Wednesday, December 11, 2013
SOUTH PORTLAND — Dean Munson entered the Wok Inn restaurant and quickly found Yeelin Lee inside.
After 31 years in the restaurant business, Shukee Lee, owner With him here is his daughter, Yeelin Lee. He and his family have run the Main Street restaurant since1989.
Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer
Shukee Lee and his family have run the South Portland restaurant since 1989. From left are Lai Lee, Shukee Lee and daughter Yeelin Lee.
John Ewing / Staff Photographer
"I just heard this morning. I said, 'Are you kidding me?' " Munson told her. "I was just driving by to see that it wasn't true."
Munson and like-minded diners were reacting to news this week that the fast-food Chinese-American restaurant is shutting its doors. Today will be the Main Street eatery's last day of business.
The closing may seem sudden to its fans, but the restaurant's owners say that its original purpose, to put the Lee children, graduates of Scarborough High School, through college, was accomplished some years ago. The business kept going even after Yeelin earned her bachelor's degree in business administration and hospitality from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and her brother, Sai, was awarded his undergraduate and master's degrees in electrical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Now, after 31 years as a restaurateur, Shukee Lee says he really is about to begin his retirement. Shukee Lee, who's 62, said he thought about it before, but never followed through. This time, though, he's got the resolve of his wife, Lai, behind the decision, as well as a wish to take it easier in his relative youth.
It's a bittersweet time for the family. They're looking forward to leaving behind the grueling schedule the restaurant requires, but they're also saying good-bye to longtime customers who have become friends and regulars, like Munson.
Shukee Lee said he's happy about the upcoming change.
"I worked for many years -- the only way to do (it)," he said, taking a break between the lunch and dinner rushes.
In 1973, Shukee Lee left Hong Kong for the United States in pursuit of greater chances and a freer society. Restaurant work seemed the only option, given his limited English skills and middle-school education, he said, as his daughter helped interpret.
He initially joined his brother in Boston, but his wife didn't like the area and they relocated to Maine on the recommendation of a friend. He met Wai Kuen "Ricky" Yue while working at the Hu Ke Lau, a Chinese-Polynesian restaurant near the Maine Mall.
The pair married Chinese-American cooking with fast-food service and opened the first Wok Inn on Forest Avenue in Portland in 1981. The South Portland location opened in 1989. The restaurants split in 1991, with Lee taking the South Portland restaurant and Yue the one in Portland.
Workdays are long at the Wok Inn: These days, Shukee, Lai and Yeelin Lee do most of everything as they wind down the business, although they also have a part-time employee. Sai, Yeelin's brother, lives in Massachusetts.
The family starts prep work before 10 a.m., preparing the meats and marinades and hand-forming crab rangoons and egg rolls. (The egg rolls' uniformity may appear machine-made, Yeelin Lee said, but it's actually the work of her father's precise and practiced hands.)
Then comes the lunch rush, preparation for dinner and the evening rush. After dinner, they prep for the next day and clean after closing. At home, there's paperwork before they turn in between midnight and 1 a.m.
The Lees have a few ideas about what they'll do with their extra time: travel to Hong Kong, read, sleep in, volunteer at their Buddhist temple and spend more time with Sai's family.
There may be a party for customers in the future, but on the restaurant's final day, it will be business as usual, Yeelin Lee said. The date -- Dec. 8 -- was chosen because the Chinese word for "eight" sounds like "fortune," she said.
"So," she said, "it's a good day."
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:
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One of the Wok Inn’s most popular items, the No. 15, is prepared at the restaurant.
Carl D. Walsh / Staff Photographer