Very Veggie Partners: Finding Lifelong Friends at Hunan Manor Restaurant

July 1, 2021
Irene Low, the owner of Hunan Manor Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo Credit: Wendy Tsai

Written by Sophie X. Song
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

Story shared by Hunan Manor Restaurant, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “I always insist on repaying any kindness I receive.”

The city of Alexandria in Virginia is often known for its boutiques, specialty shops, and stylish character. And amidst these brick storefronts awaits Hunan Manor Restaurant, owned by Choi Kin Wah and his wife, Irene Low. Irene, who is cheerful and outgoing, oversees the restaurant’s dining area, while the kitchen is her husband’s artistic domain.

“We have opposite personalities,” Irene told us with a smile. “My husband likes to hide in the kitchen creating new dishes, while I take care of the front.”

Irene radiates a positive energy that immediately makes her a favorite among customers. She spoke quickly during her interview, laughed often, and told one story after another. She has accumulated countless stories in the 28 years since she and her husband took over the restaurant, and they’ve since made the Chinese restaurant a cornerstone of the neighborhood. Most of Hunan Manor’s customers are locals, although there are also soldiers stationed in the military compounds in the area. Irene knows all of her frequent diners personally, and she considers many of them friends.

Hunan Manor’s mouth-watering Kung Pao String Beans. Photo Credit: Wendy Tsai
Hunan Manor’s Fresh Spinach Stir-Fried with Mushrooms. Photo Credit: Wendy Tsai

Irene meets some of her customers at a young age — parents who bring their newborns into the restaurant in a stroller, for example. It’s a truly endearing experience to witness these youngsters grow up as a caring neighbor might, going from soft babbling to starting school, and beyond. 

And in fact, many young people in the neighborhood may find their very first part-time job at Hunan Manor. 

Sometimes, her teenage employees will contact her and say, “Irene, I can’t come to work today. I haven’t studied for my quiz!” and Irene is always understanding. “What can I do in that case?” Irene had laughed. “Of course, I’ll let them off the hook. School comes first!”

After a few years, these young adults may go to university and Irene may not see them aside from school break. They many times greet Irene and thank her for their very first work experience. In a few more years, they might even return with children of their own.  

Twenty-eight years is indeed enough time for Irene to watch plenty of neighborhood kids grow into adults. On the other hand, she’s also seen elderly customers stop visiting suddenly, and after a while, their family might bring her news of their passing. Irene would then send a bouquet of flowers from her own garden as a personal farewell to a friend. 

Recently, one of her regular guests was diagnosed with cancer. After his chemotherapy treatment, he returned to the restaurant craving sweet and sour chicken. Irene was overjoyed to see him again, and hoped to give him a most special welcome back. However, Irene couldn’t help but want to persuade him to eat lighter vegetarian dishes at the moment, which would better support his health. 

“Standing behind the cash register at Hunan Manor, I am a witness to the changes we all experience in life,” Irene said thoughtfully. “The ups and downs, the joys and hardships.”

Journey to Tzu Chi

Irene’s meeting with Tzu Chi came at a difficult time in her life. In 2007, her younger brother, who lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was diagnosed with leukemia. His family, which included three young children and Irene’s aging parents, depended on his income. After receiving the news, the family fell into despair, and Irene put her business on hold to fly to Malaysia and “hold down the fort” for her family. She took on much of the cost of her brother’s treatment, but it was the physical demands of flying back and forth and the emotional strain that Irene found difficult to bear.   

Hunan Manor’s Pineapple Fried Rice. Photo Credit: Wendy Tsai
Vegetable Singaporean-Style Rice Noodles. Photo Credit: Wendy Tsai

Once, before Irene boarded her flight back to the U.S., a childhood friend visited her. The two used to talk about everything when they were girls, and seeing her friend eased Irene’s heartache a little amidst the ongoing circumstances. Before they parted ways, her friend asked Irene, “How long is your flight?” Irene answered that with transfers, it was going to take more than 20 hours. 

“I know you, Irene. Without anything to occupy your attention, you’ll drive yourself crazy with your wild thoughts,” her friend had said. “You might as well read this book on the plane.”

She handed Irene a Tzu Chi journal. Irene knew that her friend had gotten married in Taiwan and joined the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation there, but she’d never felt curious about what the organization did until right then, because with her busy schedule, whenever Irene read a book, she only had time to “flip through the first five pages and the last five pages and call it a day.” But this time, as she read the journal on her flight, she felt herself calmed by the content. By the time she got off the plane, she’d read the journal from cover to cover, and found herself greatly comforted.

Finding Spiritual Comfort

After returning home to Virginia, Irene did not wait long to look for all the Tzu Chi books and publications she could find. She ended up buying a big box, and after reading everything herself, she mailed them back to Kuala Lumpur for her brother and sister-in-law, hoping they would also receive some comfort during this difficult time.

“I could afford to send my family money when they needed it, but it was spiritual comfort that they really needed,” Irene said. 

Irene later contacted Tzu Chi’s Kuala Lumpur chapter and explained her brother’s condition. She told the volunteer that her family did not need financial support. She only hoped that Tzu Chi volunteers would be able to provide some spiritual comfort to her family. A few hours after her call, Irene’s brother sent a message saying that a group of Tzu Chi volunteers had already visited him at the hospital. They sat and talked with him for a long time. He said it was a great relief after his prolonged illness, and that he’d finally been able to process his feelings. For the first time since his diagnosis, he did not feel anxious and uncertain about the future.  

Irene also knew that her sister-in-law, who faced postpartum depression, was under tremendous stress during that time. She asked a Tzu Chi volunteer to talk to her sister-in-law as well. And soon, Irene’s sister-in-law told her that whenever she could not sleep at night, she’d get up to copy Buddhist scriptures as Tzu Chi volunteers suggested, and she’d feel more at peace.

Shortly after, Irene came across a new type of medicine in the U.S., and her brother found a great doctor in Kuala Lumpur. Thanks to these two events, her younger brother recovered and was soon discharged from the hospital. Today, 14 years later, Irene’s younger brother is in good health, and her sister-in-law has rekindled her own optimistic and cheerful nature. Their three children have grown up and are now thriving as adults despite the hardship their family had experienced.

General Tso’s Tofu. Photo Credit: Wendy Tsai

Giving Back

For Irene, the turning point in this difficult period came after she was introduced to Tzu Chi. She is still very grateful for the comfort and guidance Tzu Chi volunteers provided for her family. All this made her want to join Tzu Chi herself, and give back to the caring community of volunteers.

Since then, Hunan Manor has always had Tzu Chi’s English publications on display. If a customer picks up a copy, Irene always talks to them about Tzu Chi’s history of humanitarian relief efforts, and encourages them to take the copy home. Now, Hunan Manor is also participating in Very Vegan Movement, and is offering a special deal for those who join in the movement as well. 

Hunan Manor offers a special discount for individuals who join the Very Veggie Movement.

“I always insist on repaying any kindness I receive,” Irene said. As part of her vow to give back, Irene has participated in many of Tzu Chi’s charity events, and it has indeed become part of her life to help others. At the same time, her own life and work have also undergone several shifts.

“I used to wake up, have a cup of coffee and go to work immediately. I didn’t have time to think about anything else,” Irene said. “After my brother was diagnosed, I learned that there were more important things in life.” 

Work at Hunan Manor is still busy, but Irene always finds time to relax and enjoy the small joys in life these days. She loves taking walks because it makes her feel healthy and upbeat. She also enjoys taking care of the flowers and plants in her backyard and going window shopping.

Sometimes, her customers might visit and lament the unsatisfactory things in life, as any old friend would. “I’d listen to them like always,” she said, “but then I’d suggest that they sit in the backyard, have a cup of coffee, and soak up the sun,” Irene said. “Bad things will pass, I tell them. Everything will change for the better.”

Hunan Manor Restaurant 
1305 Shenandoah Rd, Alexandria, VA 22308

Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!  

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