For Lee, 24 years and still cookingWORTHINGTON – David Lee never set out to pursue a career as a cook in a Chinese restaurant, much less own one.
By: Ryan McGaughey, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON – David Lee never set out to pursue a career as a cook in a Chinese restaurant, much less own one.
Life doesn’t always go as planned, though, and Lee is proof positive. The native of China and naturalized U.S. citizen has operated Worthington’s Panda House restaurant since 1988.
Lee has come a long way in his journey from the Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou to the southwest Minnesota prairie.
“Guangzhou is in the south part of China. It’s close to Hong Kong, about 100 miles,” Lee said Monday afternoon. “I think now about 10 million people live there.”
Lee grew up in Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city, and then moved to Hong King in 1978.
“In Hong Kong, I go to college two years. Then, in 1981, I go to the United States,” Lee recalled. “I went because my father was here, my mother was here, my brother was here — my whole family was here. They were in Sacramento, Calif.”
Lee began working for his brother at a Chinese restaurant he was operating in Sacramento. The job wasn’t necessarily what he desired, but it was the most viable option, he said.
“I never thought I would cook,” Lee said, smiling. “I go to college two years in Hong Kong for indoor design … to design office, house, something like that. But I never used that because my English is not good.”
Since plentiful language skills weren’t necessary in his brother’s kitchen, he worked in that job for about six or seven months before leaving for employment with an old acquaintance from Guangzhou.
“I worked for my friend’s restaurant in Seattle for one or two years,” Lee said. “Then, I moved to Montana and got a job there. I needed more money; that’s why I had to move out of a big city to a smaller city.”
That “smaller” city was Great Falls, Mont., which now has a population of slightly more than 58,000 people. There, Lee worked for yet another Chinese restaurant until he began getting an urge to go into business for himself.
“I didn’t want to work for somebody; I wanted to own a business,” Lee said. “I always had a partner.
“After a few years, in 1988, I came to Worthington. I drove around a few states for a couple of months, and then I bought a business. This had been a Chinese restaurant. It had closed down and was empty.”
That restaurant re-opened under Lee’s ownership as Panda House, and the business continues to thrive 24 years later. He has now been in the United States for 31 years and, though he does return to China every four or five years, there was one particularly important trip made back in 1997.
“I was first married in 1984, then my wife come to the U.S. in 1986, and she also come to Worthington,” Lee remembered. “She stayed up until 1997, and then she passed away. In 1997, I went back to China and married again.”
Lee had one child with his first wife and another with his second, Mabel. He said he taught his wives how to cook — just as he had to be taught when he came to the U.S. and first began working in a Chinese restaurant. Today, he and Mabel do all the cooking at Panda House.
The couple regularly observes Chinese New Year, said Lee, adding that Chinese friends from America usually visit once a year for a big celebration. There are occasional trips back to Guangzhou, which is also Mabel’s hometown; a brother of hers still resides there.
Lee acknowledged that Worthington has changed over the years, but he continues to enjoy living in the community.
“I like a small town, it’s quiet, and the people are really nice,” said Lee, noting that he also doesn’t miss frequent driving on highways to get to work or to go shopping.
Lee doesn’t plan on going anywhere soon, either. Panda House, which last got a remodeling in “about 1996,” will get more refurbishing in the next year or so, with a wall to be knocked down in order to expand into now-vacant space next door.
That expansion will be just the latest chapter of Lee’s American story. He became a citizen in the mid-1980s, he said, and likes the rewards that life in this country can offer.
“I like that if you work hard, then you get your dreams true,” he said.
Daily Globe Managing Editor Ryan McGaughey may be reached at