Hard work pays off for Chinese immigrant, entrepreneur

2007-11-17T23:00:00Z Hard work pays off for Chinese immigrant, entrepreneurJAN FALSTADOf The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
November 17, 2007 11:00 pm  • 

Hard work doesn't always work.

Perseverance and family sacrifice aren't always rewarded.

Yet after 18 years of cooking Chinese food for Billings restaurants, Fan Fu Li has finally realized his American dream of bringing his family from China to Billings and opening his own restaurant.

Li's grind over almost two decades included working away from his family, with only occasional visits to China, as his wife, Feng Ying Ma, raised the children.

In 1999, Li succeeded in bringing to his wife and their two children from Guangzhou, formerly called Canton. All four obtained American citizenship between 2002 to 2006.

"My dad came over about 20 years ago," said Meizhu Li, a 22-year-old senior at Rocky Mountain College. "It took years for my family to come over because the paperwork took forever."

In October, the other slice of his dream came true when Li and his niece, Carmen Chin, opened Grand Garden at 3930 Grand Ave. with the help of a handful of other relatives.

Chef specialty

Li, who was the chief chef at Jade Palace for years, specializes in Peking duck. This specialty must be ordered a day ahead to allow enough time to marinate and cook the bird.

Li's other favorites include a delicate walnut-sauce shrimp or chicken dish and the Grand Hot Pot, featuring shrimp, scallops, chicken, beef and barbecue pork and vegetables in a secret sauce.

Meizhu "Alice" Li and her brother, Dachao "Andy" Li, now 24 and an aerospace engineer for Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut, both graduated from Billings Senior High. They chose their own American nicknames.

Li plans on heading to an East Coast graduate school after earning her degree in mathematical education at Rocky.

Fan Fu Li and his niece, 28-year-old Carmen Chin, pooled their savings to lease space and open Grand Garden.

The family debated a lot of issues in starting a business in Billings, but didn't worry about the competition from the eight or so existing Oriental restaurants.

"Billings is expanding to the West End, so there are customers," Meizhu Li said. "Also, so many people love my father's cooking."

The next hurdle is to obtain a cabaret license so they can serve beer and wine, she said.

Joking that her uncle got her into this, Chin said she put up all of her earnings from her college days in Portland as well as her husband's savings for their share of Grand Garden.

"I was in restaurants quite a bit waiting tables in college," she said.

Chin's husband remains in Portland, Ore., where he works as a technician for Intel Computers, so Chin's life is emulating her uncle's of living apart from loved ones.

"I have to give up something for something," she said.

Like family

The Li family also has benefited from the cross-cultural friendship with Phil and Janet Ganson.

When he first came to Billings in the 1990 with almost no knowledge of English, Li allowed himself one hobby: golf. While Li was chasing the little white ball one day, a golf pro hooked him up with Phil Ganson, who retired from working in the business department at Rocky Mountain College and the Homestead Business Park.

"The pro put them together knowing Phil's ability to work through the language barrier somehow," said his wife, Janet Ganson.

During those early golf games, she said that Li would tell her husband, "You're on the freeway now" instead of the fairway.

After the Li children came to Billings as teenagers, Janet Ganson, a retired schoolteacher, helped them learn English. And years later, Phil Ganson gave the family some business advice on opening their restaurant. The Li children consider the Gansons adopted grandparents.

"It just was a meeting of two families from two different worlds and making a friendship," Janet Ganson said.

For Fan Fu Li, finally working for himself means independence, his daughter, the translator, said.

"It's the freedom he loves," Meizhu Li said. "He says he has more time to golf."

Actually, Li hasn't taken a day off since the restaurant opened last month. And with unemployment so low in Billings, hiring help was problematic, so the family turned, as usual, to relatives.

Li called Carmen Chin's brother, Dadin "Dean" Li, from Boston to Billings to help wait tables. And Carmen Chin's father, Ting Chin, was helping out in the kitchen last week.

Opening a restaurant also meant a different life for Feng Ying Ma, who went from being a housewife in Guangzhou to working 12-hour days in Billings. In Chinese culture, a women usually keeps her maiden name as Ma did.

After another rapid question-and-answer chat in the lyrical Cantonese dialect, Meizhu Li translated her mother's words about the Grand Garden experience so far.

"It is not really like working here. This is the family business. She likes being here," Meizhu Li said.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 657-1306.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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