Very Veggie Partners: Upholding A Legacy of Care at Uncle Tong’s Restaurant

June 15, 2021
The ever-tidy storefront of Uncle Tong’s offers a welcoming atmosphere. Photo/courtesy of Uncle Tong’s

Written by Sophie X. Song
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Diana Chang, Adriana DiBenedetto

Story shared by Uncle Tong’s Chinese Restaurant, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “If possible, I would like to open a restaurant that specializes in vegetarian food, just like my grandfather did.”

Amidst the many office buildings located in Houston, Texas, Uncle Tong’s charming Hunan Chinese restaurant awaits. Nestled on the first floor, its spacious windows, bright brick front, and neat signage offer a welcoming atmosphere. Nearby, more fast-food restaurants sell salads, sandwiches, and other assorted goods.

From Monday to Friday, the street sees the ebb and flow of office workers hurrying to and fro. During their lunch break, many appreciate the convenience of walking out of their office to dine at any restaurant of their choosing in the area, as do those who’ve just finished working overtime and crave a relaxing meal. And Uncle Tong’s has indeed become a favorite.

“At the beginning, I chose this shop because the flow of customers is stable, and I can spend time with my family and children on weekends,” said Jimmy, the owner of Uncle Tong’s.

Jimmy, the owner of Uncle Tong’s, is also a Tzu Chi volunteer and has participated in events like food distributions. Photo/courtesy of Penny Liu

The Pandemic Brings Change

Jimmy speaks with a calm, soothing tone and a wise and mindful heart. His work and living arrangements seem to be equally organized. However, in the first half of 2020, the suddenness of the COVID-19 pandemic had offset the balance that Jimmy had so carefully established. Many at the neighboring offices began working remotely, and the sidewalks around the once-bustling office area all but emptied in an instant. As a result, business at Uncle Tong’s plummeted. During that time, Jimmy considered many ways to stay afloat, such as running long distances to deliver food, but even so, the situation remained precarious. In the past, Air China employees had also been regular guests at Uncle Tong’s. People flying from China to Houston had long been accustomed to either coming to Uncle Tong’s for dinner or having meals delivered to the hotel where they stayed. During the pandemic, these flights were canceled, and a large portion of Uncle Tong’s traffic came to an abrupt halt.

Fortunately, the U.S. government provided some financial subsidies for small businesses like Uncle Tong’s, and after the initial trepidation, Jimmy was able to reclaim his inner peace. He used the extra time to begin examining his life, and sought ways to make a difference during the pandemic.

“Our business relies on fate. We have to work hard, but if things like this happen, it’s useless for me to be anxious,” Jimmy said.

Jimmy started volunteering in October of 2020 and donned the signature gray shirt of a Tzu Chi volunteer in May of 2021. Photo/courtesy of Penny Liu

Jimmy came into contact with Tzu Chi by chance through a volunteer who previously worked alongside him at the restaurant, and learned about the charity projects Tzu Chi organized after the pandemic. This, Jimmy sensed, was precisely the change he’d been searching for. In October of 2020, Jimmy was actively involved in Tzu Chi’s food distribution activities in the Houston area, devoting much of the time freed up by business stagnation toward helping others. He soon became more and more familiar with fellow Tzu Chi volunteers, and even outside of relief events, many reached out with support for his business.

“Everyone will ask, is your business better?” Jimmy said with a smile, touched by the care. “I said, better, better, thank you!”

Uncle Tong’s classic vegetable dish: roasted eggplant. Photo/courtesy of Uncle Tong’s

As of 2021, the pandemic in the United States has been gradually brought under control, and patrons of Uncle Tong’s slowly began to revisit the restaurant. One of his most frequent visitors happens to be a vegetarian. Uncle Tong’s vegetarian dishes—like his roasted eggplant, tofu, and stir-fried seasonal vegetables—have always been loved by guests. Jimmy said that in order to help support his business during these difficult times, this caring customer frequents Uncle Tong’s for dinner two or three nights per week with colleagues in tow, which was an act that deeply moved Jimmy.

A Grandfather’s Guidance

With time and progress, Jimmy soon became busier, but the need to hire additional help was still an obstacle, so Jimmy and his wife worked hard to maintain the restaurant as a team. Even with his responsibilities to the restaurant, however, Jimmy said with confidence that he would strive to uphold Tzu Chi’s philosophy of great love.

Having been a volunteer for more than half a year at the time and participating in many charitable activities, Jimmy still wished to do more for his community, however. “I have done too little,” he expressed, “and it is far from enough.”

Jimmy grew up in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China. His grandfather ran a well-known vegetarian restaurant back then and was also a respected local entrepreneur. At that time in Fuzhou, if a temple or a large family held a vegetarian banquet, there would be no doubt that the Wong family would be invited to cater. These banquets ranged from exquisite family festivities to meals for hundreds. The chefs would start crafting menus and preparing ingredients far in advance. On the day of, tables, chairs, and benches had to be moved from the warehouse to the banquet site, not to mention all the professional tools for cooking. The banquets remained lively for days.

Uncle Tong’s classic roasted tofu. Photo/courtesy of Uncle Tong’s

Jimmy had never experienced such events for himself, but he often heard his mother reminisce about them. Although her own mother had come from a wealthy household, her grandfather infused within her a need to help other people. She also made time to tidy up the community with her brothers to uphold the health of the environment. The Wong family had been well-known for doing business, but was even more commonly remembered for their kindness. Jimmy’s mother said that when she later went to Shanghai to study, others immediately recognized her when she mentioned her family. These lessons steeped in compassion from Jimmy’s grandfather profoundly affected Jimmy’s mother, who then carried them forward for Jimmy.

“Listening to my mother talk about my grandfather’s personality, I felt that he probably also practiced Buddhism,” Jimmy mused.

Although he had not been able to witness this vegetarian restaurant in action, Jimmy felt guided by his grandfather’s legacy. And this is indeed something he keeps close to his heart as he operates his own business. After being introduced to the Very Veggie Movement, Jimmy felt it was only natural that he participate, and help make vegetarian alternatives more widely accessible through his discount for those who join the movement.

When reflecting upon his future plans, Jimmy also revealed a long-held hope of his:

If possible, I would like to open a restaurant that specializes in vegetarian food, just like my grandfather did.

Uncle Tong’s Chinese Restaurant
12144 Greenspoint Dr, Houston, TX 77060

Uncle Tong’s provides discounts for customers who join the Very Veggie Movement. Photo/courtesy of Tzu Chi USA

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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