Harry Chan is the third generation owner of Tai Tung, a Chinese American restaurant that has been in Seattle’s CID neighborhood for 88 years. Tai Tung is the oldest Chinese restaurant in Seattle, serving up Chinese American staples like Chop Suey and Egg Foo Young, alongside crispy chicken wings and oyster sauce beef, commemorated as Bruce Lee’s favorite dish. The International Examiner sat down with Chan in the coveted corner of the restaurant where the iconic film legend loved to sit.
IE: We’re excited to celebrate Tai Tung with this award, but I heard you will be working!
HC: Yes, I will be working. I work every day! Except when I go on vacation. I gotta work, I gotta keep it going. I’ve been here since 1968 and I grew up here. I don’t have a hobby… you know, the only hobby I have right now is to travel. I just came back from Turkey with a few of my friends.
IE: When I first stepped inside Tai Tung, the first thing I noticed were the retro-diner-like details: the neon sign, the swinging doors, the red bar-stools, and the lunch countertop. It feels like Tai Tung is this home away from home for so many people due to these nostalgic, characteristic details. Is there a story behind these iconic lements?
HC: The swinging door, even the front door, has been here from the beginning of Tai Tung, as well as the counter, the original counter is even longer. We just refurnished the red bar stools so they look a little new. But the countertop is very popular. Chinatown used to have a lot of single people who live here. A lot of Filipinos go to Alaska for fishing, so they hang around Chinatown, and they like to sit at the counter. Even the Chinese cooks, when they go to work, they come in to have a cup of coffee with a friend. The counter was busy all day before. Now, we have a lot of older customers. They come back, bring their children or grandchildren and show them around.
IE: What was your start with Tai Tung like?
HC: I just had to work. I had to pay for my tuition, so I worked. I majored in building construction. I haven’t been able to use it because right after I graduated, I worked at the restaurant. I worked at the restaurant all the time. But one thing: My son and my grandson, they both graduated from the same program of building construction. Three generations! And today, I’m the oldest one in the restaurant right now, but when I started, I was the youngest.
IE: Who helps run this place with you?
HC: My daughter, she helps me out. Well, my children help out, sometimesmy grandchildren help out, my niece, and my nephew. Sometimes I need help, they’ll help. They have their own family, they all have their own jobs. The people in the back have been here for a long time — we’re like a family. Some of them have been here for 40 years, 30 years minimum. We have about 10 chefs.
IE: What does Tai Tung mean?
HC: Tai Tung in Cantonese is daai tung faan dim. Faan dim is restaurant, daai means big, tung means together. So daii tung means get together. Like the world, we are the same. Tai Tung means we’re all together.
IE: On the neon sign that was installed in 2018, after being briefly signless for 60 years, the words “Chop Suey” are bigger than the restaurant name. What is the importance of Chop Suey to Tai Tung?
HC: Chop Suey is a dish created by the new immigrants of a long long time ago. Before you don’t have so many ingredients. Bok Choy. Celery. Onion. Bean Sprouts. Basically at that time, that’s all they had. So Chop Suey is a mix of everything. We’re all eating chop suey, but we just don’t know it. If you cook everything together with vegetables — that’s chop suey. Tsap seui means everything mixed together.
IE: My family is from Hong Kong and they don’t know what Chop Suey is. Chop Suey is a uniquely Chinese American dish, isn’t it?
HC: I would like people to know what Chop Suey is because that sign is not the original one. The old one is almost identical. So the old American-born, they know about Chop Suey. This way — it kind of reminds them. They remember. Otherwise, you hardly see any restaurants that have Chop Suey.
IE: What does the Chinatown International District mean to you?
HC: Well, I have been here 55 years. I’m here almost every day. So what does it feel… it’s part of my home. I spend more time in Chinatown than I spend at home. Oh, I love the neighborhood. I know a lot of people here. At the same time, I think we have a lot of different communities.
IE: Tai Tung is celebrating its 88th birthday this year. What does the future look like for the restaurant?
HC: Well, we’ll try to see the big 90. We’ll be 89 next year. I’ll try to keep the place open. A lot of people ask me, “What about after you?” It’s hard for me to answer the question. I don’t want to force my children to take over, or my nephew to take over, you know. So I’ll just wait and see.
I talked to my doctor and asked: Do you think I can work another five years?” He said, “Yeah, I don’t think you have any problem.” Haha. I don’t have too many hobbies. If we’re able to do it, I think it’s nice to keep working. When I come down here, I’m moving around a lot. If not, I’d have to go to the gym to work out. And at the same time, I can talk with the customers. This way, it’s better for me than sitting at home.
This year’s Community Voice Awards benefit dinner will be at the Joyale Seafood Restaurant Oct. 26, 2023. Tickets, both in-person and virtual, can be purchased online: https://cva.maxgiving.bid/about-us