Dumplings on a Seder Plate: The Closing of Green Village Restaurant

Wendy Lu at Green Village

Wendy Lu, on the final night at Green Village in Seattle’s International District.

“You’ll tell them, right?” Wendy asked toward the end of the evening. She motioned toward the outside world, as if to remind us that there were still other people out there. We were the only guests in the tiny Chinese restaurant tonight. She looked out the window at another customer pulling at the locked door. “I don’t have the heart.” We nodded, reassuringly; we’d tell the world—the Internet—that Green Village was no more. Let people read what Wendy wouldn’t or couldn’t say to their face, what she shared with us tonight inside the restaurant: Green Village, the restaurant that had been her life for decades, was closing so that she could live her life.

The theme of the night was journeys, traveling to freedom, from the dark to the light. It was scheduled by a Jewish young adult group, an alternative way to think about the themes of the upcoming Passover holiday. The meal started out light-hearted: comparing Judaism and Chinese culture. Two lunar calendars, we learned as we dug into piles of fried rice, each with a double month this year. Wendy ran through the Chinese holidays and how they are celebrated. “We give red envelopes with money, do you have that?” Over sweet-and-sour chicken, someone explained the concept of Chanukah gelt

Wendy shook her head at first, when encouraged to tell her story. The story we had originally, ostensibly, come to hear. “What should I tell about?” Josh, who’d arranged the dinner, nervously pulled up the blogpost that had inspired him to ask her to speak about her journey, to tell the story of coming out of her desert. “What’s it about? Why don’t you just read it instead of me telling it? I don’t know it. I don’t do technology.” She glanced at the phone, then paused and pointed to a photo. “That’s my dad. He passed a year ago. That’s why I don’t want to tell my story.” Her strength sapped momentarily. Sad as it was, she was still sugar-coating it. The table was still strangers. We were still gawkers, onlookers at this point. So she gave us something to gawk at.

“My father painted these,” she pointed to the framed Chinese art around the room. Looking up, I realize that while from eye-level down, the room is the namesake shade—green—topped with a rather hideous yellow, up above there is beauty. Calligraphy, also by Wendy’s father, adorns posters and signs. The menu is framed by his artist’s brushstroke. Wendy wouldn’t tell us the story of her journey, she said. She couldn’t participate in our stories of freedom. But here it was, slipping out, piece by piece, like wontons through inexpertly held chopsticks. “Both my parents were deaf mutes,” she explained. Her father’s art was his expression. The restaurant, though, was his family’s means.

When we first walked in, Wendy asked if we’d been in before. I had, but it was a while ago, before she had closed for a bit. “I’m closing again,” she said, matter-of-factly, as if restaurants that had been open, in some form or another, since 1979, suddenly closed every day. Wendy and her family—her parents and their six children—came to the US when Wendy was 18, settling in Seattle because the weather reminded her mother of Keelung City, where she’d arrived in Taiwan when she’d left China. It was November, and it snowed. Wendy had never seen snow before.

But we were no longer here to hear her story of her journey. No, she wasn’t telling that story tonight. That was a story about the past, and now we were here, a time when family doesn’t matter any more. She ranted about technology, how it’s ruining everything. About the pregnant wife and her husband, who sat, each on their separate phones for an entire lunch. How she doesn’t do computers, how we’re all going to be taken over by robots. Loud music interrupted the rant and she excused herself to answer her smartphone. That, we were coming to learn, was Wendy. Emphatic, enthusiastic, enigmatic, and yet, a realist.

The rant on technology morphed—it wasn’t a rant against technology, it was against busyness. Against not taking the time to stop and care. “I closed the restaurant once before,” she said, “when my son was sick.” The color drained from her cheery cheeks as they drooped, plump meatballs sinking into soup. “He was diagnosed when he was 14. I was neglecting my son’s health because I was taking care of the restaurant.” She could barely choke out the c-word. Cancer. He died of it seven years ago. Later, she tells us of fighting to get to sleep by his side in the ICU. She doesn’t want to tell the story of her journey. But his story is her story, and that, she wants to tell. It’s why she’s leaving the restaurant. It’s why today, she’s sitting at a table with ten strangers, trying not to tell her life story.

“My customers, they were black, white, Mexican, and they came in, and I thought maybe they didn’t have manners. But my son, he taught me that I was in the business of service. He taught me to care for everyone.” If there’s one thing Green Village has a reputation for, it’s treating everyone like family. She’s carried on his legacy admirably. But her next step, the one away from the restaurant he advised her on, might be his most lasting legacy.

“All this time, I work, I work. We had four restaurants at one point,” Wendy continues. Her son’s illness might have been the biggest battle, but it was by no means the only one. One restaurant was in a decrepit building that collapsed. Another location had a fire. Finally, she landed in this spot, her final restaurant, now on its final night.

Her husband, the chef, comes out and, for a moment, her color is back. They make some jokes. He clearly has the same vivacious energy she does, when she’s “on.” He leaves and she goes back to her son, her anger sparking faster and hotter than fire under a wok.

“Why does this happen? The best people, the worst things.” She was laying down serious existential questions about life to a group that was mostly made up of twenty-somethings. “When I move on, when I am there, I want to ask: why? Why would you do this?” She points outward on the word “you,” as she’ll do later when asking us to spread her story. This time, though, the motion doesn’t mean her customers: this time it means a bigger force. We’re no longer onlookers, we’re drawn into the conversation, into the story.

At first, watching the Wendy Lu show was like watching TV. Chinese restaurant owner starts ranting at random customers as she closes down her restaurant on the final night. Was it a sitcom, I wondered? Where everyone hugs at the end and goes for ice cream? Or was it a tragedy, where we step over her ragged body, the tears still wet on the floor. We were on the show now, and we had the power to change the script. A Passover tale turned choose-your-own-adventure.

Wendy was not ranting. She was baring herself. To people she didn’t know. In a way that nobody does anymore. It seemed surreal, like a show, because nobody takes risks like this anymore. But why shouldn’t she take this risk—she’d already taken the other ones. She’d already opened all the restaurants. Now she was closing the last one. This, I told her later, was the real risk. Sharing her story was the easy part.

“I am not a success,” Wendy declares. The silence hangs. A voice from the kitchen shouts in Chinese and Wendy responds, and then says “thank you” in English before continuing. “I failed. I failed at being a mom. I failed. I am not happy.” I am doubtful that anyone in this world has ever been as honest as she is right now, with us. Her descriptions and declarations are bittersweet. They are tinged with the sour flavors of the past, but hint at the sweet of the future. A future in which, for the first time in over three decades, she doesn’t have a restaurant to take care of.

Bam Bam at Green Village

Bam Bam, Wendy’s puppy

Her husband returned with Bam Bam, their one-year-old husky puppy. The story wraps up. The story Wendy Lu wouldn’t tell, the one of her journey, the one of her path from the dark to the light, into freedom. Her Passover story. She wouldn’t tell it because she couldn’t: it was still happening around her. As we gathered our stuff, as she brought us takeout boxes and plastic bags. She prepared to close her restaurant again, her last restaurant, for the last time, but we were a part of her story for the first time. It was the final act, the last chapter. The one where she passes on her oral history. Where she adopts new children to whom to tell her story. Her own eldest gone, her son in Taiwan, her daughter in college in California. She found a new way to pass on her legacy here in Seattle. To different young people.

At one point in the night, she paused from pronouncing her failure and changed her tune for a moment. “We don’t just buy and sell food here,” hints of red crawling into her cheeks, spreading like chili oil poured into a soup. “No, here, we talk. That’s the difference.” In my head, I know tonight is unique, but I wonder what would have happened on another night, if this were another group of people. I banished the thought–this night was not like the other nights. “My customers,” she said, “they’re why I’m here. Everyday, they helped me.” I grew less certain that we were here by chance.

She apologized for not telling her story. She apologized for telling the wrong story. She apologized for telling too much. When Josh, the dinner’s organizer, told her it was great and apologized back at her for such a poor choice of night, Wendy said nothing. But in the most meaningful way. The fluent speaker of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English suddenly spoke the international language of Mastermind. For a fleeting second, just a brief moment, I saw a look on Wendy’s face that told me she knew exactly what she was doing when she locked the ten of us into her empty, closing restaurant tonight. It was not an heirloom of value, just a story and a box, eerie with the crimson glow of sweet and sour chicken, and a Post-it with her information, a promise to call. She wouldn’t let us pay. We said good-bye and left, turning back to watch Wendy Lu step into freedom through the front window of the now closed Green Village Restaurant, leaving us only with the responsibility of sharing her story.

Empty Case at Green Village

An empty case on Green Village’s final night.

Comments

  1. So sad… I used to go there a lot when Iwas still in Seattle…. :( where should I go again when I return?? Have a happy life Wendy…

  2. Man, this really bums me out. My moms been taking my brother and I here for as long as I can remember…thanks Wendy! Will miss this place.

  3. JeannieBeth says:

    I just went on Friday to have lunch and there was no sign saying they were closed or on vacation then this morning someone sent me this article. My family and friends had been going here for years. Wendy we will miss you. Enjoy your free days :-)

  4. Great story! So sad it made me tear up. Probably because I could relate to it in a weird way; watching my own parents work so hard and go through so many struggles. And now as my wife and I embark on our own food business… I have to wonder what will the end result be? I wish I knew Wendy’s story and about the Green Village a little sooner. I would have eaten there instead of going to a certain restaurant in the ID that is highly recommended but where we couldn’t even finish the food it was so bad.

  5. So sad to hear about this, Green village has been my favorite restaurant since I came to Seattle four years ago. We used to drop by every other week to pick up some house special fried rice, Wendy is so friendly and it was amazing seeing her switch between languages when different customers came in. All the best Wendy, you will be missed :)

  6. My goodness, this is sad, I’ve been here at least 3-4 times over the years…I even took the Missus here the first time I brought her to Seatlle.

  7. My wife and I had been going to Green Village since before we got married. Juicy Beef, Chicken Cold Noodle and Pig Ear, sometimes an order of fried rice too. I never tried anything else, I craved those items and could not bring myself to try other stuff as I loved what I always ordered there. Most of all I really enjoyed the greeting when we’d walk in the door, always happy to see us and the same response every single time I’d order pig ear. She was amazed that this white guy would eat pig ear. She’d turn her head a bit and say something to the effect of “you like Pig Ear?”, I loved it and it cracked me up that over 10+ years she’d always have the same response every time. The perfect seasoning and texture, it was a fantastic way to start off before diving into a big bowl of Juicy Beef and Chicken Cold Noodle. I remember when they closed for family needs, always wondered why but it was non of my business so I would never have asked. I was happy to see them re-open after a while. I’m happy that my daughters got a chance to experience Green Village, only one old enough to try the food though. I’ll miss everything about Green Village, but I’m happy to know that Wendy and her family will be able to spend more time doing what they want to do together. I wish Wendy the best, she made every visit the best one.

  8. Dear Wendy, the Green Village staffs and families,
    I wish you the best. We have known each other for a long time, since I was a teenager. Probably at least more than 20 some years. I been to all your restaurants. I must say, I never get tired of it. Every time I walked in, she makes me feel family. Always know what I like to eat. Beef/tendon noodles soup. I am honor to have know her. She sees me grown in a man. I have no doubt she will enjoy her life with her family. I am here to say to my dear Wendy and the Green Villages’ staffs, “Thank You So Much and I will miss you”

  9. Chris Hunsaker says:

    Good luck to you Wendy! I will miss Ja Ja Min, there is nothing I have ever had like it. Simply fantastic
    Thanks for the special memory

  10. Ramona Leppell says:

    Wendy after all these years……i wish you all the happiness as you begin your journey. My wish is that i will meet you again. The last time i ate my favorite juicy beef noodle and won ton in spicy sauce you sat with me and we had a nice long talk about family and you encouraged me to take care of myself… then when i returned the next week….no sign…just locked up….i thought maybe you had a family emergency….i hoped everything was ok…..especially since you had lost your oldest son. I was worried… i am so sad i could not say good-bye…and to tell you that since 1980 when i found you, joby, chen, and lou upstairs, with your mom and dad….how special your family was to me…especially when Trevor joined the olympics…and how you all encouraged Trevor to join the 84 olympics…and not worry about dropping out of UW for 18 months to train. You always shiwed you cared always asking about my kids. You are right we were not just “customers” and you were not just a restaurant “owner”. I have enjoyed our friendship and I Really miss you. I have no where to go in the ID, i will honor you that way…NOBODY can replace you! Now turn off the alarm…take off your watch….and live life….i understand why you did not tell me and have enjoyed you and your family for 33 years. I am honored and blessed to know you!! So many thanks to you and your family.

  11. Oh my, reading this has brought back so many memories. Joby and that amazing kitchen made a feast fit for a queen for me on my 35th brithday…nearly 30 years ago. I will NEVER forget it. I never got to know Wendy and Lu as well as Joby and Chin. Juicy beef noodle will be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten along with garlic spinach and cucumber salad. I never had anything there that wasn’t wonderful. When Chin brought his wife back from Taiwan the English name he gave her was mine. I have always felt so honored by that. But, the fact that the food was so good wasn’t the only thing that made the Green Village stand out. Everyone who worked there that I got to know was so warm and welcoming–it did not feel like just good service, it felt ‘from the heart’. I’m so sad and sorry to hear Wendy’s story of her son’s illness. Wendy, If you read these comments, I am thinking of you and hoping this next stage of your life will be the reward you so deserve for a lifetime of hard work and for the heartache you’ve suffered. I wish you 雙喜.

  12. Doug Bell says:

    Wow, there goes one of my favorite restaurants and easily one of my favorite restaurant owners. Best of luck to you Wendy, you will be missed by many. Thank you for all of your hard work and the many smiles and greetings that will never be matched…and always remembering my “usual”.

Speak Your Mind

*