Tong’s Trains: The Surprising Backstory of a WTTW Favorite Lunch Spot
For many years, one of our WTTW regular lunch spots has been a small Chinese restaurant called Hunan Wok. But soon, they say, they will be closing.
Another neighbor of ours, Northeastern Illinois University, is expanding and has acquired that stretch of Bryn Mawr Avenue.
It’s been a controversial issue in our neighborhood. But this story is not about the controversy. It’s about the building that houses Hunan Wok and the story it has to tell.
Hunan Wok has been serving Chinese food with no MSG for years. But it isn’t the only Chinese restaurant that’s been at this address on Bryn Mawr Avenue in Chicago’s Hollywood Park neighborhood.
First there was Tong‘s Tea Garden, which opened in 1954. The Tong family built the building, ran the restaurant and lived upstairs. But now, after more than 60 years, siblings Bill and Dolly Tong are moving their elderly mother out of the apartment.
“This is where we grew up. We operated the restaurant for 30 years,” Bill Tong said.
“For us it was the normal way of life,” said Dolly Tong. “We would live our lives, go to school, do our homework, but in between we‘re serving customers, we‘re packing takeout orders, we‘re answering phone calls for takeout orders, I mean it was just woven into our lives.”
It all started in 1927 when Dolly and Bill‘s grandfather, Tan Sum Tong, came to the U.S. to support his family back home. He thought he would stay for just a few years.
But after working in several restaurants he served in World War II, which got him U.S. citizenship at a time of civil war in China.
After the war, his family says, he lived in temporary GI housing right down the street.
With his wife and son, he bought a little carryout place nearby. Business was good. The family now lived in Chinatown.
“My grandpa said, ‘We need our own place so we‘re not paying rent. We need a place where we can live and not commute,’” said Bill Tong.
The commute from Chinatown to Bryn Mawr Avenue 363 days a year was a grind, but it could be tough for a Chinese family to rent outside of Chinatown.
“When they built the place, they decided to build the apartment here. Nobody could evict them because they owned the property,” Bill Tong said.
All in all, life in the Hollywood Park neighborhood was good. Dolly Tong describes it as “almost like a little small town feel.”
But living outside of Chinatown had its drawbacks, especially if your first language was Chinese.
“The kids, some of them were bullies and they saw that I looked different and they made fun of me,” Bill Tong recalls. “My vocabulary was limited, but you know, eventually I got to be friends with them.”
As a kid, Bill Tong developed a passion, down in the basement, that he was eager to show off.
It turns out that all these years that we‘ve been buying lunch at Hunan Wok upstairs, there has been this remarkable train set hiding in the basement.
“My dad always loved trains,” Bill Tong said.
Bill and his dad first set it up when he was in seventh grade. By high school it had grown to the size and complexity it is today, loaded with all the detailed touches beloved by any model train buff.
By his mid-20s Bill Tong had lost interest, and the set mostly collected dust for 30 years. But he knew he needed to revive it one last time.
“This was never made to be moved,” he said.
He‘s added some new trains, including one for a certain North Side baseball team.
I asked him how he feels about shutting this down after all these years.
“It‘s going to be very emotional,” he said. “It‘s something I grew up with. It‘s something my dad built.
“I may not be able to do it all at once.”
Dolly and Bill Tong say they’ll be out of the apartment by the end of the year.
Downstairs, the people who own Hunan Wok say they’re not sure how much longer they’ll stay in business, but in the meantime, I recommend the chicken with garlic sauce.
Nov. 29: More than half of Chicago’s high-risk food establishments, which mainly include restaurants, were not inspected as frequently as required by city law in 2015, according to a report released Tuesday.
Nov. 17: You‘re probably aware that Chicago has high schools specializing in math and science as well as the arts. And there are military academies. But did you know that Chicago‘s big urban school system has an agricultural high school?
Aug. 13, 2014: Northeastern Illinois University has lofty expansion plans that have some of its neighbors up in arms. That‘s because a business area may be taken over through eminent domain. We have the story.