Morris Moen interviewed Rose Louie on September 21, 2000 for the Nordic Heritage Museum Vanishing Generation Oral History Project. Rose's late husband George Louie was the founder of the restaurant, Louie's Cuisine of China in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard. She talks about her family's experience of running a Chinese restaurant in predominately Scandinavian Ballard.
This is September 21st, 2000, and I'm here at the Louie's Cuisine of China interviewing Rose. My name is Morris Moen. I suppose we should start out with why this is of interest to Ballard. Your late husband, George Louie, was the founder of the restaurant. And when was that?
1954, 1954, at 1471 Northwest 85th, 1471 Northwest 85th, or 85th Northwest.
And how long was the restaurant there before you --
Twenty-one years. And then how long have you been here at this --
Wow. And did you work at the restaurant most of that time?
Well, not at the other place because my children were still young. But I started later when they grew up and became teenagers. Then I could work there, just on weekends.
Now this, of course, is a Chinese restaurant. Were you living in the area, or did you live --
No, we did not live in the area. We lived way over in the Lake Washington Boulevard South. But we moved out here in 1965 into -- what's that district called? I can't think of the name of the district. It's up on -- it's near Greenwood. It's called Broadview. We moved out to Broadview in 1965 to be closer to work.
Yeah. How has the neighborhood changed, or it is pretty much the same?
Oh, it's changed tremendously, a lot of growth.
Yeah, yeah. A lot more customers, I assume, if you --
Well, we see the grandchildren of the people who used to come to our old place. So that's how much it's changed. And the traffic, of course. And the parking is beginning -- becoming impossible.
Yeah. You have a lot of parking here, which is helpful.
It still is not enough because people have to drive here to work, and they have to have a place to park their cars, too. And there's hardly any street parking left in Ballard.
What do you remember about Ballard from the first time that your husband opened the restaurant on 85th? What was Ballard like in those days?
Ballard, Ballard, it was really very -- it wasn't -- it isn't what it is now. Now they have fancy stores and big supermarkets. It used to be the supermarkets closed at six o'clock at night. And they didn't open on Sundays. And now they're open 24 hours every day of the week. But that's a big change in all the years that I've been out here.
How has the restaurant changed in those years? Of course, this one is so much bigger and more elegant than the one on 85th.
Well, we've had to expand. See, when we first opened, people -- the only Chinese food they are used to or knew about or would even bother to eat would be fried rice, chow mein, noodles, things like that. But gradually we expanded and included spicy dishes and more ethnic dishes. And people at first were skeptical, but they tried it and liked it. So we kept adding to it.
And, of course, all the non-Asian restaurants are picking up on the Chinese food. They don't serve chow mein as such, but they take it and they call it fusion cooking. Fusion cooking means, you know, you add other ethnic flavors into yours. So I find that so many of the non-Asian restaurants are including Chinese food in their menu, like they have barbecued pork, pot stickers, and things like that that are actually Asian or Chinese items.
I noticed even at Safeway, now --
Oh, yeah, the Chinese line is -- more people line up for Chinese food than for American food because they can cook American food, but they can't cook Chinese food. I had a customer one time come in and she said that, oh, she will never cook Chinese food again because she took a Chinese course in cooking, Chinese cooking. And she decided to have a party. And she said she shopped for three days, cooked for three days, and by the time she had her guests in, she was so exhausted she didn't enjoy her dinner. She says, "From now on I eat Chinese out."
Now, where was George Louie born? Was he born --
Born in Seattle.
But his father?
Was born in China.
Was born in China?
But he came over as a teenager. And he worked in restaurants. And he worked up to the level of bartender for one of the downtown hotels, which is called Lincoln Hotel, but it's no longer in existence. It's down there near, I don't know, around Fourth Avenue, and I think it was near the courthouse, the courthouse, now. But that was in 1904, something like that. So, I really never knew the hotel. But he worked as a bartender there, and then he gradually -- he was very interested in opera. And the Chinese opera that wanted to come to Seattle had no opera house to go to, so he built one in Chinatown.
And then came the Depression. And during the Depression there was no opera. People didn't have money to go operas. They didn't either have time or the incentive to. So he opened a Chinese restaurant. And it had music, live music and dancing. And he even had some famous people come. In those days, why, he would -- Bob Hope would come. And let's see who else, Nelson Rockefeller. They would come by limousine, you know. They had chauffeurs that brought them. But that was when Seattle didn't have much in the way of combination dining/dancing.
And from there, well, he continued working the restaurant. Then, of course, the Depression was a tough go even for the restaurant. And then he had a heart attack, and so his son, this is George, took over to run it until World War II. And when World War II came, the boys were all at the age where they were drafted. So two -- one -- two of them went in the Air Force, one went in the Navy. And one, I think he was with the Army, but he was a physician in the Army. And then his father -- after the boys were drafted, and his father, being elderly and not well, couldn't run the place, so he sold all the shares, but kept one, kept one share.
And then after the war, when the boys came back, why, the one share wasn't enough for all the boys to go into it. Well, one of the boys was a dentist, one was a pediatrician. So they already had their profession to go into, the other two boys. So George was the one that was running it before the war, so he went back into it, took over his dad's one share of it, he kept, and then the other brother went into a sporting good business.
Went into what?
Sporting good business. Sporting goods.
Oh, sporting goods, oh.
Selling motors and fishing tackle and things like that. All this in Chinatown. And gradually, the one share left wasn't enough, really, to spread around. He sold it to a group of people. And so George decided to strike out on his own and came out to Crown Hill. And from there he -- things went fairly good.
Do you know why he particularly chose around here? Did he make any --
Well, he knew people that were out here. He was a golfer. And his father went to the racetracks all the time. There was a Horse Breeders Club kitty-corner from the restaurant. And so people would tell about the place needing a Chinese restaurant. And so he came out and surveyed it and found the spot and put up the restaurant. And people said, "Oh, George, you'll never make it out here. The Scandinavians don't eat Chinese food."
But anyway, it worked out okay. And then he became acquainted with all the merchants in the neighborhood. You know, people in those days had time to know their neighbors, not like nowadays. And he joined the Ballard Rotary Club. And he also was -- become a Ballard Hospital -- what do you call those? Not regent, what do you call them?
Yeah, he was a trustee at the Ballard Hospital. He was there for nine years. He was with the Rotary until he retired. He wasn't well enough to go to meetings every week anymore. He went once in a while. And then his son took over here after -- actually, his son, which is our son, he wanted to go into the restaurant business. So he went to Washington State University, which had a hospitality program, which he enrolled in.
But his -- in the meantime, the restaurant on Crown Hill was becoming very old. It's an old building and it's dilapidated. And you can't upgrade it without improving the sewer and electrical, which it used to be the city limits were there. In the city limits you could plumb an electric -- all your electric conduits and everything were old fashioned. And if you upgrade a restaurant, you have to redo everything to suit the city, because that was before the city was annexed.
So it was too costly to put that kind of money into somebody else's building, and so he looked around for property and found this place. And this was during the gas shortage, remember? All the gas stations closed up. And when the gas stations closed up, their lots were for sale. And so George bought this plot of land. And then our son was attending WSU, taking the hospitality course, so it was just right. And so we built this place for him. And he worked here for five years, and then he was killed. And that's where I came in to work.
Say that again?
He was killed in an airplane crash.
Airplane crash, oh.
He was 31 years old. He was doing fine. Actually, the restaurant opened and got so busy, he couldn't finish WSU, so he came here to work. And in the meantime he was going to back to U of W so he wouldn't go so far as go back to Pullman to go to school and get his degree. And he didn't finish, he only had about a year left.
But this place was very busy at the time, because it was the only restaurant in Ballard that was big enough, you know, for a Chinese restaurant. It wasn't a hole-in-the-wall type of thing. So it was busy, and he just couldn't go back to school.
In the meantime he took a trip to Costa Rica, and there was a plane crash and he died. Very, very tragic. He was a very dynamic kid. Then, here we are.
Yeah. So, what did the business do then? If he died, what --
He died. We had a son that was in California, he came up to take over. He helps me. It takes more than one person to run a place this big. We're open seven days a week, lunch and dinner. And so I'm older, too, and I can't handle so much work. And so he was headed to New York to work, but his father wanted him to come help 'cause George had congestive heart failure and he couldn't work full time. He could oversee things, but not day-to-day, hands-on type of work. What else is there you want to know? And then here we are.
Do you know anything about George's father, particularly, after he -- you said that he came when he was a teenager?
Uh-huh. He worked on the boats and worked his way in to America. And I don't know how -- see, I wasn't even born then, but I don't know how he got a job at the Lincoln Hotel, but maybe as a busboy or kitchen helper, whatever. But anyway, he was probably able to pick things up. And evidently whoever owned the restaurant could see that and trained him to be a bartender. And he became an excellent bartender. He made the best martinis, they say. But I don't know that.
Well, he must have learned English very quickly?
Yes, he learned English very well. As a matter of fact, considering he never even went to grammar school. He was just intelligent enough to have picked all these things up. I guess if you, you know, apply yourself, you could learn.
When we first opened this place, I remember some customers coming in. And they walked in and they didn't know I was standing there, they were passing down the halls and said, "This in Ballard?" Because in those days there wasn't any Chinese restaurant that was upgraded, you know, so . . .
Well, this is a first-class establishment; there's no question about that.
Well, it's a lot of hard work, a lot of hard work, and very expensive to maintain, you know. It has to be -- we close one week every year and scrub the place down and paint and repair, if it's needed, or add new equipment to whatever is needed. We've been here over 20 years, and so things do fall apart when you open as many days of the week as we do.
But that one week is no vacation for you?
No, but I take my -- I don't take vacations anymore because I've been around. I've had a lot of traveling -- I've done a lot of traveling. I don't care to travel anymore because airports are so congested. Takes you all day to get there and get on the plane, takes you all day to get back, and I really don't have the desire to travel anymore. Like they say, I've been there, done that, you know. And I'm just happy to be home.
And besides, I had back surgery a few years ago, and I don't have trunk strength, you know, to walk and climb and things like that, you know. You know, when you go to a foreign country, you don't get the service you do here. You carry your own suitcase and you walk. You can't flag a taxi down where -- when you need one. And it's very strenuous traveling, actually, in another country. I've been to most of the United States, to the highlights, anyway. Like D.C., I've been to all the museums and whatnot. And so I've done enough traveling, so I don't feel that I need that type of vacation. I get plenty of vacation at home just not having to come to work.
And how was the restaurant accepted in Ballard? Obviously it was --
Right away. Right away.
Yeah, there was no problems.
When we opened it, we had a lion dance, traditional lion dance, and the people of Ballard had just never seen anything like it. And they were lined up out in the street watching the parade. And we had a three-day party for the Ballard people. I don't know what else I could tell you.
Well, it's harder and harder to run a restaurant now because there's so many. You know, there's -- I think in Ballard alone, there might be over 20 restaurants. And it used to be people would come in and couldn't get in. They'd have to wait and they would wait two hours. They were willing to. And I felt sorry for them. I don't want them to wait that long. I'd get sick waiting that long for my dinner, but they waited. Now people don't have to wait because you can go anywhere. There's a restaurant, several on every block practically. All of Seattle. Look at Bell Town, it's three restaurants in one block all down First and Second Avenue.
And you heard what happened last week, don't you? Did you see that TV where the police had a tape of the mugging, you know, they were kicking the people? Well, anyway, it scared people and they wouldn't go downtown. And the restaurants didn't have any business. The restaurants, their business went to less than half of what they used to have.
So they went -- all the merchants got together, including shops, not just restaurants, they all got together and signed their name to a petition to Mayor Schell and asked him to put more police on the force and to let people know it's safe to be downtown. And so now they're all over downtown, and they said on the news that they're not valet parkers, they're police. They're there to see that the city streets are safe
Have you ever had any problems out here?
Well, no, not that type. We've had break-ins, once or twice, but nothing serious. They broke a window in the front once to get in. And the only thing they got was, they broke the cigarette machine, took the machine and the money and the cigarettes, which didn't amount to that much because nowadays you can't have a machine out there anyway.
And then we have had panhandlers stand outside and try to get money from customers and say, "We haven't eaten." And so we had to chase them away. And one day some man came in and said he hadn't eaten and he was very hungry, so we gave him some food to take home to eat. And the next day, guess what? He brought two of his pals. So we told him, "Well, we'll give you something this time, but you are never to come back" because we don't want them outside harassing the customers. It will scare them, you know, scare people because you, you know, you just -- I mean that's about the only problem we've had, really.
But you have lots of very beautiful decorations and pictures.
A lot of it's from the family heirlooms. My mother and father and his mother and father. The family had a lot of things. And some of these things we got from China. My son went to China. Before we opened this restaurant, he and a friend and the architect went back to Hong Kong and bought some of the things that we have here. These chairs came from there.
I've been to Hong Kong. It's a very interesting place.
I enjoyed it very much.
It's not what it used to be, though. I don't care to go to Hong Kong anymore 'cause the last time I went was ten years ago, and it's so crowded. It just -- you can't enjoy it when it's that crowded. I've been there three times, and the last time I said, "Well, this is the last time, I can't take all that crowd." Because -- mostly because I'm older. You know, you just -- your needs change when you're older.
We have a number of Chinese and Japanese art objects at our house because my father worked on the passenger ships going over to China and Japan and the Philippines.
Oh, you got the real things, then.
Yeah. Well, this was in the '30s and before, and we are very pleased to have those.
You're lucky to have them. They don't make them like that anymore.
Yeah. You were born in?
In Pasco, Washington.
Pasco, uh- huh. And George was born in Seattle?
Right. Actually, George is something like third or fourth generation Chinese, because his mother was born in America in San Francisco. Her mother was born in San Francisco or in America, so that makes George something like a third generation or a fourth, I can't remember now. His grandmother and his mother was born in America. So he's third generation Chinese. I mean born in America.
And it's interesting how his father and mother got married. In China, you know about fixed marriages, you know, where they pick the wife for you or husband for you? And in those days they have these people who go around fixing you up with a bride or a groom.
Uh-huh. And they have books of pictures of women who are available, and his father picked her out of a book. And his reasoning at that time was he's short. And he said, "I don't want short kids," so he picked a tall woman. And his kids turned out tall, except for one. Isn't that funny, funny thinking?
Yeah. Well, he was thinking of the children.
Yeah. Well, in the old days, people, when they want to pick a wife, they want a family, besides, some stability for themselves. What else about Ballard did you want to know that I don't -- that I don't really know.
In the earlier times it was very important to have a wife or a husband because, if they're on the farm, they can't make a go of it unless they do.
Right. After Art had the sporting goods store, he decided he wanted to open a restaurant in Chinatown. So he opened up Art Louie's in Chinatown. And then he went uptown, down on where the Claremont Hotel is now. He had a restaurant there.
The Claremont Hotel. That's downtown on Fourth and Virginia, I think. And he ran that for a while. And then he's a sportsman, that's why he opened a sporting goods store. And his first love was fishing, and he couldn't get enough fishing. It was in his blood. So he went to Hawaii. He closed the restaurant down and moved to Hawaii to go into the fishing business. It didn't pan out because the Hawaiian people are very concerned that they feel that people move in onto their space. And so it was hard to make a living out of it when you're an outsider.
So he came back to Seattle, and of course, he'd already closed his restaurant. So at that time we were very busy, so he came here to help us out and he's stayed since. And he's been here since. He only works about four days a week, but he's a big help to me. He's George's brother.
How many children did George's father and mother have?
Five boys. All boys.
Uh-huh. All boys. And I have a few members of the family working here besides Art, who is George's brother. And my son works here, my nephew works here, and Art's ex-wife works here. And then once in a while when we need extra help, I'd have a niece or a nephew come in and pinch-hit for a day or so here and there.
Is this type of restaurant seasonal at all?
Yes, it's seasonal.
Uh-huh. Summertime, people wouldn't come here and we're not too busy because they go to the waterfront. There are so many restaurants down on the water. And in the wintertime, we're busier than they are because people don't particularly go to the water spots. So it's seasonal in that sense.
You were saying your childhood days were --
We lived in the south end and went to, you know, the schools down in the south end. So we just more or less went to Chinese school and did what the kids did. And rode the bus -- we didn't have cars, so we rode the bus.
And "encounters with the law," we don't have any encounters with the law. And then the musical experiences," well, that opera house covers that.
"Memorable characters and/or incidents?" Well, it was very exciting the first -- you know, in the beginning when we opened up the -- we had a lot of famous people come here, you know, well-known actors and musicians and so forth, and sports figures, you know, like the Seahawks. They had like Steve Largent, and, you know, those people they'd come and have this room for a private party. And even Yul Brynner, he'd come. His chauffeur would bring him after his play downtown, he'd come here, and oh, various characters.
We don't get them anymore because there's so much going on downtown that, you know, we're just -- we're not really what you call high end in that sense. It happened at one time because we were the only Chinese restaurant that was big, and not a hole-in-the-wall type of Chinese restaurant that we were used to.
Let's see what else is here.
You mentioned school. Now --
We went to the regular American schools. He went to Stevens and he went to the University of Washington. I went to Washington and to Garfield High School. And he wasn't very much into sports. He was a hotshot golfer, tennis player. I liked to do craft projects. Well, these things are not really that important. I don't know what else you want to know, really.
Okay. Well, I think this is a pretty good interview.
Well, there wasn't -- and, well, there's really nothing too exciting, you know. We're laid back people. We don't stir up a lot of trouble or try to make a lot of hoopla. We just go to work and take care of business. That's about it.