made the delivery all worthwhile.

Photo: Restaurant Flyer from Author’s Family Archive

Today’s Chinese Restaurant not only represented a means for economic opportunity, but also a means to deepen kinship for the family. We ate meals together and sometimes closed the restaurant early to hold family birthday parties. With a kitchen within reach, my uncles did not hesitate to bring out their best dishes to make sure everyone’s bellies were happy and full. Once, however, we did order pizza.

The restaurant was also a site for political activity, where we hosted demonstrations against the Chinese government during pro-democracy protests that culminated in the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4,1989. During this period, we set up a table outside the restaurant that provided people with information on the current events that appear so disconnected from everyday life in Brooklyn.

One woman came over to ask one of my uncles what the protest was about. Getting lost in his English, I rushed over to my uncle’s aid.

I explained to her, in my best understanding as a second grader, how the Chinese government was squelching protests by students who are calling for freedom. These were students, like me, who only wanted to be free to live the consequences of our own choices, and not decisions made by government decree.

Although at the time, I personally did not fully comprehend the democratic principles I was espousing, I had the sense that, here in America, my family led privileged lives.

She thanked me, wished us luck on raising awareness, and complimented me on my English. Before she went on her way, I handed her a restaurant menu and asked her to come try our food, especially the hot and sour soup.

Photo: Author’s Family Archive

Just as quickly as the restaurant had entered our lives, our frenzied restaurant days ended two years later without much fanfare. But the bright red awning and bamboo-colored seats have been forever seared into my memory.

Over the past three decades, the restaurant’s location has transferred hands from business to business. Currently in its place is a pet store — each turnover represents a business that has supported the livelihood of a family and fed the opportunities of their children.

I look forward to bringing my son on a sojourn to this stomping ground of my childhood. Perhaps, standing there with his grandparents, we can reconnect to the long lasting values of hard work and perseverance that have laid the foundation of economic mobility for this family.

And perhaps, standing with his grandparents, my son can feel the sense of freedom that my parents felt when they came to this country — that their futures, especially that of their children’s, are not limited by the circumstances to which they are born, but infinitely tied to the initiatives they are willing to take.

And by maintaining and creating bonds with family and community, his life’s journey will be made boundlessly more meaningful, as it has for me.



Lisa Lau
The Shadow

Insomniac, knowledge thrill-seeker, leisure and cathartic writer