Henry Chan Lam
US Army 1943
My grandfather was born in 1919. Paying a guide all the money they had, his mother, himself, and two others traveled over the mountains in mainland China under the cover of darkness to flee from the Japanese occupation. At one point, they had no more money and had to talk their way to Hong Kong and stowaway to get to the United States. He came to the US just 6 months before the arrival of the Japanese in Hong Kong.
In 1941, he took a job doing kitchen chores for 16.5 hours a day, 6.5 days a week, room and board included, for $50/month. He saved every penny. He enrolled in three separate English language courses aimed at the foreign-born so that he could become a waiter.
In June 1943 he was drafted into the US Army and served in a variety of capacities, including a medic. After his discharge from the army, his uncle offered him a manager job at a restaurant. My grandfather refused, because he believed he still had much to learn behind the scenes.
In 1946, he purchased his first restaurant (after convincing a bank to lend $10,000 to a relatively inexperienced 26-year old). From there, his business flourished as he kept a keen eye on costs and making sure that his customers were happy. His restaurants were the first to have color menus and pictures of the food. And in the 50s, restaurants were not typically air-conditioned, but his restaurants were. He had a goal to operate 12 restaurants. He got to 7 and stopped. My grandfather’s restaurants were fine-dining Chinese and American cuisine. The New York Tea Garden, his most successful restaurant, served 1,800-2000 meals a day and on a good Saturday, by 4:00 they typically had 400 reservations and had to stop taking more. He developed a clientele of regulars, about 3,000 or so with regular charge accounts. Family dishes were priced around $8.00 with deluxe dinners at $13.75 (remember this is the 50’s and 60’s!) The seating capacity was 360 upstairs and about 150 downstairs.
My grandfather retired at 50 and sold all his restaurants. From there, the restaurants were never the same. The food may have been good, but the charismatic man with a strong accent and loud laugh and zest for life was no longer there every day. His regulars came for him; to see his joy for the business, life, and food. There was no division, it was his life. After retiring, my grandfather kept busy by participating extensively in community projects, groups, clubs, and charities. He was a local celebrity of sorts, where everyone knew his name. He gave to everyone with no expectation of anything to be given in return. His office in his home has literally stacks of newspaper articles about him, his restaurants, his contributions to the community. His life was an amazing one where he took nothing for granted and made a comfortable life out of hard work and dedication.
Sadly, my grandfather passed on May 2, 2015. Nearly 50 years out of the public eye, his funeral procession to the burial site crossed 3-4 towns and at each corner a police officer was placed. This was a 30 minute or so drive from the funeral home to the burial site. My mother asked the funeral home if this was normal and was told that once the police chief heard that my grandfather passed, he arranged for all unoccupied units to stand guard at the intersections. We learned that my grandfather started and financially supported a group that took care of fallen policemen/women and firefighters that died in the line of duty. And up until the day he passed, he continued to financially support this group.
My grandfather lived the American Dream. He came here with nothing, literally with no money to his name, fleeing the Japanese occupation – worked long hours and days from the bottom up and built his own mini empire of fine dining Chinese restaurants, where he could very comfortably retire at 50. Because he worked hard, sacrificed, and had faith, I’m able to be here today. I am here today because he played the cards he was dealt and never pitied himself, If I can be half as amazing as my grandfather, I would consider myself extremely blessed.
His legacy lives on in me and by extension, my son and my family. I am so fortunate he was able to meet my son a week before he passed. I deeply believe he was waiting for that moment before he decided to leave this lifetime. It is an understatement to say he was an amazing man. He lived the American Dream and loved this country for all the opportunities it gave him. Rest in peace, Grandpa. We love you.
Granddaughter, Christen Ng