Surrounded by his family and decades of friends, Eddie Eng is in his element during a recent groundbreaking ceremony for the new Cathay Inn on Division Street.
He moves through the crowd, laughing and chatting, greeting people as they arrive.
After nearly a half-century in business in Spokane, Eng has never veered from his belief that friends and family provide the foundation for everything else in life.
He brings that belief to work and it’s evident at the groundbreaking.
He considers his employees his family; his customers his friends.
Almost as proof, restaurant staff he hired in the 1950s and 1960s joined him in celebrating his birthday last month.
“If I needed one of them to come in to help, they would be here in a minute,” says Eng.
The reverse is true, too, says Marie Carlson, who went to work at Cathay Inn in 1960 and stayed 20 years.
“If I called him right now and said ‘Ed I need you,’ he and Cynthia would be at my front door right away,” she says of Eng and his wife.
But Eng is also a savvy businessman, growing and changing with the times, anticipating his customers’ wishes.
His natural high energy overflows as he describes plans for his new building, which will be twice as big as the Chinese restaurant he now owns.
It took Eng 30 years to collect the nine parcels he needed to expand. Through a mix of coincidence, connections and contacts, Eng was able to buy the final parcels last year.
He broke ground on the new restaurant last week. He said it will be open by the end of summer.
The current restaurant, built in 1970, will be torn down when the new one is ready to open. The lounge and three dining rooms will be bigger; parking space will double.
Eng expects to close only briefly during the transition.
The Cathay Inn is the legacy his father left him, and the legacy he is passing down to his son and grandson.
For the Eng children, the Chinese restaurant is a second home.
“When you grow up here, you automatically learn the business,” says Eng.
During the recent ceremony, 12-year-old Raymond Eng, a fourth-generation Eng in Spokane, was describing to a friend the efficient floor plan of the new restaurant.
Raymond Eng dreams of becoming a doctor, but said he plans to own the restaurant, too.
If he has half the energy of his grandfather, managing both shouldn’t be a problem.
At 67, Eng walks with quick steps filled with purpose. His eyes sparkle, his smile is quick, and he wouldn’t think of missing a day at the restaurant.
His father, Tom Eng, was 89 when he died last year. He came to the restaurant every day, sipping coffee, visiting friends and keeping watch over the Cathay Inn.
“He was the boss the whole time,” says his son.
Tom Eng came to the United States in 1921 and later bought the restaurant in 1950. It was a modest wooden building with a towering Statue of Liberty on the roof.
Cathay Inn was the first Chinese Restaurant on Division and one of a half-dozen restaurants on the whole street.
“This was out in the country,” said Eng. “Now there is a restaurant on every corner.”
Eng became involved in the restaurant in 1952, when he returned to the United States after completing his education in China. He also found a wife there. It was an arranged marriage, a concept Eng strongly supports.
“When you are young, you do not have an independent mind yet. You marry, and you grow together, you become of the same mind,” he explains.
His son Dennis was born the day after he and his wife arrived in the United States. Dennis Eng now runs the restaurant.
“I try to stay out of the way,” says Eddie Eng.
Through the years, Eng has filled the role of father figure, friend and sometimes preacher to his employees. He says he’s helped save marriages and rescue relationships by sharing his tradition-rooted views.
Carlson, a former waitress and manager, credits Eng with the professional, family atmosphere at the restaurant.
“There’s never profanity in the kitchen. It’s always very respectful, no one would dare do otherwise,” she said.
Carlson’s children worked at the restaurant, and now some of her grandchildren work there, too, busing tables during summer vacations.
Manager Coral Campbell has worked at the restaurant for 23 years.
“Eddie is a great boss, ” she says without hesitation. “He listens, and tries to hear our views. He is always willing to change.”
Change comes regularly at the Cathay Inn. The restaurant has been expanded or remodeled every 7 to 10 years, growing from the cozy diner to a multi-roomed restaurant.
In the 1970s, Eng added a basement cabaret, even learning to play drums so he could fill in for the drummer on breaks.
“There was always something going on here, the parking lot was always full,” remembers Eng. He had 78 employees, about twice as many as now.
Eng’s circle extends to China, Hong Kong, Thailand and other Asian countries, where he has developed and maintained friendships with high-ranking officials.
Eng dabbled in development near his home on Five Mile Prairie in 1991 with a 20-lot development known as Eng Heights.
“I’m not a developer,” he says shaking his head.
His restaurant, family and friends are his passion.
The words he lives by are the same he passes down to his children:
“Be honest, be faithful, and the rest will take care of itself,” he says.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (1 Color)