The odds that you’ve eaten one of the Tsue Chong Company’s products are the same as the odds of you getting a fortune cookie at the end of your meal at a Chinese restaurant.
The Chinatown International District has changed a lot over the years but the Tsue Chong Company remains a staple of the community.
Gar Hip Louie came to Seattle in the late 1800s in search of a better life. It was around this time that the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place, making Chinese immigration to the states very difficult. In 1886, about 1,500 citizens banded together to chase their Chinese neighbors out of Seattle. It left the city devoid of a strong Chinese community for a while.
Fast forward more than a century and the Tsue Chong Company has just celebrated 100 years of business. The company is now run by Tim Louie, the great grandson of Gar Hip Louie.
Tim Louie has grown older with the company. Louie said that it’s funny that he is now hiring employees younger than him, whereas when he started out everyone was older.
“This was my daycare,” Louie says. “When I was growing up I started working part time, in high school I was doing deliveries for my dad.”
Louie devoted himself full time in 1984 after studying business and graduating from the University of Washington.
Tsue Chong Company products are bought by everyone from small mom and pop shops in the International District to large distributors who distribute to the greater Pacific Northwest. Along the way, competitors have popped up, but Tsue Chong has endured.
Louie credits much of the success of the company to his predecessors who were able to establish such a solid business that had the legs to last so long.
“I don’t take them for granted, I really appreciate their hard work,” Louie said.
The Tsue Chong Company employs 36 people; 30 working production, five customer service, and one maintenance man. The majority of them emigrated from Toishan, the same Chinese province that the Louie family is from and most of them got their jobs through word of mouth, according to Louie.
Louie recalls one particular employee—who just retired after 50 years with the company—who started when Louie was just four years old.
“This was his life; this was his family. He said, ‘Don’t let me retire, let me do something. Let me come down here to stay active.’ That’s exceptional isn’t it?” Louie said.
This story of that particular employee is not so uncommon in the company. Louie says many of the employees start at the company when they’re young and stay for many years.
Two of these employees are Yee Ng—who has been working at the company since 1985 when she came to the U.S. from Toishan—and Mei Weng, who has been with the company for 22 years. Together they oversee the fresh noodles through the steaming process.
Ng explains that it’s hard work, but she enjoys it because it’s active and allows her to be on her feet.
The Tsue Chong Company relies on their reputation they’ve built over the years providing products to what Louie estimates to be nearly all of the International District restaurants.
“We’re very blessed. I don’t have a sales or marketing team. It’s all word by mouth. The history and legacy, people are just so loyal that by word of mouth they come to us asking for business,” Louie said.
Harry Chan, the owner of Tai Tung, is one of the loyal customers of the Tsue Chong Company’s products.
“It’s consistent and the customers are happy about it,” Chan says.
The two families and businesses go way back. Tai Tung opened in 1935 and is one of the older restaurants that still exists from its era. Louie fondly refers to Harry Chan as “Uncle Harry.”
Louie points out that their family was lucky in that having a business in manufacturing allowed them to have 9-to-5 jobs. For those who have worked in the industry, restaurant hours are much harder and unforgiving.
Ron Chew, the former director of the Wing Luke Museum adds that many families that started restaurants were able to see future generations become more upwardly mobile and take higher skilled jobs thus, leading to the closure of many restaurants.
One of the company’s best-selling products, according to Louie, wasn’t added to their repertoire until the ’50s. The recipe that they use today has not changed since its inception. Louie’s grandmother Eng Shee Louie was the driving force behind the fortune cookies, noticing their rising popularity and then developing the recipe.
Chew recalls working as a busboy at the popular Hong Kong restaurant on Maynard Avenue in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“We would eat piles of fortune cookies in the back,” Chew reminisces. His father was the head waiter at the restaurant which has since gone out of business.
One of the favorite items at the company’s retail store are the huge bags of the “unfortunate cookies,” fortune cookies that did not come out to standard that are available to the public.
Recent recognition for their 100th anniversary has made Louie reflect on what the community means to him and the company. Louie described the small chop suey restaurants started by families that provided his own great grandfather a business opportunity and how thankful he is for that.
“This is our neighborhood and we want to help. I just call it my community family and you’re always there to help family.”