Wai Chow Eng, who introduced Chinese barbecue to Seattle and helped revitalize the International District when it was stuck in a mid-century slump, passed away on January 4 at age 83, nearly two months after a fall in his home.
A native of China's Guangdong province, Eng opened Kau Kau downtown in 1959. The ritzy Polynesian restaurant at Second and Seneca was a culinary salute to Eng's grandfather and great-grandfather, who had briefly worked in Hawaii's sugar-cane fields. Although Eng had hoped to study accounting after graduating from Highline High School, where he'd enrolled after immigrating at age 17, the G.I. Bill which covered his tuition didn't cover the support of the relatives who'd joined him in the U.S.
"Once in a while, he may have regretted it, but he said everyone needs to eat," Eng's daughter Lynn Chang says. "Food is always important, especially in Chinese lives."
When Eng and his young family wanted to eat Cantonese-style barbecue, the rotisserie-roasted meats known as siu mi, they traveled to Vancouver, B.C. Realizing many of his countrymen were doing the same, in 1974 he opened Kau Kau BBQ Market & Restaurant in its current location near the corner of Maynard and King Streets. He recruited his brother to handle the cooking at the instantly popular spinoff, the city's first Chinese-barbecue restaurant since World War II.
Eng closed the first Kau Kau when the block was being redeveloped, but in 1978 purchased the former Leyte Hotel at South Jackson and Maynard, renovating it as the Far East Building. He briefly ran a popular dim sum restaurant in the basement, giving it up to focus on other philanthropic and business activities.
In 2004, Eng sold Kau Kau BBQ Market & Restaurant to Chang and her husband Richard, a Boeing engineer. Richard Chang—whose restaurant experience was limited to college jobs, including a stint at Trader Vic's—says his father-in-law didn't relinquish control readily. "It wasn't easy at all," he recalls. "The people had to get used to us. The cooks had to get used to us. And every day, [Eng] would come in at 10 o'clock and give me grief: 'The barbecue was a little bit off today. It was not perfect.' He gave me grief for six or seven years."
Seated alongside her husband, Lynn Chang interrupts with a laugh: "Maybe only three."
"It was tough for me dealing with my father-in-law," says Richard Chang, who describes Eng as generous and foresighted, but also highly exacting. "The restaurant was easy."
But the Changs inherited legions of loyal fans when they took over Kau Kau. They regularly sell barbecue to a businessman who visits Seattle every week and purchases enough pork to last until his next trip. "We have so many customers," Richard Chang says. "They move to New York, they move to Miami, and they still call us. They say 'We can't find anything like this anywhere in the U.S., even in San Francisco.' "
In retirement, Eng kept an office at the Eng Suey Sun Plaza (815 S. Weller St.), the ID building he'd constructed in 1985 to house the Eng Family Association's ancestral hall, and supported charitable projects in his home village of Toisan. But after his wife, Sandra, died in 2011, his health deteriorated. He moved into an assisted-living facility two blocks from Kau Kau, where he would join his daughter for tea and fortune cookies. "All those years in restaurants, I don't think I ever saw him eat a fortune cookie," Lynn Chang says. "But he would eat cookies. He was catching up, because he'd take one for the road too."
Richard Chang believes Eng's legacy could blossom in the coming years, if his wife will allow him to pursue the expansion plans he long ago plotted. Chang envisions a "four corners" strategy, with Kau Kau barbecue markets located in Kent or Renton, in north Seattle, and on the Eastside. "I hope I can carry this on," he says. "I always tell Lynn and she always stops me, but it's always in the back of my mind. I'm going to try to convince her."
Lynn Chang says her father was approached many times regarding franchising, but never hit upon the right scheme. Still, she thinks he would have approved of Chang's idea.
"A little star," Richard Chang says of the potential quartet of Kau Kaus. "That's my dream."