Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

Shawn Vestal: One family, one restaurant, four generations

Eddie K. Eng was born more than nine decades ago in the Taishan region of China, an area that historically produced so much emigration to America that it bills itself as the “First Home of the Overseas Chinese.”

Dennis Eng, Eddie’s son, was born more than seven decades ago in San Francisco, a day after his parents landed at the end of a long ocean journey.

Raymond Eng, Dennis’s son and Eddie’s grandson, was born in Spokane in the 1980s.

For all the variations of time and place, the three Engs shared a foundational experience: Working in their father’s restaurant.

“Cook, dishwasher, janitor – you name it,” said Eddie, now 92, who started chopping and washing and cleaning in West Side Chinese restaurants when he was around 10.

His son and grandson tell a similar tale.

“I started washing dishes when I was 10,” said Raymond, 38.

Each grew up to run the family restaurant themselves, one after another. Raymond is the fourth generation to manage the Cathay Inn, one of Spokane’s oldest continually operating restaurants and among the longest-running family-owned Asian restaurants in the city.

Eddie’s father, Tom Eng, opened the Cathay Inn in 1950 as a 13-table restaurant with a few Chinese dishes on a menu dominated by American basics like hamburger, steak and fried chicken.

It grew over the subsequent 73 years into the 299-seat establishment on North Division with a huge menu of Cantonese, Szechuan and Mandarin dishes – one whose TV jingles from years past will ring a bell with long-time Spokane residents: “Come on in to the Cathay Inn.”

Spokane has been home to many Asian restaurants over the years, but very few that have survived so long. Other long-running Asian restaurants include the Suki Yaki Inn, which opened around the same time as the Cathay Inn and bills itself as the city’s oldest Japanese restaurant, and Chan’s Dragon Inn. The first Dragon Inn was built in 1946 by the grandfather of the current owner, Namva Chan, according to news accounts.

Ming Wah has roots in an earlier restaurant, Gung-Ho, that was opened at the same location on West Third Avenue in 1966. Gung-ho was opened by Paul Eng – no relation to the Cathay Inn Engs. According to his obituary in 2013, Paul Eng fled China in 1950 after being labeled a counter-revolutionary by the Chinese communist regime; he started working in a laundry in Seattle’s Chinatown, but moved to restaurant work when he came to Spokane, eventually opening his own.

‘People will come’

Restaurant work and entrepreneurship have long been key outposts of opportunity for immigrants to America who faced obstacles in other aspects of life. It was true then, and remains true today, that people coming here from other countries have found in restaurant work and restaurant ownership – in the sharing of food across cultures – a foundation for a new life in America.

Weiling Zhu, president of the Spokane Chinese Association, said food plays a vital role in Chinese culture – as it does in many others – as an element of social life, family bonds and holiday celebrations. Sharing that food in a new country helps to build connections with others, and working in food service is something that people with little or no English were able to do right away in a new country.

“No matter how big or small the city is, you can usually find good numbers of Chinese restaurants,” Zhu said.

Food becomes a bridge between cultures.

“As long as you make delicious food, people will come,” she said.

Most of Spokane’s oldest Asian restaurants were established not during the original wave of Chinese and Japanese immigration in the 1800s, but in a later era of immigration during the middle of the 20th century.

From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, Spokane had a Chinatown downtown and a Japanese district referred to as Trent Alley, populated by hundreds of immigrants who came to work on railroads and in the mines. These districts were memorialized with plaques in May – one marking the site of Trent Alley in the current Saranac building on West Main and another marking the previous Chinatown at the Fruchi building on Bernard.

Following World War II, many residents of the districts dispersed throughout town, and in the years before Expo ’74, most of Spokane’s historical structures with ties to Chinatown were razed.

‘Build it larger’

Eddie Eng’s father, Tom Eng, came to the U.S. in 1920 as a 10-year-old and lived first in the Seattle area, according to newspaper reports.

Many immigrants worked in or owned restaurants; because of restrictive immigration policies targeting the Chinese, the wives of Chinese immigrants could not accompany them to the U.S., at least until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943.

For families like the Engs, that meant a kind of dual existence: They would travel to the U.S. to work and earn money, and return home to visit family and bring back other family members.

Eddie Eng was born in China, and his father brought him to Seattle in 1940 at the age of 9. He studied in English and Chinese schools, and worked in restaurants washing dishes, doing prep work, and cleaning up. He recalls being paid $2 for a 12-hour shift.

“All by hand,” Eddie said in a recent interview, as he pantomimed chopping vegetables. “No machines.”

At age 16, his grandfather, Wah Eng, took him home to China.

“He said I was too American,” Eddie said. “He wanted me to learn Chinese culture.”

He returned to his home region, and then lived in Hong Kong, where he was wed in an arranged marriage. His wife, Cynthia, was pregnant with Dennis when they returned to the U.S. in 1952, taking an 18-day ocean voyage to San Francisco.

Dennis was born the day after they arrived, and the family then flew to Seattle and soon moved to Spokane, where Eddie’s father, Tom, had opened the first Cathay Inn two years before on a portion of the lot where it now stands. Tom Eng was suffering continually from ulcers, and 21-year-old Eddie soon took over the management of the restaurant.

“From then on I start my plan,” he said.

What was the plan?

“To build it larger. Increase it.”

‘Long hours’

The growth and longevity of the Cathay Inn owes much to Eddie Eng’s persistence and enterprise. He began adding features and expanding the restaurant from its earliest days; he worked to buy the rest of the lots on the block where the initial restaurant sat – and the current one remains.

He attributes the steady growth to hard work and keeping a close eye on finances. Beyond business acumen and effort, Eddie emphasized the importance of good relationships with others to help establish a long-running business.

“Building a business, it’s not what you know, it’s not what you have, it’s how many friendships you develop,” he said.

As the restaurant grew, Eddie and Cynthia raised a family: sons Dennis, David and Danny, and daughter Jeanne. Dennis went to college at Washington State University, where he graduated with a degree in engineering. He landed a job at Hanford after graduation, but quickly discovered he didn’t like the work.

“I took the car and brought him home, and he’s been at the restaurant ever since,” Eddie said.

He built new facilities for the restaurant twice, once in the 1970s and again in 1998. Eddie Eng also was involved in real estate, developing the Eng Addition in the West Hills, and tried opening other restaurants in the Valley and Post Falls – which did not take hold as the original did.

Many restaurants have come and gone in the years that the Cathay Inn has stayed in business. Dennis Eng attributes it to a simple factor.

“Hard work,” he said. “Long hours.”

When the Engs broke ground on the current restaurant, they were featured in a Spokesman-Review story that quoted Raymond Eng – then 12 – on the subject of his future plans: “Raymond Eng dreams of being a doctor but said he plans to own the restaurant, too.”

Reading it now, he laughs. “I wanted to be a brain surgeon,” he said.

These days, Dennis is semiretired and Raymond is the fourth in a line of Engs to operate the restaurant. He has two young children.

Will one of them be the fifth generation at the helm of the Cathay Inn?

“If they’re interested,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”